Christian Yelich: His Upside and His Limitations

The Miami Marlins’ outfield is one of the best and most exciting in recent memory. Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich combine current tools and skills with ample future projection. At 25, Stanton is the oldest member of the group. You might have to go back to the early-’70s San Francisco Giants and their crew of Gary Matthews, Garry Maddox and Bobby Bonds to find a group of flycatchers who filled the stat sheet while turning heads with their tools at similar career stages. Today, let’s put the focus upon Yelich, and attempt to draw a bead on both his current true-talent level and his ultimate upside.

The Marlins drafted Yelich with the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2010 draft out of California’s Westlake High School. Yelich quickly proved to be a steal, as he routinely put up offensive numbers as one of the youngest players at each level. He batted .311/.386/.497 in barely 1,300 minor league plate appearances, and made his major league debut in mid-2013 at age 21.

Each year I compile my own minor league position player rankings, based on OBP and SLG, relative to the league, adjusted for age relative to level. It basically serves as a follow list that is then adjusted based on traditional scouting methods. Yelich ranked very highly on this list in each of his minor league seasons, ranking No. 26 in 2011, No. 12 in 2012 and No. 23 in 2013. This marked him as a player with both a substantial upside and a relatively high chance of reaching it. A very high floor and a pretty sizeable ceiling is not a bad combination.

That’s what the numbers said; the eyes told a pleasant tale. as well. Long, lean lefthander with a sweet stroke who used the whole field, and would very likely grow into above-average power. Above-average speed and strong corner outfield defense filled out a near can’t-miss package. And he certainly hasn’t missed thus far in his brief major league career. He needed no real adjustment period, and he’s been an above-average MLB regular from the start.

So what makes Yelich tick offensively, and how good can he become? To learn more, let’s look at his 2014 plate-appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data:

FREQ – 2014
Yelich % REL PCT
K 20.8% 111 67
BB 10.6% 134 82
POP 0.9% 13 2
FLY 17.9% 62 3
LD 22.2% 102 63
GB 59.0% 139 97

Yelich’s K and BB rates were both well higher than league average last season, with percentile ranks of 67 and 82, respectively. For a 22-year-old, this is quite good. Walking at a higher rate than 81% of MLB regulars is pretty darned impressive, and his minor league track record suggests the K rate should improve to an acceptable level.

The batted-ball frequencies clearly indicate that Yelich is quite unique. He hit four — count ’em, four — popups last year, and his 0.9% popup rate was bettered only by Joe Mauer. He was an extreme ground-ball hitter, with a 97 percentile rank; the only player significantly more grounder-oriented was Nori Aoki. Obviously, this means that his fly ball rate was extremely low, with a 3 percentile rank.

His liner rate was quite strong, with a 63 percentile rank. Liner rates fluctuate more than those of other batted-ball types, but some players are able to consistently post high or low liner rates. Based on Yelich’s minor league track record and his low popup rate — which often runs in tandem with a high liner rate — I’d hypothesize that his 2014 liner rate was not a fluke.

There actually are a few other big leaguers who don’t pop up and who have posted similar fly- and ground-ball frequencies in recent seasons. Since 2008, Derek Jeter’s fly ball and ground-ball percentile ranks ranged between 1-9 and 95-99, respectively, while Howie Kendrick (fly 3-24, ground 92-98) and Mauer (fly 10-45, ground 69-94) were a bit less extreme. All in all, some pretty good company.

The frequency data only tells us so much. To learn more about Yelich’s present and future, let’s examine his production by BIP type data, which will give us a better feel for his batted-ball authority:

PROD – 2014
Yelich AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY .380 .937 183 216
LD .663 .898 103 106
GB .268 .276 115 91
ALL BIP .371 .526 122 119
ALL PA .284 .360 .402 122 119

Yelich’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

This is one interesting cat. While Yelich may not hit the ball in the air very often, he crushes it when he is able to do so. He batted .380 with a .937 SLG in the air last season for a 183 actual REL PRD, which is adjusted significantly upward for context to 216. Marlins Park is quite pitcher-friendly. As an opposite-field oriented lefty hitter, Yelich is driving the ball directly into its more hitter-averse areas.

Let’s take a step back and consider how good a 216 ADJ PRD on fly balls really is. It’s not at the very top of the MLB population; that honor goes to Stanton at 407, with Chris Carter (329) and Chris Davis (321) also exceeding 300. Even teammate Ozuna, at 260, is ahead of Yelich. Still, consider this exclusive group within which a 216 ADJ PRD fits quite neatly; Nelson Cruz (238), Miguel Cabrera (213), Ian Desmond (211), Jose Bautista (203) and Andrew McCutchen (203). Pretty solid. If only Yelich could hit more fly balls. We’ll revisit that point in a bit.

Yelich hits his liners a bit harder than MLB average (106 ADJ PRD); his grounders a bit softer (91). The one weak spot in his batted-ball profile is a cluster of weak roll-over grounders to the pull side, something he could clean up a bit as he matures.

All in all, despite his extreme grounder tendency and its converse, his inability to frequently tap into his fly ball power, Yelich posted a 122 REL PRD and 119 ADJ PRD on all BIP. Those figures remain unchanged once the K’s and BB’s are added back in.

So, the 2014 version of Christian Yelich was a 119 ADJ PRD true-talent offensive player. That version obviously has a great deal of untapped potential. His physical ship still hasn’t fully come in, and at this point, he hasn’t come close to learning the wonders of pull power. His fly ball ratio in the air was 0.36 last season, higher than only Mauer and Kendrick among MLB regulars.

The key variable regarding his future development will be his ability to elevate the baseball. How good would Yelich be if he kept most of his 2014 BIP fundamentals intact, but had a league average fly ball rate? Let’s assume his popup rate trended up a bit as well, to the 20th percentile. Let’s keep his K, BB and liner rates the same, and give a nod to his speed and allow him to retain his 115 REL PRD on the ground. This version of Christian Yelich would be a .286/.360/.482 hitter, with a 142 ADJ PRD, which runs closely in sync with OPS+. That’s a star player, and that’s without normal expected enhancements in K and BB rates and pulling capability.

And there is precedent for such an increase in fly ball rate. In 2008, his first full MLB season, Jacoby Ellsbury had a fly ball percentile rank of 2. It has fluctuated between 27 and 56 since, and was 54 in his 2011 career year. Ellsbury posted that incredible 2011 campaign with ball-striking ability not nearly in Yelich’s league.

Even if Yelich doesn’t ever post a league-average fly ball rate, there are multiple pathways to stardom available. The names Mauer, Kendrick and Jeter keep popping up in this analysis. Kendrick represents his absolute baseline; with zero improvement in his fly ball rate, you’ve got a long-term .285 hitter with gaps power. Low popup rates are golden. With an improved K rate, Yelich can become a perennial .300 hitter, and 15 to 20 homers per year on top of that is pretty sweet. With an average fly ball rate, we’re now talking 30-plus-homer upside once he reaches his physical peak, and the chance of hardware on his mantel in the future.

When people ask me about the Marlins’ outfield, I sum it up thusly: You’ve got Stanton, you’ve got Baby Stanton (Ozuna), and you’ve got 1965 Pete Rose in Yelich. One of the most exciting things about this sport of ours if watching young, burgeoning talent find its legs. For this reason alone, the Marlins are must-see TV in 2015.





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Matthew
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Matthew

I’ll stand by it. Yelich’s upside is the good Shin-Soo-Choo.
Both walk 11%isg of the time and K 20ish% of the time.Both never pop out. Both have very similar 20-20ish skill sets. Yelich has some .400 OBP seasons in the tank.

Gob
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Gob

I disagree. Yelich doesn’t have nearly the same issue against lefties as Choo does (Yelich was actually better against LHP last year than he was against RHP). I also believe – and as Tony points out – Yelich’s K should improve beyond his current 20%.

Also, their defense is night and day (I know you’re talking about offense, but it’s relevant when comparing them as ballplayers). Choo is at best a scratch corner outfielder while Yelich should be a perennial gold glove candidate.

Matthew
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Matthew

The defense is fair, but they are incredibly similar hitters. Yes, Choo has extreme platoon problems, but he is also essentially Mike Trout vs. RHP. If you overlook the platoon issue and assumed so FB% growth, I think it is hard to find to more similar hitters