Giancarlo Stanton was, far and away, the most valuable Marlins player in 2017. Even those outside South Florida recognized his dominance en route to the National League MVP award.
However, Christian Yelich was, far and away, the team’s best trade asset last offseason. Young, controllable and widely believed to have an “extra gear” to take him from very good to elite. The Brewers bet on Yelich taking that step—the four-prospect package they moved to get him had plenty of quality and quantity, making a big dent in their strong farm system.
It was worth it. At age 26, Yelich is firmly in the hunt for the 2018 NL MVP, albeit with a very different skill set from Stanton. Moreover, his production is accounting for several critical wins that could propel the Brewers into a postseason spot.
Yelich missed 12 straight games with an oblique injury in April, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from his season stats: .321/.384/.537 (145 wRC+), 17 HR, 13 SB, 3.8 fWAR. He’s shown the versatility to start and finish games at any of the three outfield positions. Advanced stats pegging him as an approximately average defender should be taken lightly—playing alongside agile center fielder Lorenzo Cain limits his opportunities to track down balls in the gaps. But the ability is still there.
There had long been this theory while Yelich was with the Marlins that his power would surge—career-high .216 ISO—by consistently elevating the ball more.
That is not why this has happened. His average launch angle off the bat is 2.7 degrees as a Brewer, almost identical to his previous Statcast average (2.5 degrees from 2015-2017).
Instead, Yelich has found more pitches to slug by adopting an aggressive approach. For the first time as a major leaguer, he’s seeing fewer than four pitches per plate appearance (3.92). Specifically, he likes to ambush opponents on the very first pitch: .564/.575/1.308 with six home runs.
Highest OPS this season on the first pitch of a PA (min. 25 PA)— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) August 4, 2018
1. Christian Yelich, 1.883
2. Nelson Cruz, 1.722
3. J.D. Martinez, 1.649
4. Bryce Harper, 1.560
5. Jeimer Candelario, 1.470
At first glance, Yelich’s .389 batting average on balls in play raises concerns about big-time regression down the stretch. The MLB average this season is .296.
Important to note, though, that spreading balls to all fields without much hangtime has consistently allowed Yelich to defy the BABIP gods. His career .360 BABIP ranks first among all active players (min. 3,000 PA). Faring better than usual in 2018 (even by his own standards) has him in the driver’s seat of the NL batting title race.
The Marlins may have seen this coming. Their dilemma was that Yelich’s individual greatness would not have mattered to them in the short term, anyway. The front office had to calculate what kind of asset he’d be during their realistic window of contention in the early 2020s—earning eight-figure annual salaries at that point—and whether they could do better in the aggregate by flipping him for several potential everyday players.
But right now, a promising future can’t dull the pain of watching a homegrown star reach his ceiling elsewhere.