Chrisitan Yelich is the cornerstone of the Brewers franchise for the foreseeable future. He signed the largest contract in franchise history in March of 2020. He has played nearly 100 games since coming back from a broken knee cap, and to say he looked like the player he was in 2018 and 2019 would be a huge overstatement.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Yelich is slashing .222/.379/.417, with a wRC+ of 120 and a BABIP of .306. In his first two seasons with the Brewers, he slashed .327/.415/.631 with a wRC+ of 171 and a BABIP of .365.
Christian Yelich was one of the best hitters in baseball, let alone for the Brewers, from 2018 to 2019. He seemingly has had a decline, so what can the numbers show us?
What is going on? While still a productive hitter, there is a clear difference in the more recent numbers.
Can the data show us anything new about Christian Yelich, and the player he very well now may be? Indeed they can.
Yelich is Seeing Fewer Pitches in the Strike Zone
Thanks to Baseball Savant, pitch location data is readily available and can tell us much about what hitters are seeing. One thing the data shows is that Christian Yelich is seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone. In his first two seasons in Milwaukee, 40.2% of the pitches Yelich saw were in the strike zone. From 2020 to 2021, that number has fallen to 37.4%.
While he is seeing fewer pitches in the zone, he also is swinging less. Over the past two seasons, Christian has swung at 62.1% of the pitches in the zone compared to 67.4% of the pitches in the zone he swung at from 2018 to 2019.
In addition to swinging at fewer pitches in the zone, Yelich is making less contact over the past season and a half. When he was the best hitter in baseball during the 2018-2019 season, Yelich was making contact on 87.6% of the swings he made in the zone. That number has fallen all the way down to making contact on 70.3% of swings in the zone.
Yelich is Hitting the Ball Harder, Just With Fewer Barrels
Yelich is still hitting the ball hard, in fact he is currently hitting it harder at a higher rate than he had in 2018 and 2019. When he was MVP Yeli, he hit the ball hard 49.4% of the time (a hard hit is considered an Exit Velocity over 95 MPH). However, since 2020, Yelich is hitting the ball hard 55.5% of the time. But that still ranks in the 95th percentile for hard hit% on the 2021 season after being in the 98th percentile in 2020.
Despite hitting the ball hard, Yelich is recording fewer barrels. Barrels are a combination of launch angle and exit velocity, so even though Yelich is hitting the ball harder, the launch angle is not being hit in a way to correspond to land in the barrel zone. His average launch angle has looked like this from 2018 to 2021: 5°, 11.3°, 7.1°, 1.3°.
Because of the lower launch angle, his Barrel% has declined, and we are now seeing him barrel 11.0% of balls compared to the 13.9% he was barreling from 2018-2019. What is even more interesting, is his barrel% has fallen from 12.1% in 2020, down to 8.4% 2021.
There is a notable shift in how Yelich is hitting the ball, which leads into the next trend that is emerging.
Yelich is Hitting it on the Ground More
As his barrel% and launch angle both decline, he is seeing an increase in ground balls that he hits. From 2018-2019, Yelich had a ground ball% of 47.8%, that number has climbed up to 53.1% over the past two seasons.
It can be noted that his GB% was 52.8% in 2018, before dropping to 42.9% in 2019. So, Yelich is returning back to his tendencies.
The tendency to hit ground balls is leading to a decline in Isolated Power (ISO), which only looks at extra base hits hit by the batter. He has an ISO of .190, down from .304 in 2018-2019.
Opposing Pitch Selection Has Changed
Yelich is seeing fewer fastballs, and the decline in fastballs is almost perfectly matched by the rise in breaking balls that he is seeing. The fastballs as a percentage of total pitches Yelich has seen has declined from 58.8% in 2018 to 53.1% in 2021; at the same time the breaking balls thrown to him have increased from 27.4% in 2018 to 32.2% in 2021.
Christian Yelich was arguably the most feared hitter on the planet for two seasons, however right now that is not the case. He still is a good hitter, but since coming back from his injury he has not been the same. Perhaps there are factors stemming from the kneecap and the back injuries that are changing his approach.
Perhaps as pitchers have changed their pitching strategy, Yelich has yet to find a way to adapt. He still is a feared hitter, and is still the Brewers’ franchise cornerstone, with expectations of continued production, regardless of changes that are occurring in his approach.