The Miami Marlins avoided the sweep at the hands of the New York Mets thanks in large part to Christian Yelich, who had a banner game against New York. He had three hits in five plate appearances, including his 18th home run of the season. It was the third homer of the series for Yelich, who went opposite field on all three bombs. They were not the hardest-hit balls on the planet, but this continues to build on his career-best as he sets about on a September that could serve as the topping to a stellar season.
If I told you before the season that Christian Yelich would hit 18 home runs this year with a clearly strong shot (provided he stays healthy, a task Marlins players have not done well) at 20-plus home runs this year, you would probably have serious doubts. After all, Yelich is a player with a 60 percent ground ball rate in the last two seasons. The angle at which he launches balls just is not conducive to hitting bombs. We knew that going into the season, which is why during the previews I wrote this about Yelich:
At the same time, the suspicion is that the upside of Yelich resides in him hitting more fly balls by changing the plane of his swing. The theory, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out last week, is that if Yelich could change up his game to hit more flies, he could utilize his obvious power on fly balls to crank out a better home run and extra-base hit game. There is likely some truth to this; Yelich has enough bat skill to manipulate his game, and you would suspect he could do it without significantly sacrificing some of what already makes him a good player. At the same time, changing your swing changes your skillset, and there is a question as to how much tinkering could be done to his game without breaking his picture-perfect swing.
It was a calculated bet, so to speak. Could Yelich get a better swing plane that would yield him more liners and flies rather than grounders while maintaining the same skilled approach at the plate? Based on his scouting, he had the bat control. We figured that Yelich still had room to develop as a hitter since he is still young heading into his age-24 season. On the other hand, tinkering with what already is working decently could have been dangerous.
It turns out Yelich just needed to turn his hips just a little faster, and those low and inside fastballs that plagued him in 2015:
turning into valuable locations in 2016:
Those low inside fastballs are the wheelhouse of left-handed power hitters, and now Yelich is launching those fastballs instead of rolling over them. Maybe it is better bat speed, better recognition, or just physical development that allowed him to do this when he could not last season, but this step for Yelich has helped to make him into a star hitter. For the past year in baseball, including parts of last season, Yelich has been the 17th-best hitter in the game, which is insane for a guy who has been as unassuming as can be.
The reason [his platoon concern] is the only remaining issue is that everything else is either in development or fully established. His plate discipline in on the mark, and his power at the plate should develop as he bulks up over time. Right now, Marlins Park plays very well to Yelich's "gap power" strengths, as he can pelt doubles and triples in the expansive power alleys of the outfield. Yelich's running game is also well-developed, as he displayed last year when he went 10-for-10 on steals. He runs intelligently when not stealing as well, as he showed in taking countless extra bases on shorter singles.
Yelich’s robotic consistency appears to have helped, because all he has done is add to his game without anything else changing. Sometimes, a former elite prospect indeed just figures it out and slowly builds onto his game like you would expect from a growth curve. Before Yelich played a full season, we knew he would have problems with strikeouts if he could not build up any power, but we also knew he would do everything else well. Sure enough, he won a Gold Glove by the end of that season, was a positive baserunner, and had a balanced All-Star caliber year. Then one year later, we learned that he never hit popups, which helped explain why he was an aberration with his BABIP. We expected it to continue to a degree, and it has in an highly successful way. Then before this year, it was quietly noted that he was hitting the ball harder than expected despite the fact that his home run totals had not yet broken 10 in a season.
But when he does hit it in the air, he hits it hard; his 95.15 mph velocity on fly balls and line drives in 2015 was the 26th highest in baseball among players with 190 balls in play measured by Gameday.
Now he has 18 homers and we have a month left in the year. It seems everything you point out about Yelich when you dive deeper into his numbers comes to light the following year when he takes it to its logical conclusion in development. Meanwhile, he seems to lose little of what made him promising to begin with. He still is patient at the plate, having swung at just under 40 percent of pitches so far this season. He still has a decent, if not highly promising walk rate as of right now. He is still a balanced player who plays well in all aspects, even as his basestealing numbers have gone down. While he has a few more infield flies to his name, his rate in 2016 is still at just three percent of all fly balls hit despite the change in his swing plane.
All Yelich has done throughout his career is grow and add to his repertoire as a player. The question is where he can even go from here. His only current weaknesses remain in his bad platoon split (career .304 wOBA versus lefties) and his continued strikeouts, though a 20 percent rate is not nearly as bad with his current power level. Another deep dive may reveal a small change that could become a sea change next year and solve one of those issues, and Yelich could continue his march towards stardom.