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Player Debate: Christian Yelich vs. Cody Bellinger

Both have been down, but there are reasons to buy Bellinger and Yelich.

Not that long ago, debating Christian Yelich vs. Cody Bellinger would have been a first-round debate, possibly part of a discussion of who should go first overall. Leading up to the 2020 season, Yelich had an NFBC ADP of 2.4, while Bellinger was 4.5. Both had gone first overall at least once. Leading up to the 2022 season, they are the 101st (Bellinger) and 102nd (Yelich) players off the board at NFBC. After two rough seasons, you can now gamble on one of these two in the 9th round of 12 team drafts. The question is, which one? In today’s player debate, Justin Dunbar will make the case for Yelich, while Chad Young argues for Bellinger.

 

Argument: Yelich Made Adjustments Before, and He Is Starting to Make Them Again

 

It’s hard to state how dominant Christian Yelich was between 2018 and 2019. With a 170 wRC+, .304 ISO, and a .327/.415/.631 slashline, he had established himself as a fearsome slugger that no pitcher wanted to face. Heck had it not been for a late-season knee injury in 2019, he likely would have won back-to-back MVPs.

So, how do we go from that to a player who posted a 101 wRC+ and hit just nine home runs in 2021? That is the million-dollar question. That being said, I am not buying the idea that Yelich has fallen off dramatically. In 2020, he posted a strong .225 ISO and 12.1% barrel rate, but struggled due to a 30.8% strikeout rate and .259 BABIP, which hampered his batting average (.205) significantly. In 2021, this was corrected with a .248 batting average, but I think there is more on the table. In the second half of 2021, Yelich lowered his strikeout rate to 19.8%; he increased his swing% to 45% over the past two months and made much more contact in the zone. This combination, assuming it carries over to 2022, should lead to a stronger batting average than we’ve seen from Yelich over the past two seasons, which is a major plus.

As for the power, we know Yelich is capable of hitting for more. His 94th percentile max exit velocity remained intact from previous seasons, but his average exit velocity fell by three MPH. Considering that he was dealing with a back injury, this isn’t surprising. With improved health in 2021, we should see him hit the ball extremely hard more consistently, leading to more power on its own. What also would help is more balls in the air, something that adds to Yelich’s upside; he could be a swing change away from being the same power hitter he was at his peak. We’ve seen Yelich correct this issue before, so why can’t he do it again? After the first 100 picks in the draft, you’re not counting on it, but a healthy Yelich seems to be the all-around contributor you should be targeting to fill out your outfield.

 

Rebuttal: Did Those Adjustments Do Enough?

 

Yes, Yelich did improve his strikeout rate dramatically in the second half, but you know what else improved? Well, more or less nothing. His hard-hit and barrel rates were down from the first half. His walk rate was cut in half. His average did increase a bit, but his on-base percentage plummeted and his ISO was down and his overall line was worse, dropping from a pretty-solid 113 wRC+ in the first half to a not-solid 89 in the second.

 

In addition, as Justin mentioned, Yelich has dealt with back injuries and those have a tendency to linger and return. Yelich and the Brewers will presumably look for ways to keep him healthy, which probably means more days off and fewer stolen base attempts, which we have already seen over the last couple seasons. He’s running less and succeeding less. Over 2018-19, he had 58 SB attempts and was caught only 6 times. Over 2020-21, he had 18 attempts (far fewer even accounting for the shortened 2020 season) and was caught 5 times. Plus, the potential for recurring back issues may mean he can’t make the swing adjustments he needs to bring the power back.

 

Argument: We’ve Briefly Seen Bellinger Return to Form

 

Bellinger was awful in 2021. I’ll concede from the start. However, there is both an explanation for that and reasons for optimism moving forward. In 2020, Bellinger was a disappointment compared to his 2020 draft cost, but he wasn’t bad: 12 HR, 33 R, 30 RBI, 6 SB and a .239 AVG in a shortened season. Factor in some poor batted-ball luck (.239 BABIP and a .369 xwOBA vs. a .337 wOBA) and you can still see the five-category contributor we all expected.

Then he dislocated his shoulder, needed off-season surgery, and got a late start to Spring Training in 2021. He worked his way back into the lineup, just to suffer a hairline fracture in his leg and miss most of April and May. Then he played a couple of weeks, suffered a hamstring injury, and missed more time. Suddenly he was in mid-June, had only 71 PA, and was still trying to get healthy. He played pretty consistently until mid-September, and then got hurt again, fracturing a rib and missing 10 days.

All of that gives us more than enough excuse to write off 2021, but why be optimistic? After that last injury, Bellinger looked like a star again. We all saw his 147 wRC+ in the postseason, but he finished off the regular season with a 126 wRC+ over the final week. If you look at his 50-PA rolling stats, he ended the season on a clear upward trajectory. His xwOBA (.281 for the season) was .374 over his final 50 PA. His hard-hit rate (34.4% for the season) was 48% over his last 50 PA. That late reminder of what he is capable of is plenty of reason for me to be optimistic about Bellinger in 2022.

 

Rebuttal: Briefly? It Was Like Two Weeks!

 

While I appreciate the optimism regarding Bellinger’s late-season surge, the sample size is extremely limited. We saw Bellinger go on a similar surge with some of his hardest-hit balls coming at the beginning of August, but he couldn’t sustain it, and I am unsure he would have sustained his late-season surge as well. After all, inconsistency is what we’re getting to here.

What is also concerning about Bellinger is his elevated strikeout rate (26.9%). If this remains in place, his batting average floor becomes extremely low, leading to him being closer to his pre-MVP form. Meanwhile, whereas Yelich showed consistent spurts of hitting the ball hard last year, Bellinger’s barrel rate was even lower, despite hitting far more balls in the air. The upside with Bellinger comes from his shoulder being healthy, but what effect did it have on his swing mechanics and approach at the plate? There are many more moving parts with this profile compared to Yelich.

 

Justin’s Closing Argument

 

Last season, Christian Yelich (101 wRC+) was clearly the better player over Cody Bellinger (48 wRC+), while Yelich also had the longer peak. When removed from his back injury last season, he still demonstrated the ability to hit the ball extremely hard, and he’s made adjustments to hit the ball in the air more before. While we can feel confident that Yelich has put his injuries behind him, can we feel the same about Bellinger’s shoulder? It is concerning that he couldn’t make ANY progress as the season went on, nor did he ever sustain a legitimate hot stretch.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what you trust more. Is it Bellinger to once again cut down his strikeout rate, hit the ball hard again, and also once again earn the trust of the coaching staff to have a favorable lineup position? Or is it Yelich, who, on the other hand, showed with his max exit velocity last year that his raw power is still in place, while his decreased strikeout rate provides optimism about his batting average? For Yelich, the big question is power, which should regress positively with a higher barrel rate now that he’s presumably back to full health. Whereas Bellinger might be completely reliant on power to have fantasy value, Yelich’s power doesn’t need to be his only carrying tool. He hits at the top of the Brewers lineup, plays in a hitter’s ballpark, and still showed the ability to steal bases when healthy. The floor is much higher with him, while the two have been shown to have similar ceilings. With that in mind, Yelich appears to be the more optimal pick. 

 

Chad’s Closing Argument

 

On the surface, it is easy to say Yelich (105 wRC+ since the start of 2020) has been better than Bellinger (74 wRC+ since the start of 2020), but it isn’t that simple. Bellinger has the better strike-out rate and the better ISO. He has more HR and has scored more runs on a per plate appearance basis. Even in a truly atrocious period marred by injury, on some key metrics, he was the better hitter. If he has a better power floor and is able to score more runs, Yelich basically has to be a base-stealing threat to have a shot at being more useful, and I don’t think he’s still the 20+ SB threat he once was.

While, as noted above, Bellinger saw his rolling 50-PA batted ball stats improve dramatically down the stretch, as he finally put a series of injuries behind him. But the same can’t be said for Yelich, whose rolling hard-hit, xwOBA and EV numbers didn’t show the progression we’d like to see if he were getting healthy and getting his swing back. Those late-season trends, plus concerns about ongoing back issues, are enough to sway me to Bellinger.

 

 

Photos by Gregory Fisher & Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

Chad Young

Chad is a long-time fantasy player and baseball fan, who learned to love the game watching 100 loss teams in the truly awful Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Chad writes Going Deep for Pitcher List and co-hosts the Keep or Kut podcast on the Pitcher List Podcast Network. Chad is also one of the creators of ottoneu and you can hear him on the Ottobot Podcast and read his work on FanGraphs.

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