Any success the Brewers may have in 2021 will be dependent on Christian Yelich returning to his MVP-self. Do the numbers show that is likely?
2020 was rough for Christian Yelich. He struggled immensely, and was nowhere near the MVP-caliber player he was in 2018, 2019, or the player who signed the largest contract in Brewers franchise history.
If the Brewers are going to contend next season, Christian Yelich will have to return to his previous standard of play. The raw numbers for Yelich in 2020 are ugly. He infamously started the season 1 for 27, and ended the season with a slash of (.205/.356/.430) 12 HR, a wRC+ of 112, and 0.7 fWAR. Those numbers are not inherently awful, he did create 12% more runs than league average, but that is not the Christian Yelich that Milwaukee is used to.
Christian Yelich By The Numbers
Baseball Savant allows you to track player similarity. Players most similar to Yelich in 2020 were Kyle Schwarber (.79), Clint Frazier (.78), Kyle Lewis (.78), Trent Grisham (.72).
While his traditional statistics were suboptimal, the underlying metrics indicate Christian Yelich may not have fundamentally changed as a hitter.
In 2020, Yelich’s exit velocity (94 MPH) was in the 99th percentile. His Hard Hit% (55.6%) was also in the 98th percentile. Yelich’s Barrel% (12.1%) put him in the 80th percentile. His xwOBA (.365) was in the 88th percentile, and xSLG (.476) was in the 75th percentile.
In 2019, Yelich’s exit velocity (93.2 mph) was in the 98th percentile, hard hit% (49.1%) was in the 96th, Barrel% (15.8%) was the 97th percentile, xwOBA (.442) was 99th, xSLG (.629) was in the 99th percentile.
In his 2018 MVP season, Yelich’s 93.2 MPH exit velo was in the 96th percentile, his Hard Hit% (49.1%) was in the 97th, barrel percentage (12.9%) was 92nd, xwOBA (.422) and xSLG (.575) were both in the 99th percentile. Basically, he was a god for the past two seasons.
Again, those are statistics that are not seen on the back of one’s baseball card. In the situation of xwOBA and xSLG, those are expected statistics. Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA) and Expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG) are both calculated using exit velocity, launch angle, and sprint speed.
Both of those stats measure quality of contact instead of actual result. They also do not factor in defensive positioning.
Yelich was in the 41st percentile for actual slugging percentage among qualified hitter (.431), while his expected slugging (.476) would have put him in the 75th percentile. His wOBA was .343, in the 56th percentile. His xwOBA (.394) would have put him in the 88th percentile.
BABIP is another metric that takes out defense. While there is no constant baseline, extreme deviations from average show one is lucky or unlucky. Yelich’s 2020 BABIP was .259, while his career BABIP is .327. Again, that is not a guarantee of success, but it implies that Yelich was quite unlucky this season.
A Bounceback In 2021
Yelich regressed from his past two seasons. However, the regression does not appear as drastic as it does just by looking at the traditional statistics.
There was an abundance of factors that impacted Yelich’s season. He was recovering from a broken knee cap, as well as the pandemic which put the season on a four month delay and there were no fans in the stands either. His 1-27 start covered 14% of all his at-bats this season, taking that out, he would have hit (.231/.393/.474), which still isn’t great, but his OPS of .867 would have been much better than his OPS of .786.
Steamer projects Yelich will bounce back. Steamer and Depth Charts both project Yelich to produce 4.5fWAR in his 2021 season, with 35 home runs, and an OPS of .918. On top of that, Craig Counsell has guaranteed Yelich will bounce back.
Christian Yelich is the cornerstone of the Brewers franchise. He cemented his place in Milwaukee for the better part of the next decade, and the franchise success will depend on him.
His ability to bounce back is reliant on him, and Andy Haines, however, a deeper look indicates that Christian Yelich was more like himself than traditional metrics would show.