For five years with the Marlins, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Giancarlo Stanton made up one of the best outfields in baseball, a homegrown offensive machine the likes of which coalesces only rarely. Stanton was 23 years old when Yelich and Ozuna arrived in the big leagues in 2013 and had already hit 93 homers in his first three seasons in Miami. From 2013 to 2017, the three combined for 55.6 bWAR in their five seasons together for an average of 3.71 bWAR per player per season. Even though the Marlins liquidated that trio this offseason, those three players will always be linked.
Because Ozuna is built like a brick shithouse, and Stanton is built like the factory where they make brick shithouses, they were cast as prototypical middle-of-the-order hitters. Accurately, it turns out: Last year, Stanton and Ozuna combined to hit 96 home runs, the most by a pair of teammates since Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro combined to hit an even 100 for the 2002 Texas Rangers.
Yelich, however, is tall and broad-shouldered, but skinny—he is probably best known outside hardcore baseball circles for bearing a resemblance to beanpole comedian Pete Davidson. And while Yelich was always a great contact hitter and on-base guy, it wasn’t until his fourth big league season that he posted a double-digit home run total. That worked great—Ozuna and Stanton needed someone to drive in, and frequently Yelich was that guy. From 2013 to 2017, Yelich scored 369 runs, the 13th-most in the National League during that time. Even as Yelich added power to his game and crossed the 20-homer threshold for the first time in 2016, he remained a table-setter. When he was traded to the Brewers this past offseason, I envisioned him remaining in that role, with the likes of Ryan Braun and Eric Thames providing the power.
Yelich has indeed remained at the top of the order since moving to Milwaukee—out of his 128 starts, he’s never batted lower than third, and in 119 of those starts he’s either led off or batted second. The only change is that Yelich, like Davidson, has had the best season of his career in 2018. While Davidson wooed Ariana Grande, inspired the idiom “big dick energy,” and stole scenes in Set It Up, Yelich has developed a Stantonesque power stroke. Yelich is hitting .313/.382/.550, all career highs, and his .237 ISO is just barely higher than Stanton’s .235. The skinny Yelich is out-slugging the mighty Stanton.
Yelich has thrust himself into an NL MVP conversation that’s unlike any in the advanced stats era: Most of the best position players in baseball are in the American League, while no NL position player has been worth more than 6.5 wins, according to either Baseball Prospectus or Baseball-Reference. (MVP territory tends to start around eight wins.) Baseball-Reference rates the three most valuable players in the NL this year as Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, and Aaron Nola—all pitchers. Meanwhile, Baseball Prospectus has Scherzer and deGrom 1-2, with Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt third—all from likely non-playoff teams. Both factors matter to enough voters to turn this year’s NL MVP vote into the equivalent of the presidential election of 1824.
The obvious question, given Yelich’s aberrant power numbers, is how the hell he’s doing it. The most obvious explanation would be something like what happened to Matt Carpenter, another hitter with exceptional contact and on-base skills, who grew into power by putting the ball in the air more. But that’s not what Yelich is doing. Carpenter has the lowest ground ball–to–fly ball ratio out of the 146 qualified hitters in MLB this year, but Yelich is all the way at the other end of the spectrum with the sixth-highest GB-FB ratio.
Yelich’s swing is fairly traditional—it’s level and he keeps the bat in the zone for a long time. Instead of hitting fly balls, he makes a lot of hard contact on line drives and ground balls. Consider his recent 6-for-6 game against the Reds—only the third time since 1908 that someone has gone 6-for-6 and hit for the cycle in the same game.
Yelich’s extra-base hits are all hit hard and in the air, but there’s not a looping nine-iron around the foul pole in the bunch. All three singles are on ground balls. This approach works for Yelich, because while fly balls have a better chance of going for extra bases than ground balls, ground balls turn into hits more frequently than fly balls. And while Yelich isn’t exactly Billy Hamilton, he’s still a left-handed hitter who can run, which allows him to beat out mishit grounders to the left side, like his third single in the video above. Finally, this approach gives him almost a completely even spray chart for his career, which makes him practically impossible to shift. Yelich can hit the ball hard anywhere on the field.
By combining a slap-and-run approach with hard contact, Yelich turns batted balls into hits at a freakishly high rate. His 2018 BABIP, .367, would typically point to some measure of batted-ball luck, meaning that a greater-than-normal percentage of seeing-eye grounders get through and blooping pop flies fall in. (League-average BABIP this year is .296.) But Yelich’s career BABIP is .358, highest among the 269 active players with at least 1,000 plate appearances. If Yelich’s ability to turn batted balls into hits is a fluke, it’s a fluke that’s been going on longer than Outlander and Jane the Virgin have been on TV.
This year, Yelich is hitting the ball harder than ever, with a 24.9 percent line drive rate, well above his career average but only a percentage point and change more than his previous career high in 2016, when he also hit his previous career high of 21 home runs. Yelich’s hard-contact rate, however, is up to 47.2 percent, the seventh-highest rate in baseball, which dwarfs his previous career high of 38 percent, also set in 2016.
So how is Yelich hitting so many home runs while hitting so few fly balls?
The line between home run and fly ball is somewhat subjective, which matters in Yelich’s case. FanGraphs draws its batted ball data from human coders at Baseball Info Solutions, while Baseball Savant bases it off Statcast data. FanGraphs has Yelich at 86 fly balls this year, while Baseball Savant says he’s hit only 60. Second, FanGraphs’ HR-FB ratio is simply the total number of home runs divided by the total number of fly balls and doesn’t take into account that some of Yelich’s home runs—five, according to Statcast and two, according to BIS—came on balls that were coded as line drives.
But by either metric, Yelich’s teammate Travis Shaw has hit exactly as many home runs as Yelich, 28, but has needed about twice as many fly balls to do it. Yelich’s power surge is still mystifying given his batted-ball profile, no matter how you define fly balls or line drives.
One plausible theory is that Yelich might just be hitting more lower-trajectory home runs compared to a conventional power hitter like Shaw, but Yelich has five line-drive home runs this year, compared to Shaw’s four. Another theory is that Yelich is just hitting the absolute tarnation out of the baseball, which is true: 201 balls have come off Yelich’s bat at 95 mph or more this year, which is tied for the sixth-highest total in baseball. These balls account for 50.8 percent of Yelich’s batted balls, for the eighth-best ratio of the 306 hitters with at least 150 recorded batted-ball events on Statcast. That increase in hard contact probably explains how exactly one hits 28 home runs with an extremely ground ball–heavy batted-ball profile.
This rate of hard contact is almost unheard of for a player who hits as many ground balls as Yelich. Not only is it difficult to hit the ball extremely hard and on the ground, it’s frequently counterintuitive—most hitters who are strong enough to put up hard-contact rates like Yelich’s aren’t fast enough to get the most out of a ground-pounding approach. Of the five qualified batters with a higher GB-FB ratio than Yelich—Jon Jay, Eric Hosmer, Ian Desmond, Dee Gordon, and Matt Duffy—only Desmond is in the top 150 in hard-hit percentage. Duffy, Jay, and Gordon are all 262nd or lower.
Yelich’s unique combination of hard-hit percentage and proclivity for hitting ground balls makes him hard to project. But at least some of Yelich’s power surge looks unsustainable. Right now, using FanGraphs’ measurements, Yelich’s HR-FB ratio is 32.6, which is the highest among all qualified hitters—only J.D. Martinez and Joey Gallo are over 25 percent. His numbers are in line with Ryan Howard in his prime. Now, we all remember Howard for a decline phase in which he could neither hit nor lay off a slider, and for being one of the last hitters to be truly overrated because of his RBI totals, but the young Howard was a home run–hitting machine. Howard had that long, graceful Ken Griffey Jr. swing, except he outweighed Griffey by about 70 pounds, resulting in some of the hardest-hit balls and longest home runs of the era.
Suffice it to say, Yelich is not Howard, and will probably not continue to park somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of his fly balls over the fence. But sustainable or not, Yelich’s special brand of hard contact has led the Brewers to the verge of the playoffs, and put Yelich himself in the MVP discussion.