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Christian Yelich is a unique star hitter

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Christian Yelich has been one of the best hitters in baseball since last year, and he has done that in a unique fashion.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It is interesting to see how different the perception of a player can be in one year. Yoenis Cespedes went from being an average guy with lots of power to a star hitter bound to make a killing in free agency after one hot run with the New York Mets that has continued this year. Daniel Murphy went from unassuming contact hitter to presumptive batting champion and MVP candidate after an epic playoff run. The perception on these guys has changed.

If you look at the hitter leaderboards in the past calendar year, you can see those names among the “new group” of star performers mixed among your Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and other established elite names. But you might be surprised to see another name whose star is only getting brighter.

Since last August, Christian Yelich has been the 14th-best hitter in baseball. There is his name, safely ensconced next to multi-gazillionaires Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera, ahead of impending super-free agent and 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper. Most of those players listed are established star hitters, but Christian Yelich is probably one guy who still does not get enough recognition for just how good he is. That is probably because no hitter follows the Christian Yelich path to success at the plate.

Yelich has a strong reputation for being supremely selective at the plate, but he only has drawn walks on 10.4 percent of plate appearances this year and 9.7 percent since last August. He also is not a heavy contact- hitter, so he does not get by with the Jose Altuve / Daniel Murphy method of putting every ball in play. We know he does not have the power game that other average strikeout/walk guys like Cano and Cabrera. So how does Yelich get to be this good?

No Popups

We all know that part of the reason why Yelich currently owns a .400 BABIP since last season is a distinct lack of popups. His 2.9 percent infield fly rate per fly ball is the tenth-lowest in baseball since that time. Other players have done similar things to keep their value high, including Trout (2.5 percent, career 4.5 percent) and Corey Seager, who is having a monster start to his career on the back of that very skill. In the past, we have talked about how great players like Joe Mauer and Joey Votto have done this, and they all essentially have the same elite hit tool in common.

It should be noted that the majority of the hitters who distinctly lack popups tend to be well above average. Of the nine other guys with fewer popups than Yelich since last year, only two of them were below average while four were in the top 20 in best hitters in baseball in that time span. Not hitting those automatic outs makes for higher BABIPs and better results.

Hitting it Hard

The above seems intuitive, but it is not as though Yelich could not be more like, say Matt Duffy or Ben Revere, guys who make solid contact and hit line drives but do not leave the park often enough. But the dirty secret that fans may not be aware of is that Yelich actually hits the ball very hard a player with “no power.” Yelich’s hard hit ball rate since last year is 26th in baseball, essentially tied with guys like Miguel Cabrera, Marcell Ozuna, and Andrew McCutchen. Unsurprisingly, hitting the ball hard also tends to yield good results, as the players ahead of him on this list included only six names with a batting line lower than 20 percent above the league average. As a whole, that cohort of players was 35 percent above the league average.

Yelich’s velocity off the bat is verified by GameDay’s exit velocity data. Among players with at least 100 batted balls this year, Yelich owns the eight-highest velocity off the bat on average. Hitting the ball hard is not in and of itself guaranteed for success, but doing so when you put as many balls in play as Yelich does is more useful. The guys in front of him on this list like Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Sano, Justin Bour, and Pedro Alvarez strike out more often, making it harder to garner value from balls in play.

Pulling it in the Air

The other improvement that Yelich has been displaying is his ability to get the ball hit hard in the air. His ground ball rate over the last year is lower than his career 60 percent mark, down to 55.7 percent. This is still one of the highest rates in baseball, but it is improving. And unlike other grounder-heavy hitters, he hits the ball hard in the air as well. Yelich’s average fly ball/line drive velocity off the bat is 97.2 mph, which is tied for 10th in baseball. He is not just slapping hard ground balls up the middle, but actually making solid contact at every angle.

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out the reason for why he was making better power contact:

But last year, Yelich was also dead last in the same group in average launch angle. Against those inside pitches, I mean. This shows the groundball tendency. Yelich this year is still low, but instead of ranking last, he’s in the 21st percentile. His average angle has increased from two degrees to 10 degrees. His median angle has increased from one degree to 16 degrees. I can keep going. I will keep going! Last year, Yelich hit a quarter of these balls in play between 10 and 30 degrees. This year he’s at almost half. Everything just says the same stuff. Whether you use batted-ball buckets or Statcast data, you can see that Yelich is hitting more inside pitches in the air. He’s getting his foot down and he’s getting the barrel out, and he’s driving balls off the ground.

Yelich was hitting hard shots last season, but this year, on inside pitches, he is pulling those pitches more often, and when he is pulling them, they are for solid in-air contact. It is said that you want to go the other way or up the middle for ground balls, where they have the best chance of being hit well and sneaking through, but for fly balls and liners, you want to pull the ball. The pull field into the outfield is where all the power lies. Well, that is what Yelich has been doing this season.

Yelich, Fly Balls Pull% Middle% Oppo%
2015 11 30 59
2016 16 43 41

That is called turning on pitches. Instead of sending weak flies to left field more often, Yelich is turning on pitches and driving them deep. A whopping 65 percent of his fly balls are considered “hard-hit” as compared to 59 percent last year. When you are able to turn on pitches and get the plane of the bat through more, it yields results that fly over the fence.

Last year, Yelich maybe does not quite turn on this pitch and he hits it hard enough to line it up the middle for a base knock. This season, he is swinging through for laser home runs or towering golf shots more reminiscent of Bour.

Yelich still has strong discipline at the plate and selection, but his profile of high ground ball rates will let pitchers continue to throw in the zone against him. He still does not make so much contact that he avoids strikeouts altogether. Where Yelich can take the next step is in elevating the balls he does hit and getting even more of them on a line. Once he does that, he has already proven to have elite exit velocity. It is only a matter of time for him to turn an 11-homer career year into an even more dominant campaign with 20-plus homers to his name. It is going to be an exciting few years watching the next evolution of his unique profile.