Since joining the Milwaukee Brewers, Christian Yelich had hit his way to back-to-back batting titles in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons as well as a MVP award in 2018.
After an injury ended his 2019 season early, the Brewers were expecting Christian Yelich to easily return to his MVP form.
Unfortunately, the 2020 season was the worst season Yelich has had as a professional baseball player. What exactly happened to Yelich is something I will evaluate in this article.
Early season struggles
While Yelich did not play much in spring training prior to the shut down, his struggles and strikeout concerns date back to Summer Camp 2.0. At first, many believed it may have been a timing issue and that the former batting champion would come into form as the regular season began and he got more at bats under his belt.
Unfortunately this did not happen. In the first two series of the year against the Cubs and Pirates, Yelich logged 27 at bats and 12 of them ended via the strikeout. This high strikeout rate would become a theme for him as he set a career high in strikeout percentage at 30.8%. Since entering the league in 2015, he had consistently been around 20%, so this big of a jump was very unexpected.
It was apparent as the short season was progressing that this strikeout slump was something that Yelich was not going to just snap out of in 2020. His body language and the way he talked about his poor performance signaled to us fans that it was likely impacting him mentally as well. This caused him to completely change his approach at the plate.
Christian Yelich adjusted by swinging less often, especially early in the count.
Since joining the Brewers, Yelich became a much more aggressive hitter at the plate. His 27.8% first pitch swing in 2018 and 29.5% in 2019 were careers highs for him by well over ten percent when compared to his days with the Marlins. In 2020, his first pitch swing percentage decreased to a career low 13.4%.
The motto “the first pitch is usually the best pitch of an at bat” has been especially true for Yelich in years previous. In the 2019 season Christian Yelich hit 44 homers in total. Eight of those homers came on the first pitch, eight more came in 1-0 counts, and five came in 0-1 counts. That is equivalent to 21 of his 44 home runs coming on the first or second pitch of at bats. In 2020, he hit just two home runs in the same counts.
The issue with taking more pitches is that opposing pitchers were still throwing strikes to Yelich. While it is true his 18% walk rate in 2020 was a career high, he also passed up opportunities to swing at pitches that he normally would do damage with and there are a few metrics to back this up.
First is that his zone swing percentage was just 58% in 2020, which was down significantly from 70% in 2019. The second stat is meatball swing percentage. In 2020, he swung the bat at just 66% of meatballs, where as in 2018 and 2019 he swung at 80%.
There were instances of false hope this season in which Yelich was getting into long at bats and battling at the plate. However, his ability to deliver hits in these scenarios was very scarce. Yelich did find himself in full count situations 51 times this season, but he struck out in 21 of those times, 18 times he walked, and just four times he delivered a hit. This resulted in a ridiculous split of a .121 batting average and a .431 on base percentage in full count scenarios.
With swinging less often, it is really that hard to blame Yelich for electing to do so when 33% of the time he was whiffing when he swung? One other aspect to consider is that maybe he was just not picking up the baseball out of the pitcher’s hand as well this year.
I don’t think this is the case. I won’t argue that Yelich looked completely lost while swinging this year, but his chase percentage was a career low 17% this season, which suggests that his batter’s eye was just fine. However, when he was chasing pitches, he only made contact on 38% of those pitches, which was another career low by a wide margin.
After all is said and done and the numbers are crunched, this poor offensive season may simply get chalked up to a phenomenal hitter who lost his confidence, was in his own head, and whose adjustments did not help get him back on track.
Brewers fans have to hope that a normal off-season and normal start up in the spring will bring their superstar back to MVP form in 2021.