• Art Tornabene

The Yelich Conundrum

One glance at the most recent ADP data for all NFBC drafts since January 1, 2021 will show that Christian Yelich is the 12th player off the board, with a min/max pick of 4/16. The line of thinking seems to be to disregard 2020 with all of the unhappiness it brought and to draft the talent. After much contemplation, there is a solid argument for that approach. The base skills remain, and the sample size was so short that perhaps it shouldn’t change your view on his outlook. It was 247 plate appearances.

However, when choosing the first player on your roster as an anchor to the team which you are building, there may be some hesitation to select someone coming off of a 30% strikeout rate and a .205 average. I have that hesitation. All things being equal, it’s much easier to draft someone coming off of a good small sample than a poor one.

It helps to look back. Yelich had over 2800 plate appearances in the major leagues before his 2018 MVP breakout. Playing home games in the pitcher-friendly Miami ballpark, and his heavy groundball tendencies were considered the clearest obstacles to fantasy stardom.

The trade to Milwaukee provided an improvement in hitting environment and lineup (Yelich was the 4th regular dealt from Miami that off-season after Stanton, Gordon, and Ozuna). Yelich earned an All-Star nod after a first-half slash of .292/.364/.459. A right oblique strain in early April was the only demerit on a solid beginning in his new home. The second half, however, was a masterpiece. He produced a 1.219 OPS while hitting 25 home runs in only 294 plate appearances.

Yelich had long been known as a player who would benefit from a rise in his launch angle. Upon the move to Milwaukee, Paul Sporer suggested that “playing somewhere that will reward power could foster an alteration to his approach.” Even though Sporer’s optimistic 28 HR projection was easily eclipsed by Yelich’s 36 in 2018, it was not due to an improvement in launch angle, which stayed mostly static. The increase in home runs was due to Yelich doing more with the fly balls that he hit, jacking up his Home Run per Fly Ball Rate (HR/FB) from 15.3% in 2017 to a gaudy 35% his first season in Milwaukee.

The fun continued in 2019 when Yelich put up a 175 wRC+ until his season ended on September 10th after fouling an Elieser Hernandez breaking pitch off his kneecap and fracturing it. Prior to the injury, Yelich had finally begun to raise his average launch angle, and the HR/FB rate remained high as well at 33%.

On March 5, 2020, Yelich signed a seven-year, $188.5 million contract extension. The season could hardly have opened worse, going 1 for 27 in July. To say he turned it around would be true, but would also be saying too much. August and September’s 219 plate appearances couldn’t help but improve on July, but the improvement was fueled by a 20.5% walk rate, more walks (45) than hits (40), only 57 runs + RBI in 52 games, a strange inside-the-park home run that should have been caught, and a still disappointing slash (.231/.393/.474).

So what happened?

In 2020, the HR/FB Rate stayed, while the rest of the profile turned upside down. The small sample size saw Yelich drop his launch angle back down closer to previous career norms, lower his swing rate by over 10%, raise his whiff rate by over 5% and raise his strikeout rate from 20.2% to 30.8%. That strong walk rate had Yelich walking or striking out 49.4% of his plate appearances. A three-true outcomes Yelich?

One of the more interesting avenues of fantasy research to pursue is the performance against pitch type statistics put out by Statcast. I say interesting and not necessarily useful because there are often inconsistencies in the season-to-season performance which are mostly small sample size anomalies. With Yelich, though, the profile through 2017 was fairly consistent…

What does Yelich do?

Yelich murders heaters.

What else does Yelich do? Struggle.

From 2013 until 2017, Yelich produced a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .381, .396, .400, .405 and .409 against fastballs. The performance improved in 18'-19' with .446 and .448 marks. In ‘20, Yelich's wOBA against fastballs was his lowest since 2013, at .382. Other struggles that Yelich experienced were more familiar.

Yelich performed at a significant uptick against breaking and offspeed pitches in 2018 and 2019 from his previous career levels. In 2018-19, Yelich's produced wOBA of .392 and .389 against breaking pitches and .398 and .488 against offspeed. Yelich's performance in 2020 against offspeed and breaking pitches, on the other hand, looked much like Yelich's performance prior to 2018. If you remove '18 and '19, Yelich's wOBA against breaking pitches since 2013 is .206, .238, .228, .322, .251 and .312. Against offspeed, Yelich has been .349, .206, .209, .313, .271, .188. In a sense, 2020 showed regression on an older, seemingly remedied hole in Yelich’s offensive game.

Pitchers were throwing fastballs to Yelich between 64.2% and 64.4% of the time during his first three MLB campaigns. 2016 began a five-season streak where Yelich never saw more than 58.8% fastballs, culminating in a career-low 56% in 2020. Breaking pitch percentages show similar recognition of Yelich’s prowess against the fastball, rising from between 21.1%-22.8% in 2013-2015 to 26.5%-28.3% from 2016-2019. In 2020, the percentage of breaking pitches seen took another significant leap to 32.1%.

Across MLB, slider/curveball usage has been rising since at least 2017. According to Alex Chamberlain’s excellent spreadsheet, in 2020, slider/curveball usage is up to 30% from 29% in ‘19, 28% in ‘18, and 27% in ‘17. This reflects a slight trend in increased breaking use which may not yet be cresting. Yelich, a player who has a notable trend of worse performance against breaking pitches, has always been approximately average to below average in the amount of breaking pitches seen, until 2020.

The league as a whole saw a rise in breaking pitches of 29 to 30% from 2019 to 2020, Yelich’s rise was from 26.5% to 32.1%. This was a 21% season-to-season rise in the percentage of breaking pitches seen, and a change from being well below league average, to well above it. I think it's possible this will continue to be the case in 2021.

The slider and the curve produce the two highest whiff rates on pitches with at least 10% usage across baseball, 36.2% and 32.6%. For comparison, 4-seamers produced 22.3% and sinkers, 16.2%. Yelich’s whiff rate, simply by seeing more breaking pitches, should have risen in 2020. Yelich’s whiff rate rose by 19% in 2020 up to 33.6%. Most surprisingly, however, is that the whiff rate increase was most pronounced against fastballs.

Is this important? Let’s look at the swing percentage. Yelich’s swing percentage drop from 2019 to 2020 was the largest of any player in MLB, swinging at 23% fewer pitches than in 2019 and only 34.6% of all pitches that he saw. This patient approach is common among many fantasy-relevant players, such as Max Muncy, Cavan Biggio, Aaron Hicks, and Carlos Santana (all rated highly on the Rotofanatic Data Monster SAE rankings). Yelich’s 2020 brought his swing percentage down to Biggio levels (or, more accurately, slightly below). I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with the percentage of breaking pitches he is seeing.

Yelich’s reduction in first-pitch swing percentage was even more drastic than his overall swing percentage drop, swinging at only 13.4% of the first pitches he saw. 2018 and 2019 were both at least 27.8%. While the first-pitch strike percentage against him also dropped, it was not by nearly as much, from 54.8% to 50.2%. What can we make of this?

It seems pretty clear that Yelich was pitched differently in 2020 than previously. Perhaps Central pitchers used to getting their fastballs eaten for lunch vowed to throw more breaking pitches to Yelich? I think the more interesting question is, did this show a new approach that will be copied against Yelich? And how long will it take for him to adjust?

It seems strange to even doubt Yelich. Hasn’t he proven himself enough to trust that 12th pick? Yes. Absolutely. If you were to ask me, which player has the biggest likelihood of being this year’s version of 2019 Jose Ramirez? I say Yelich is the obvious choice. While Ramirez did rebound and salvage some return on acquisition price in 2019, it finished as his worst value season by Razzball player rater from 2016-19 by a significant margin. In ‘20, Ramirez was back to himself, and early ‘19 is a distant memory.

Another potential comp, and the first that came to my mind, is Bryce Harper. Harper experienced a two-season drop in z-contact in 2018 and ‘19. In ‘20, Harper’s z-contact was back to around 82, where he had been from ‘15-’17. Yelich is beginning to see a similarly low zone% on pitches as to what Harper has seen most of his career. In 2020, corresponding with the drop in zone% was a drop in zone swing percentage from 69.6% to 58.1%, and a Harper-like dip in-zone contact rate.

Harper’s 2018 and 2019 produced the number 82 and 90 best hitter seasons of the last five years on the Razzball player rater - not a pick that sinks you whatsoever, while also not being very exciting. Ramirez’s 2019 came in at season 301 for comparison. I say this not to project too much onto Yelich, Ramirez, and Harper, but to note that even All-Stars and MVP Candidates show season to season fluctuation and lingering issues. The concerns I note above tell me that I should not expect a return to the 2018-’19 batting average, or performance against breaking pitches in 2021.

The positives - there is no reason to think that he won’t return to mashing fastballs again in 2021. With the strong HR/FB he continues to show in Milwaukee, an expected return to strong R + RBI totals, and the potential to provide a strong speed component should still keep him high on your draft board. Personally, I do not view him as someone with sneaky potential to be the top player, but rather a solid floor due to his skills. Because of my aforementioned doubts, I actually have Yelich ranked about the same as Harper, which probably means that I will not be getting many shares of Yelich this season. I think I’m okay with that.