With one wayward, pernicious swing on Tuesday, Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich kneecapped himself, his team’s odds of winning a wild card, and his chance at three achievements: a home run crown, the first 50-30 season, and a second consecutive MVP award. Facing a 1-1 count in the first inning of a game against the Marlins, Yelich chased an 80 mph slider inside from Miami’s Elieser Hernández and fouled it off his right knee like a targeting T-800. We’re used to seeing hitters walk away from such blows with a bruise and a “day-to-day” verdict, but in this unlucky case, the kneecap fractured, ending the outfielder’s season with 18 games to go—and, in the process, derailing a record chase, disrupting a pennant race, and robbing the rest of the regular season of about as much intrigue as any injury could.
The 27-year-old Yelich, who leads the NL in on-base percentage and the majors in slugging percentage and total bases, finishes the season with a .329/.429/.671 slash line in 580 plate appearances. His 44 dingers entering Tuesday tied Cody Bellinger and Eugenio Suárez for the third-most in the majors, trailing only Pete Alonso’s 47 among National Leaguers. Yelich, who stole 30 bases in 32 attempts, also ranked third in the majors in baserunning runs, highlighting his rare combination of power and speed. In 2019, he’s been baseball’s best hitter not named Mike Trout, and by FanGraphs WAR, he noses past Trout as the game’s most valuable player over the past calendar year. When one of baseball’s best players misses time at the peak of his powers, the sport always suffers, but the timing and circumstances of Yelich’s injury make the cost extra acute.
Entering Tuesday, Yelich had been baseball’s fourth-best hitter on two-strike counts, trailing only the comparatively contact-inclined Anthony Rendon, Alex Bregman, and Michael Brantley. The fateful first-inning foul prevented him from trying to undo another deficit. When Yelich couldn’t continue, rookie Trent Grisham pinch hit and took a called strike three, adding one last strikeout to Yelich’s seasonal ledger. The Brewers went on to win 4-3 and pull within one game of the Cubs, who lost in 10 innings on a walk-off walk that trimmed their slim lead in the race for the second wild card. Now Milwaukee will ask Grisham to fill in for Yelich again—this time as a starter—as the team tries to overtake its NL Central rival.
The 22-year-old Grisham, the Brewers’ first-round pick from 2015, hit 26 homers between Double-A and Triple-A this season, posting a Yelichesque 194 wRC+ at the latter level. He’s always been selective and willing to take walks, but his power surge this season boosted him back toward the top of the prospect lists he’d slipped off of after a few underwhelming minor league seasons. The left-handed hitter, who went 5-for-6 on Monday, has appeared in 33 games since his debut August 1, mostly platooning with righties Lorenzo Cain (who’s managing his own ongoing knee issue) and Ryan Braun in center and left, respectively. He’s been about league average at the plate thus far—a bit better than backup Ben Gamel—but projects to be roughly replacement level in full-time play.
In baseball, it’s easy to overstate the impact of any one player’s absence, especially if that player is as potent as Yelich has been since his subtle adjustments at the All-Star break last season set up a second-half explosion. Yelich didn’t quite maintain his blistering late-2018 pace this year, but by keeping the ball off the ground, he fought off severe regression and surpassed (or approached, depending on the source) his 2018 full-season WAR total in 17 fewer games. Even if we assume that Yelich is a true-talent eight-win player, though, we would expect him to accrue less than one win above replacement—or, in this case, above Grisham—over a span of 18 games. In a sample that small, randomness rules, and neither team nor player performance is easy to forecast. Had Yelich stayed healthy, he still might have slumped; starting in Yelich’s stead, Grisham may go on a tear. As Voros’s law reminds us, “Anyone can hit just about anything in 60 at-bats.” The Brewers can (kind of) count their blessings that they don’t have to tap dance for longer than that.
While it’s possible that the downgrade from Yelich to Grisham won’t make a win’s worth of difference in the next three weeks, it’s a shame that we won’t get to see Yelich try to repeat his heroics from last season’s stretch run, when he hit .370/.508/.804 after September 1 to propel the Brewers to a victorious tiebreaker with the Cubs and, ultimately, a Game 7 loss to Los Angeles in the NLCS. That torrid run was about as close as a baseball player can come to carrying a team, and it earned Yelich all but one of the 30 first-place NL MVP votes. Before Tuesday’s foul ball, he seemed to be getting into that groove again, hitting .357/.526/.750 in his first eight games this month. Four of those were wins against the Cubs, including last Saturday’s contest, which Yelich ended with a walk-off double.
The Brewers, who’ve been without the bats of Keston Hiura and Mike Moustakas for much of this month, need someone to step up to keep them in contention. On the plus side, the Brewers have the easiest upcoming schedule of any wild-card contender; aside from their three-game series in St. Louis this weekend, they won’t play a winning team the rest of the way. The Cubs, who lost a 2018 MVP contender of their own earlier this month when Javier Báez sustained a regular-season-ending hairline fracture in his left thumb, will face exclusively NL Central opponents from Friday on. Unlike Milwaukee, Chicago has seven games left against St. Louis, which could put the division title in play.
The bad news for the Brewers—well, the other bad news—is that their underlying performance paints them as inferior to their closest competitors. The 76-68 club, which had hovered near .500 for months before its 7-2 start to September, has been outscored by 27 runs on the season. Only four teams in the divisional era have made the playoffs after posting a negative run differential during the regular season, and no team has pulled off that upset since the 2007 Diamondbacks. The Brewers are making it conceivable by winning when it’s close: Their victory on Tuesday improved their record in one-run games to 24-15, and their 44-27 record in games with a margin of victory of one or two runs ties them with the Braves for the most wins and best winning percentage in those close contests. That’s something of a fluke, too, but the welcome kind, not the broken-kneecap kind.
Because the projections peg the post-Yelich Brewers as a sub-.500 true-talent team, FanGraphs’ playoff odds put their probability of winning a wild card at 21.5 percent, with the Cubs’ odds almost twice as high and the Mets, Diamondbacks, and Phillies making up the remainder. Even with Yelich, Milwaukee would have been the underdog, but without him, it’s even easier to picture a reprise of 2017, when the Brewers finished one game out of the second wild-card spot after losing starter Jimmy Nelson to an unlikely injury of his own at almost the same point in September. And if the Brewers do sneak into October, they’ll have a hard time advancing without their roster’s rock.
After the game Tuesday, Brewers GM David Stearns said the team wouldn’t provide any updates about Yelich’s condition and long-term prognosis until Thursday. Yelich will return to Milwaukee on Wednesday and undergo diagnostic imaging, which will reveal the severity of the injury and help doctors determine whether surgery is required. In contrast with Nelson, who surrendered a season to recovery from shoulder surgery and has pitched poorly and sparingly for the Brewers this year, Yelich seems to stand a solid chance of being back to full strength by Opening Day next year, judging by the ailment’s typical recovery time. Until we know more, we can’t rule out the possibility that the injury could keep Yelich sidelined or impair his performance beyond that point, but both Brewers fans and baseball fans will pull for his power and speed to survive unscathed.
In the short term, Yelich fell short of the 50-30 feat and has likely lost his chance at back-to-back MVP awards; thanks to the injury, Cody Bellinger may have clinched the 2019 plaque on the same day the Dodgers clinched the NL West title. As with the wild-card race, Yelich’s absence may sap some suspense from the awards chase without altering its outcome: Yelich already trails Bellinger by a full win or more in Baseball-Reference’s WAR and Baseball Prospectus’s WARP, and Bellinger is more likely to benefit from the narrative boost of starring for a playoff team. If Bellinger plays up to his projections, he’ll creep past Yelich in FanGraphs WAR by the end of the month, which would leave Yelich without a compelling statistical case. It’s tough for the league leader to outplay his closest competitor by a wide-enough margin to outweigh an edge of 25 or more games.
Since the BBWAA began voting on the MVP award in 1931, only nine hitters—more than half of whom played before the schedule expanded to 162 games—have taken home the hardware in a non-strike-shortened season despite playing 130 games or fewer: Mickey Cochrane in 1934, Gabby Hartnett in 1935, Ernie Lombardi in 1938, Joe DiMaggio in 1939, Roy Campanella in 1955, Mickey Mantle in 1962, Willie Stargell (who shared first place with Keith Hernandez) in 1979, George Brett in 1980, and Barry Bonds in 2003. The idle Yelich is still the leader in the clubhouse for runner-up honors, although Anthony Rendon and Ketel Marte could vulture votes if they finish strong. Only three hitters have finished second or third in MVP voting after playing in as few games as Yelich: Jimmie Foxx in 1939, Walker Cooper in 1943, and Billy Goodman in 1950.
It was only last month that we first had cause to contemplate Yelich’s right knee, whose provocative arch hid his modesty in his spread from ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue. Now the offending joint has forced him to put on the red light for the rest of the year, costing his thirsty fans far more than a full-frontal photo. The prospect of seeing a superstar play for something in September is what we anticipate and why we watch. Now we’ll need other reasons.