The harshest critics of the Marlins’ decision to trade away Christian Yelich point to the success he’s had since joining the Brewers. Yelich was voted 2018 NL MVP and seemed likely to repeat if not for a fluky knee injury last September. The Brew Crew made back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in decades, with their superstar outfielder leading all National League hitters in Weighted Runs Created Plus and Wins Above Replacement during that span. Those on the other extreme emphasize how the Marlins version of him was far inferior. Marlins Park’s pitcher-friendly playing conditions combined with Yelich’s discontent for the team’s ownership change would have prevented him from reaching his full potential. And extending him through his prime years—as Milwaukee recently did—simply wasn’t feasible for the Fish. Besides, they were compensated with an excellent package of prospects (Lewis Brinson, Monte Harrison, Isan Díaz and Jordan Yamamoto).
The reality is somewhere in the middle.
On Thursday’s episode of Sequence with former major leaguer Trevor Plouffe, Yelich explains the adjustments he made following the 2018 MLB All-Star break. It took a different batting stance to unleash consistent in-game power.
However, there was one critical pregame drill in 2016 with then-Marlins hitting coaches Barry Bonds and Frank Menechino that initially set him on the right path.
The date was July 3, 2016, prior to a Sunday matchup against the Braves in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. (Coincidentally, that game was featured in our ongoing Marlins Games of the Decade article series.) In the midst of a great offensive season, Yelich had been in a dry spell lately, with only three extra-base hits over the previous two weeks.
Bonds showed him how to “clean up your bat path.” They began by having Yelich pound batting practice pitches directly in front of home plate, then gradually increase his launch angle to a line-drive level.
Yelich immediately bought in:
“It was creating true backspin. I was trying to hit this bitch straight into the ground and it was like, opposite field: backspin missile. Up the middle: backspin missile. Pull side: backspin, like, true pull side.”
“I had never really done that before, and if I had, it was pure luck, accident. And I never really understood it. I was always a guy who just hit and could feel when it felt good/not good. I just hit—I had no reasoning behind anything.”
“And I was like, ‘man, that feels pretty good!’ I was hitting against my front side, in a sense, where it wasn’t leaking first before I went to swing and that’s why everything was so true. I was short and I could pull the ball correctly instead of top-spinning it or hooking it foul.”
It carried over to that afternoon, where Yelich says he had the best batting practice “of my entire life.”
Entering the Fort Bragg game, Yelich had taken 316 plate appearances during the 2016 regular season, only homering six times (1.9%). But from that game through the end of the season, he went deep 15 times in 343 plate appearances, more than doubling his home run rate to 4.4%.
It wasn’t a linear path to dominance, though. The following season (with Bonds no longer on the coaching staff), Yelich’s power dipped back down. Even through the first half of his 2018 Brewers debut, pundits reprimanded him for “wasting” too much of his quality contact on grounders. It took conscious mechanical tweaks for him to emerge as an elite homer threat. Impossible to know whether or not Yelich would have had the same epiphany in Miami.
The full Sequence episode is embedded below, with the hitting drill story beginning around the 10:27 mark.