About a year ago, the baseball world was enraptured by Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich and his remarkable breakout season. For years, Yelich had been a solid top-of-the-order guy for the Miami Marlins, a good athlete and talented hitter who came into 2018 with a career .290/.369/.432 batting line despite lacking ideal power for a left fielder, and was signed to a favorable contract (five years of team control at just under $12 million a year, on average). That inspired the Brewers to trade four prospects, three of whom had ranked in the top 100, to Miami to acquire the outfielder’s services.
Around the 2018 All-Star break, Yelich turned from solid into Ted Williams. In 65 games after the break, Yelich hit .367/.449/.770 with 25 home runs and 10 stolen bases. He hit for the cycle twice in three weeks, once as part of a 6-for-6 effort in a win over the Reds. The Brewers, viewed as pesky challengers to the two-time defending division champion Cubs, had the best record in the NL in the second half and ended up making it to Game 7 of the NLCS. Yelich was by far the hottest player on the team—both at the plate and in the zeitgeist—and ended the year with the NL MVP award, capping as tidy an MVP narrative as you’ll ever see.
At the start of the 2019 season, the topic of Yelich’s likely regression was just as captivating. For years, he had been a skinny dude who needed Giancarlo Stanton to drive him in, and even the most optimistic Yelich boosters could not have foreseen a future in which he’d lead the NL in slugging percentage. Maybe he had 30-homer power in him, rather than the 21-homer ceiling he displayed in Miami, but his second-half hot streak in Milwaukee seemed like just that: a streak, the best two and a half months of his career, from which he’d surely return to some lower baseline in 2019.
Not so. Yelich opened 2019 by hitting one home run in each of his first four games. By the end of April he’d hit 14 home runs, and he’s only barely slowed down. The 2018 NL MVP entered September with 41 home runs, two off the MLB lead, and is as hot as ever. For evidence of this, look no further than Yelich’s photo shoot in the forthcoming ESPN the Magazine Body Issue.
ESPN “reveals” Christian Yelich’s body issue pics. pic.twitter.com/qHqQW9x1hI— Matt Hietpas (@MattyHip) August 27, 2019
Appearing in the Body Issue doesn’t have much to do with future on-field success; it’s hard to forget Matt Harvey’s memorable spread, which preceded Tommy John surgery and later thoracic outlet syndrome for the righthander, and Prince Fielder had only one full healthy season after he graced the Body Issue’s cover. But great hitters have one quality in common with people who are comfortable being naked in public: confidence.
Yelich has plenty to be confident about, as he’s taken another step forward in 2019, from MVP-caliber to historic greatness. In addition to his 43 home runs (more than he hit in his first four seasons in the majors), Yelich is leading the National League in OBP (.421), isolated power (.345), and wRC+ (170), and he’s leading all of MLB in slugging percentage (.672) and OPS (1.093). After posting an OPS of 1.000 in last year’s MVP campaign, Yelich is about to become the fourth active player (after Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout) to post an OPS of 1.000 or better in back-to-back years. He’s also on pace to be the first qualified hitter since Barry Bonds (and just the 10th player in the expansion era) to hit .326/.421/.672.
Yelich was a very good player even before he discovered his power stroke, and the version of him we saw last year was so good it’s hard to grapple with the idea that he had more room to improve. But unbelievable as it may seem, there is a level of production beyond merely “MVP-caliber.” Now that Yelich is showing up in Play Index searches with Bonds, Pujols, and Frank Thomas, he’s pretty clearly reached a tier of offensive production at which he needs to be compared to historical greats in order to put him in context.
For the first six years of his career, Yelich was an extreme ground ball hitter, even as he put up a career high home run total in 2018. What sets Yelich apart has always been his ability to hit the ball extremely hard, no matter the vertical angle. According to Baseball Savant, Yelich has been in the top 5 percent of hitters in baseball in hard-hit rate in each of the past four seasons.
In 2018, some of Yelich’s hard-hit balls started making their way over the fence. Yelich had the eighth-lowest fly ball rate among qualified hitters, but the highest HR/FB ratio in the game, at 35 percent. In the second half, not only did his HR/FB rate rise to an astounding 48.1 percent, he started putting the ball in the air slightly more.
This year, after seasons of having ground balls outnumber his fly balls by as much as 4-to-1, Yelich is running close to an even split. In early May, The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz made note of Yelich’s newfound habit of putting the ball in the air, and the trend has held over the past four months. Yelich is once again in the top 10 in hard-hit rate (minimum 200 batted-ball events), and once again leads MLB in HR/FB rate.
But Yelich has already hit 128 fly balls this year, which is not only a career high, it’s almost as many as he hit in 2014 and 2015 combined, two seasons over which he posted a 116 OPS+. And 33.6 percent of those fly balls have gone over the fence. Which is a lot, it bears mentioning.
The Brewers’ season as a whole hasn’t gone as well in 2019 as it did last year. The bullpen that nearly carried the Brewers to the World Series last season has been merely average on aggregate. Last year’s no. 1 starter, Jhoulys Chacín, was released last week with an ERA close to 6.00, and last year’s cleanup hitter, Jesús Aguilar, was traded to Tampa Bay at the deadline with his OPS down almost 200 points from his 2018 mark. And after winning 96 games in 2018, the Brewers are on pace to win just 83 this year.
Milwaukee’s lackluster performance this season, combined with Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger’s emergence as a hitter of Yelich’s caliber and a much more highly rated defender, make it unlikely, despite Yelich’s historic offensive performance, that he will retain his title as NL MVP. Even in this age of empirics, narrative is still a powerful force in award voting, and Yelich doesn’t have that in his corner. In 2018, his ascent to the top tier of professional hitters was the difference between Milwaukee winning the division and not. Even though he’s been even better in 2019, the novelty’s worn off and the Brewers are on the wrong side of the playoff bubble. So Bellinger, who’s in the midst of an outrageous breakout season of his own and plays for a club that’s all but punched its ticket for the postseason, has one hand on the plaque.
Not that Yelich needs another MVP award to validate his place among the very best players on the planet. He’s already shown everything required of a superstar, and then some.