Fish Stripes readers know that I am a big fan of Christian Yelich. He is a polished, intelligent hitter who has certain obvious flaws, and the thought is that once he gets over those flaws, he is going to break out in a big way. He is already incorporating more power into his game this season without losing anything that made him a good hitter at the beginning of his career. So far, that has led to a .325/.399/.499 batting line (.386 wOBA) good for 42 percent better than the league average. Christian Yelich currently owns the 13th-best batting line in all of baseball. Marlins fans are lucky to have him.
The interesting thing is that unlike his outfield teammate Marcell Ozuna, Yelich seems to have honed and fully developed his advanced plate approach. Like most players, Yelich spent last season trying to figure out the right amount of swings given what pitchers were throwing at him. He swung more, he swung less, and the ratios vacillated throughout the season, as one might expect. Marcell Ozuna did the same this year, even as he was dominating pitchers. However, with Ozuna’s hot streak seemingly ended, he is back to trying to figure out what to swing at and how often to swing to get him back in the zone.
Yelich has had no such issue this season. It would seem that sometime this year, Yelich has found the appropriate zen for swing rates given the amount pitches in the strike zone that pitchers are throwing him. This was his swing rate as compared to the zone rate in 15-game running samples from 2015. (Charts courtesy of FanGraphs)
There is a sense of what Yelich is trying to do, to adjust his rate of swings based on when pitchers give him pitches in the strike zone at which to offer. Yelich is a selective ballplayer, so he is not going to swing wildly, but there are still times there when his reactions lag behind those of the pitchers. It seems that pitchers were just a step ahead of Yelich until his second half romp, during which he was one of the best hitters in baseball.
This year, Yelich is lock-and-step with the pitching strategy against him.
This is something of a beautiful chart. Yelich is not some elite hitter who commands immediate respect from pitchers, so pitchers are not going to avoid him on principle. In fact, pitchers have thrown in the strike zone at around 48 percent of the time so far this year, which is about his career average. However, Yelich has clearly adapted right along with them when their approach has switched. After the first few games of the year, pitchers respected Yelich with his strong work and started working further out of the zone. Yelich’s swing rate subsequently dropped right along with them to mirror that approach.
When that went too far extreme to one end, pitchers started attacking the zone again, and Yelich almost immediately recognized this. He started bringing up his swing rates to compensate. When those zone rates started to plateau, so did his swing rates. Each uptick and downtick in zone percentage was compensated with a similar increase or decrease by Yelich. The absolute difference between his zone rates and swing rates remains fairly steady throughout the year, peaking probably earliest in the season at around game 30.
It is as if Christian Yelich knew when the approaches changed and took the right measures. Or it is as if Yelich knows exactly what he is planning on doing at the plate and is using elite pitch recognition to note subtle changes in the approach against him. Either way, it is the mark of a player who has a firm understanding of the strike zone and a level of bat control and eye that not many hitters possess.
Compare that to, say, Giancarlo Stanton during his 2016 season.
You can see that when Stanton was struggling, he was either not seeing the ball well or pressing at the plate, because he swung far too often while pitchers were staying away from the strike zone against him. Once he started adjusting to that and stopped flailing, pitchers started wandering into the zone again, and that is when Stanton picked up his swing rates once more, leading to improved numbers. By the time his hot streak in July occurred, the disparities between swings and in-zone chances started occurring again, with Stanton being a threat once more and pitchers avoiding him.
Take a look at Dee Gordon in 2015.
Gordon is the example of a guy who has one unyielding swing approach, and he seems to take that approach no matter the pitcher situation. Gordon’s swing rate for the first 100 or so games in the season hovered around 52 percent pretty consistently despite pitchers throwing more and less in the zone. While pitchers varied in their attacking of Gordon, he remained consistently swinging at a certain rate. It was only around game 100 when pitchers began throwing a lot less in the strike zone to take advantage of his aggressiveness did Gordon adjust accordingly. Even then, it took about 20 games for him to go back to his old ways.
Each player has a different method of winning the never-ending battle between hitters and pitchers. The pitchers control the advantage, since they know their plans ahead of time and hitters are, by default, forced to adjust. Some folks never do, like Gordon. Some have a hard time finding the right adjustments, like Stanton and Ozuna. Christian Yelich, however, is completely different. He is in tune with what pitchers are doing, and every move they make, he is watching them and reacting. It is an intriguing thing to see.