Is it Legit? – Christian Yelich’s 2018 MVP Season

In his first season after escaping the Derek Jeter-led teardown of the Miami Marlins, Christian Yelich broke out in a big way. The near-unanimous 2018 National League MVP posted ridiculous numbers, thanks in part to a thunderous second half.

Yelich was one of the most productive players in all of fantasy baseball with a .326/.402/.598 triple-slash, 36 home runs, 118 runs scored, 110 RBI and he even added 22 stolen bases. All of that added up to 7.6 fWAR, more than two wins better than his previous best, 5.4 in 2016.

Yelich has been a very solid fantasy player in the past and was even a very good one in 2016, but his first season with the Milwaukee Brewers was at a different level. Despite being perhaps the least-heralded of the outfield trio the Marlins shipped out after 2017, the 27-year-old Yelich had easily the best season between he, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton.

Yelich had long been thought of as someone who could become a superstar if his power developed. Suffice it to say that happened in 2018. But, considering where Yelich played his home games this season, it’s natural to wonder Is it Legit?

Outliers?

Naturally, we’ll have to examine the numbers Yelich put up at Miller Park against those he posted everywhere else, but with a season so much better than his historic averages, let’s first look for any overall anomalies.

His 2018 batting average on balls in play was .373, a ridiculously high number for the average major-leaguer, but not wildly higher than his career mark of .359. Yelich has always made a lot of contact overall and limited his soft contact percentage. His BABIP may fall off from 2018 β€” bad luck can plague anyone β€” but there doesn’t appear to be as big a risk there as there might be with the average hitter’s profile.

The number that best illustrates the power surge Yelich experienced in 2018 may be his 35 percent home run to fly ball percentage. That’s more than 10 percent higher than any HR/FB% Yelich has posted in a major league season. Presumably, that’s the Miller Park effect at work.

Christian Yelich HR/FB% BABIP
2014 11.5 .356
2015 12.5 .370
2016 23.6 .356
2017 15.3 .336
2018 35 .373

Examining Yelich’s home and road splits, he was a better hitter at home, but not to such an extreme degree that there is any criticism to be made of his road performance. His batting average was actually better on the road and his on-base percentage was only .007 points higher at home. The biggest difference in Yelich’s performance at Miller Park and elsewhere was, perhaps unsurprisingly, power. Most players would love to hit for a .545 slugging percentage. Yelich added more than .100 points of slugging to that mark at home.

AVG OBP SLG HR/FB%
Home .324 .406 .655 42.3
Away .328 .399 .545 27.5

That home HR/FB% is crazy. It’s not likely to be that high again in future seasons, but Miller Park is one of the friendliest ballparks in Major League Baseball for hitters. ESPN’s park factors rated it the tenth-most homer-happy stadium in the league in 2018. Like many of the other numbers from Yelich’s 2018 season, his power jag at home is likely to regress somewhat, but there should still be plenty of home runs to be had there in the future.

Changed approach?

It’s pretty obvious that Yelich’s numbers were buoyed by playing at Miller Park in 2018, but determining whether any conscious change in his approach contributed to that could help predict the likelihood that he’s able to replicate those numbers.

There’s not a bad area in Miller Park to hit to, but the right-field porch, in particular, is only 345 feet from home plate, enticing left-handed hitters like Yelich. It would make sense for him to try to take advantage of that by swinging at more inside pitches and attempting to pull the ball more often.

Only one of those things happened in 2018, though. In Yelich’s full major league seasons before 2018 (2014-2017), he swung at pitches on the inside third of the plate an average of 57 percent of the time each year. Last season, he was much more aggressive on the inside pitch, swinging 67 percent of the time.

Those swings, though, did not produce a notable uptick in the number of balls Yelich pulled in 2018. His pull percentage this season was 34.9, up slightly from 33.3 percent in 2017, but down from a 36 percent mark the year before. He may have tried to pull the ball more, but it didn’t happen to a notable degree.

There’s no doubt that Yelich benefited from playing at Miller Park in 2018, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason to expect a dramatic drop-off in the coming years. For one thing, he was tremendous on the road, too. The power will most likely not be quite at the level it was in 2018, but Yelich did manage to add more than five percent to his line-drive rate and cut his groundball rate by nearly that much.

If he keeps up that trend and has better luck pulling the ball, particularly at home, Yelich could very well continue to be a fantasy star.

Photo by: Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire

Jordan Larimore

I'm a local news reporter and former sports reporter at a The Joplin Globe. Pinch hitter at birdsontheblack.com. I still have nightmares about Travis Ishikawa. Yes, I'm a Cardinals fan. I'm sorry about most of the rest of them.

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Comments


PLCommenter

Jordan,

Great insight! But how do you feel about the GB% Yelich has shown to have throughout the years? This seems to be what has sapped a lot of his power yet we really only have the second half of last season to see any change.

Also we saw a ridiculous jump in hard contact % and I’m sure no one expects that 12% increase to stay around.

I feel we’re much more likely to see Yelich return to the .830-860 OPS than we are to see anything resembling 2018.

What are your thoughts?

Jordan Larimore

That’s the kind of thing I would love to get the chance to ask him about! “Did playing at Miller Park make you realize fly balls may be valuable enough to be worth tweaking your approach to get more lift?” Or something like that. Because you’re right about his GB% threatening to limit his power. I suppose I come down on the side of assuming it’s a conscious thing just because it makes so much sense, but it may not be.

You may be right about his reality being closer to previous seasons than 2018, but I do think Miller will allow him to post much better power numbers than he did in Miami. That combined with his contributions in R, RBI and SB make him feel pretty safe to me, even if *some* regression is likely.

Thanks for reading!

Charles Stevens

Are you not concerned about his 23% FB rate? If you look at everyone else around him with a similar number of home runs, they are all over 30% for FB rate. Plus I’ve always heard that anyone with inflated home run numbers and a below 30% FB rate is prime for regression. You alluded to it, but you never came out and said that a 23% FB rate was low for his power number and it is. Anyway, great breakdown! Thank you!

Jordan Larimore

Hey, Charles. It’s a concern, to be sure. I don’t necessarily expect him to pop 36 homers again, but I do think having added more than 5 percent to his LD% could help mitigate any decline, especially getting to play 100 or so games at Miller Park, PNC, GABP and Wrigley. Those are all parks where I would expect a lefty to be able to turn line drives into homers at a higher rate than average, especially if his aggression on inside pitches continues and produces more pull. Then there’s the doubles alley that is Busch, and those balls equate to power, too. Thanks for reading!

Nick Gerli

Yelich had one of the lowest pull rates on fly balls in baseball last year at 16.5%. Something to think about in terms of how the park is affecting things.

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