What a difference a season can make. At this point during the 2018 season, Christian Yelich was having an above-average offensive year, hitting .291/.366/.473 with 11 home runs, making his offensive performance 26% better than the MLB average according to weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+).
Fast forward one calendar year and one MVP-award and Yelich has taken his game to another level. In his quest for a repeat as the game’s best player, he has hit .332/.426/.723 with a league leading 29 home runs. According to his wRC+ mark of 183, he is performing 83% better than the league-average hitter.
Yelich’s increase in production isn’t coming on the account of luck, either. Of all MLB hitters, the Brewers’ right-fielder places third in average exit velocity (measuring how hard a player hits the ball) with an average of 93.7 miles per hour. In addition, his has the fifth highest expected weighted on-base (xwOBA) in baseball, which measures what a player’s offensive production is expected to be based on their quality of contact and strikeout/walk percentages.
What has been behind his insurgence? On a league-wide scale, there has been an established trend of trying to increase a hitter’s average launch angle (the plane at which the ball comes off the bat) to give the hitter a better chance at achieving an extra base hit. Yelich, who for years was among the league-leaders in ground ball percentage while still being an above-average hitter, stood to gain more from adjusting into this trend than nearly anyone else. Those who successfully adopt the trend increase their launch angle while maintaining or increasing their exit velocity, and Yelich certainly checks that box.
From 2018 to 2019, Yelich has decreased his ground ball rate by 7% while increasing his fly ball rate by 14%, all while hitting the ball harder (increase from 47.6% hard contact to 52.8%). While he did not have the previous performance struggles of “launch angle revolution” standouts like Justin Turner and J.D. Martinez, his career trajectory has undergone a transformation of a similar magnitude. Rather than his ceiling being a player that has the potential to make a few all-star games during his career, he has become a player that has the potential to win a few MVP awards during his career.
A recent Baseball America article shed some light on Yelich and his mindset during this transformation. In the piece, Yelich said the following:
“I think there are a lot of people who said I wouldn’t be this player in Miami, or I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did in Marlins Park, and I don’t think that’s true,” Yelich said. “I’d think I’d probably lose a couple homers in Marlins Park compared to Miller Park, but I think it’s a different case. My setup is different, swing is different, everything is different than when I was in Miami because you grow as a player and you learn and things change.”
This provides some context for the dramatic performance increase that we have seen Yelich achieve. It is not the result of him simply trying to hit more fly balls and hoping for the best. It is not the result of luck. Rather, Yelich has undergone a process of continuous changing and tweaking of intricate parts of his offensive approach that has resulted in him becoming a completely different baseball player.
What is next for Christian Yelich? For this year, his first all-star start is a near lock, and a second MVP trophy may soon be on the way. However, on a larger scale, he has guaranteed national relevance for the Milwaukee Brewers through at least 2022, which is when his current contract expires. As one of the league’s best players, he carries value that extends beyond what happens between the lines, bringing fans in droves to Miller Park and helping the Brewers increase their national media following and fan base in an ever-increasing media-centric world.
Where Yelich will rest among the Brewers’ greats has yet to be decided. However, what can be said is that he is arguably in the midst of the greatest season ever by a Brewers’ hitter. Based on wRC+, Yelich’s current mark of 183 is the highest single season mark in Brewers’ franchise history, meaning that no other Brewers’ hitter has ever performed this well in relation to the rest of the league. We are currently witnessing dominance – sit back and enjoy it.