The Milwaukee Brewers knew they were getting a good player when they acquired Christian Yelich last January. They didn’t know they’d get an MVP-caliber season from him. Can Yelich repeat his 2018 success in 2019?
The last player to go back-to-back as the NL MVP winner was Albert Pujols from 2008-2009. Pujols, in the prime of his career, was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Christian Yelich was causing that level of fear in opposing pitchers during the second half of the 2018 season. The Milwaukee Brewers are hoping that Yelich can keep that up during 2019 as well.
Yelich, like Pujols was 10 years ago, is in his physical prime for his career. There’s plenty of reasons to believe Yelich has every opportunity to repeat as the best player in the National League.
Reasons Why Yelich Will Repeat His Success
Christian Yelich is just getting started. There is a lot more potential in Yelich yet to be unlocked. With another offseason providing an opportunity to get better and a lot of success to build off of, Yelich can tap into the rest of that potential in 2019.
His swing is beautiful and perfect according to scouts. Despite his increased power output, Yelich still maintained a >50% ground-ball rate and his fly-ball rate actually decreased from 25.2% to 23.5% from 2017 to 2018. His power surge was due to an extremely high home run/fly ball ratio of 35%. He didn’t hit the ball in the air often, but when he did, it went far.
Yelich hasn’t gotten into any dangerous trends such as the “launch angle revolution” which sacrifices batting average and on-base ability for more power, making success more volatile. He’s maintained his balanced approach, which has given him success in the past and points to more success in the future.
Now that the whole league has seen what Yelich is capable of, they’re going to focus on certain ways to get him out. Shifting has been a major focus on defense for the past few years, but it’s nearly impossible to shift against Yelich. In 2018, he pulled the ball at a 34.9% rate, went up the middle 38.1% of the time, and went opposite field 27% of the time. That’s about as even as you’re going to find.
He was also hitting the ball much harder in 2018. His hard hit rate jumped nearly 10% from his previous career high to 47.6%. Even on ground balls, which he hits most of the time, the harder hit the ball is, the less likely infielders are to get to it, which was the basis of his success in 2018 and should be again in 2019.
Reasons Why Yelich Won’t Repeat His Success
It’s a little unreasonable to expect Yelich to hit .326 with a 1.000 OPS and 36 homers again in 2019. It was just so far above his previous levels of performance that it’s hard to know if this is just who Yelich really is, or if it’s a one year fluke kind of thing.
The main concern when it comes to Yelich repeating his 2018 success is his BAbip. In 2018, Yelich had a .373 BAbip, which played a major role in his success. BAbip is fairly reliable indicator in terms of how lucky or unlucky a player was during their season. Yelich was incredibly lucky in 2018 and a BAbip that high is difficult to sustain.
Let’s go back to Albert Pujols during his 2008-2009 back-to-back MVP seasons. In 2008, Pujols had a .340 BAbip en route to a .357 batting average. In 2009, Pujols had a .299 BAbip en route to a .327 batting average. Those are much lower than Yelich’s BAbip in 2018 and both of Pujols’ batting averages were higher than the one Yelich had.
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To be fair, Pujols and Yelich are two completely different kinds of players and 2008-09 was a much different time in baseball than 2018-19.
But if Yelich’s BAbip comes down to a more reasonable level, it’s fair to believe his batting average will drop more as well. Yelich is still a ground-ball hitter, and that’s not likely to change. That leaves him more susceptible to a BAbip regression negatively impacting his output.
As Crash Davis in ‘Bull Durham‘ once said, the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is “one extra flare a week, one more ground-ball with eyes, one extra dying quail a week”. Last year, Yelich got those extra ground-balls with eyes each week. In 2019, if he doesn’t get those extra dying quails or ground-balls through a hole, his numbers will go down.
It’s also difficult to think his 35% home run/fly ball ratio is sustainable. While playing half his games in Miller Park will certainly help, it’s difficult to see anyone maintaining the pace that he was at in the second half of 2018.
During September, many baseball pundits commented that Yelich was approaching Barry Bonds-levels of fear and success at the plate. When Bonds was at that level, there’s strong evidence of PEDs helping him sustain that success, and Yelich does not take PEDs. Bonds, during his 73-homer season in 2001, only posted a 29.1% HR/FB rate, and never posted anything higher than that.
Yelich maintaining anything close to his 35% HR/FB ratio would be a massive surprise. Again, Bonds and Yelich are two different kinds of hitters, and Yelich doesn’t hit near as many fly balls as Bonds once did,
Can Yelich Maintain His Success?
Yelich is a great hitter, and his swing and approach at the plate lead us to believe he’ll continue to have a ton of success at the plate going into the future.
However, it’s not likely that Yelich will repeat his 2018 stats in 2019. There’s bound to be at least a little regression back to the mean this year.
Even if he doesn’t repeat his MVP level numbers from 2018, a season where Yelich hits above .300 with 20-25 homers, possibly more, isn’t unreasonable. He was a .290-.300 hitter in Miami and Yelich’s career BAbip of .359 isn’t that far below his .373 BAbip in 2018.
Yelich will still be a great player in 2019, and there’s a chance he could repeat as the NL MVP, but like every other MVP winner, he’s going to need a couple of breaks to go his way. And having all the breaks go your way in back to back years doesn’t happen often.
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The Milwaukee Brewers would love to see Yelich repeat his 2018 success this year, but they’re going to need other players in the lineup to help carry the offense alongside Yelich if they’re going to repeat as NL Central champions.