In the bottom of the third inning during Milwaukee’s tilt against the Mets on Sunday evening, New York starting pitcher Jason Vargas threw an 81 mph changeup that started inside the strike zone near Christian Yelich’s belt level. It quickly ended up in the Johnsonville Party Deck, though the fans in the upper deck seemed ill-prepared to catch Yelich’s 15th home run and bobbled it down to the middle section.
“You don’t expect to need your glove up there,” the announcer said.
You can’t blame the fans. Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after the game that “not many guys” have hit the ball to that spot. Counsell, who has been with the Brewers for more than a decade as a player, front-office executive, and manager, could recall only first basemen Prince Fielder and Adam Dunn reaching that part of the park. Left unspoken was that Fielder and Dunn each weighed more than 275 pounds. Yelich is listed at 195 pounds.
Yelich has been hitting above his weight class for the better part of a year. He became the breakout star of the 2018 MLB season by leading the NL in batting average (.326), slugging percentage (.598), OPS (1.000), and OPS+ (164), which adjusts for ballpark conditions. He finished with 36 home runs and 110 RBIs, leaving him two dingers and one RBI shy of the NL Triple Crown, which hasn’t been won since before World War II. He hit for the cycle twice in 2018, becoming just the fifth player in baseball history to do so in a single season—and two of those five occurrences happened in the 1880s. In addition to Triple Crown chasing, Yelich led all NL batters in WAR, and marrying those old- and new-school numbers earned him the NL MVP award with 29 of 30 first-place votes (the lone non-Yelich vote was for New York’s Jacob deGrom, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 2018). He had big stick energy.
It’s tempting to say Yelich has avoided regression and is remaining at his 2018 pace this year, but it’s not true. As remarkable as his 2018 surge was, Yelich is blowing past those numbers this year. The home run he hit against Vargas on Sunday was his 15th of the season. Yelich’s 15th home run in 2018 came on July 28. On Wednesday night, he padded that his league-leading total with his 16th homer of the year. (For comparison’s sake the Marlins, who traded Yelich in January 2018, have 24 homers as a team.)
He has more home runs through his first 114 at-bats in 2019 than he had RBIs through his first 114 at-bats in 2018 (14). His OPS, the statistic Yelich himself says he cares about more than any other statistic, is 1.221—more than a fifth greater than his NL-leading 1.000 figure in 2018. Yelich’s MVP season was largely bolstered by a surreal second half in which he hit 25 home runs and logged a .449 OBP. The question entering this year wasn’t whether he’d regress, but by how much. Now the question is whether he’s getting better.
Yelich has started the year by atomizing the St. Louis Cardinals. In 41 plate appearances across 10 games against St. Louis this season, Yelich has eight home runs, 10 walks, and 19 RBIs with a .537 on-base percentage. Yelich has more home runs against St. Louis than every Cardinal except Marcell Ozuna (11) and $26 million-per-year signee Paul Goldschmidt (nine) has on the entire season. St. Louis has a 4.26 ERA on the season, good for 13th in MLB and a shade better than league average. Take away Christian Yelich’s 19 RBIs, and St. Louis’s ERA falls to 3.72, or the fifth-best figure in baseball.
One of those home runs against the Cardinals came on March 30, when a young girl attending her first Brewers game came with a sign that read: “Yelich, hit a home run and my dad buys me a puppy!” On the second pitch of his first at-bat, Yelich sent the ball flying. Three weeks later, Yelich delivered an 11-week-old mini-goldendoodle to the girl himself. The family named the dog Yeli.
UPDATE: They are going to name him Yeli. pic.twitter.com/J95rP1Rh5m— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) April 15, 2019
Her favorite player giving her a puppy is a cool story, sure, but one day she may realize everything has been downhill ever since. As for Christian Yelich, believe it or not things are trending up, literally and figuratively.
Baseball is changing. For years, hitting coaches told players to hit the ball down. Now there is data clearly suggesting that fly balls lead to more home runs while ground balls lead to more outs, and hitters are adjusting accordingly. Batters are chasing fly balls and avoiding ground balls, which often means adjusting the angle the ball comes off the bat. A higher launch angle can lead to more fly balls, which can lead to more home runs.
As you can imagine, launch angle has taken baseball by storm. J.D. Martinez is the poster boy after hitting 24 home runs in his first three seasons and then 128 home runs in his next four after his launch angle change. Then–Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy changed his launch angle from 11.1 degrees in 2015 to 16.6 degrees in 2016, and he hit 11 more home runs and his average went from .281 to .347. Putting the ball in the air leads to more hits, and putting it in the air with enough power to the right spot leads to more home runs. Subsequently, the past three seasons have had the most, third-most, and fourth-most home runs per game in MLB history, and this season is on pace to break the record again.
Yelich didn’t do any of that. His MVP campaign in 2018 didn’t involve more fly balls or higher launch angles. Not only does Yelich not pray at the church of fly balls, but he spits in their general direction as one of the most prolific ground ball hitters in baseball. Whereas other players experienced power surges by hitting far more fly balls than grounders, Yelich hit 2.2 grounders for every fly ball, the ninth-highest ratio of ground balls to fly balls in baseball last year. He also didn’t chase launch angles. The ball came off his bat at an average of 4.7 degrees in 2018, one of the lowest figures in the sport and the exact same figure as it did in 2017 when he hit exactly half as many home runs.
“I never talked about launch angle, never mentioned launch angle,” Yelich told a reporter last year who asked about launch angle’s role in his MVP surge. “I know there’s a lot of people probably hoping that I would say that because that’s just the trend in baseball. But it wasn’t the case.”
But in 2019, that is the case. Yelich’s numbers six weeks into the 2019 season, including his league-leading home run total, are largely buoyed by the fly balls and launch angle he said he eschewed last year and this offseason. Here are his 2018 and 2019 numbers side by side, along with how he ranked among qualified hitters.
Yelich Fly Ball Numbers
|Launch angle||317th (4.7 degrees)||139th (13.3 degrees)|
|Ground ball %||11th (51.8%)||62nd (44.4%)|
|Fly ball %||133rd (23.5%)||66th (44.0%)|
|Home runs per fly ball||1st (35.0%)||2nd (41.7%)|
|Exit velocity||t-15th (92.3 mph)||8th (94.3%)|
A few takeaways on the difference between Yelich’s 2018 and his early 2019 numbers.
- Yelich’s launch angle has almost tripled.
- His fly ball rate has almost doubled.
- He’s converting fly balls into home runs more often than he did in 2018, when he led the league in doing so.
Add these together, and we get a player who was at the unproductive extremes of ground ball percentage, fly ball percentage, and launch angle and moved closer to league average in all three categories. The effect may be similar to a league-average player moving to the top 10.
Yelich has added those benefits without losing any power off of his swing. In fact, he’s hitting the ball harder. Yelich has always been a hard hitter, but this year he is one of 10 players with an average exit velocity above 94 mph, a statistic that matches the eye test with Aaron Judge at no. 1 and Joey Gallo at no. 2. Obviously Yelich’s numbers this season have come in a small sample size, but his launch angle was increasing as last season wound down, so perhaps the change is around for good after all.
The biggest question with Yelich so far (beyond being on pace for 70ish home runs) is his absurd home-road split. Yelich has hit 15 of his 16 home runs and totaled 32 of his 38 RBIs at Milwaukee’s Miller Park. His slash line at home is .406/.506/1.141, but on the road it’s .296/.377/.389. It’s an absurd split, and part of his numbers this season can be attributed to changing from Marlins Park, one of the least homer-friendly stadiums in baseball, to Miller Park, one of the five most homer-friendly fields. But the park change doesn’t come close to fully explaining the splits. In 2018 Yelich was fourth in MLB in OPS+, which is OPS adjusted for park conditions, and this year he is second only to Cody Bellinger in the same category. Perhaps it doesn’t have to do with park conditions as much as it does Yelich’s dislike for room service.
On Friday, the Brewers start a 10-game road trip against the Cubs, Phillies, and Braves, and how he fares on that trip will be illuminating. There is certainly a chance that through a combination of regression and jet lag, Yelich cools down. But if Yelich is still leading the league in home runs when the Brewers return home to play the Reds on May 21, the fans sitting in the upper deck may want to bring their gloves.