Christian Yelich’s Arrow Is Pointing Up

Even after adjusting for park, Christian Yelich hit better away from Marlins Park than at it.
(Photo: Corn Farmer)

We all love Christian Yelich the baseball player. Or, at least, we all should love Christian Yelich the ballplayer. He’s coming off back-to-back 4.5-win seasons and is just entering his age-26 campaign. ZiPS calls for him to produce just slightly more than 20 wins in the next five seasons. He is, in short, one of the game’s great young stars.

The Brewers certainly made their love for Yelich evident recently, shipping off a rich prospect package to Miami in order to acquire him. No doubt part of their interest in him is due to the fact that he’s also signed to one of the most club-friendly deals in the sport. If he produces wins at the sort of rate that ZiPS suggests, the Brewers will be quite happy no matter what becomes of Lewis Brinson and company.

But there might very well be more to Yelich. There might be another level.

Despite his lithe frame, Yelich packs surprising power — and he is trading spacious Marlins Park for hitter-friendly Miller Park as a home venue. That’s a big deal. Consider: over the course of his career, Yelich has recorded a 20.5% HR/FB in road parks compared to 10.9% at home. Since 2015, he ranks 49th among all hitters in HR/FB (17.3%) but 20th by that same measure on the road (20.4%). For comparison, Mike Trout ranks 12th (21.6%), J.D. Martinez 15th (21.0%).

To place the difference between his road and HR/FB figures into greater context, consider the top home/road HR/FB differentials over the last three seasons among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances:

Wanna Get Away?
Rank Player PA Home HR/FB Road HR/FB Diff
1 Tommy Pham 886 17.2 31.8 -14.5
2 Danny Valencia 1395 11.0 22.2 -11.3
3 Coco Crisp 637 2.9 13.2 -10.2
4 Ryan Schimpf 527 14.5 23.9 -9.5
5 Keon Broxton 709 20.3 29.3 -9.0
6 Nelson Cruz 1967 21.5 30.4 -8.9
7 Ryan Raburn 526 13.0 21.4 -8.5
8 Logan Morrison 1510 12.5 20.9 -8.4
9 Tim Beckham 1013 14.1 22.1 -8.0
10 Chris Taylor 735 8.5 16.1 -7.6
11 Gregor Blanco 902 1.0 8.5 -7.5
12 Aramis Ramirez 516 5.8 13.2 -7.4
13 Yoenis Cespedes 1540 14.1 21.3 -7.3
14 Brandon Belt 1662 8.4 15.7 -7.2
15 Chris Coghlan 891 8.0 15.1 -7.1
16 Jorge Polanco 826 3.6 10.7 -7.1
17 Hunter Pence 1204 10.6 17.6 -7.0
18 Kyle Seager 2012 9.1 16.0 -6.9
19 Christian Yelich 1879 13.8 20.4 -6.6
20 Ben Zobrist 1662 7.7 14.3 -6.6

And Yelich’s trend of road success appears to remain even after adjusting for park: over his career, he has produced a higher road wRC+ (128) than home (113).

So some of Yelich’s surprising power has been masked and subdued by the dimensions of Marlins Park. Consider his batted-ball spay chart form the last three seasons overlaid with Miller Park:

There appear to be opportunities for Yelich to convert some long doubles and a couple field outs into homers. But Yelich is making improvements that go beyond a change of environments.

What’s interesting about Yelich is that, in this age of launch-angle awareness and uppercut swing paths, he remains a ground-ball hitter, pounding 2.2 batted balls into the turf for every fly ball last season. Yet last season was also the least ground-ball prone he has been. He has begun more and more to lift pitches into the air. And Yelich should be motivated to continuing to lift: as with most hitters, he has produced a subpar wRC+ on grounders for his career (54) but an above-average mark (263) on fly balls.

And unlike hitters who have struggled to increase launch angle in accumulating too many infield fly balls, Yelich has kept his infield fly-ball rate Votto-like.

Yelich has reduced his ground-ball rate by seven percentage points over the last two years, yet he recorded only three infield fly balls last season. Three! That’s the sixth fewest amongst qualified hitters. Yelich appears to be adjusting his swing without the adverse side effect of increased pop ups suffered by hitters like Trevor Story.

Yelich hit 56 fly balls in 2015, 89 in 2016, and 118 last season. If he continues that trajectory, if he can reduce his ground-ball rate by another few percentage points — and his HR/FB rate remains high away from Marlins Park — then he is a threat to surpass 30 home runs and boost his overall performance.

If he can post a HR/FB rate of 20% over 140 fly balls the simple math yields 27 home runs. He’s hit three homers on line drives over the last two seasons combined. So, fantasy players, there could be some more home-run potential here. This is also a player who has increased his walk rate in two straight seasons and maintained a zone-contact mark around 90%. There has been no uptick in strikeouts tied to lifting more pitches off the ground. I suspect he’s a good bet to beat his depth-chart projections of 23 home runs and even the projected 127 wRC+ forecast.

Further underlying skills also hint at the presence of more power. His average batted-ball exit velocity of 90.1 mph, for instance, ranked 30th in the sport last season, according to Statcast data via Baseball Savant.

Perhaps he could also benefit to change the direction in which he directs his air balls.

Only 10 qualified hitters since 2015 have directed a greater percentage of fly balls to the opposite field than Yelich’s 31.7% mark. While spraying the ball gap to gap can be effective, pulling the ball in the air is most valuable. Over the last three seasons, Yelich has pulled only 10.7%, 11.2%, and 11.9%, respectively, of his fly balls. He pulled only 14 fly balls last season. He has something of a Joe Mauer approach to air balls. Of course, Miller Park’s pinched-in power alleys should boost his opposite-field power and 11.4% of balls he lifted in the air to the opposite field have gone for home runs.

Perhaps the Brewers do not want to alter his spray profile. Maybe the Brewers will not want to do too much tinkering at all. But even if they don’t approach Yelich with any suggestions, there’s more trending up for Yelich beyond Miller Park as a new home.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Are those crazy long singles to left field coming at Fenway? Can’t imagine he’s played too many games against Boston

6 years ago
Reply to  seprotzmann

He has played 2 games in Fenway that resulted in 3 singles and a double. That may well be them.

I’m not really seeing them on the Brooks Spray chart, though.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joser

FWIW, here is a picture of the Fenway Park dimensions.

The representation of those three way-out-singles may just be their way of showing “this landed pretty high on the green monster” and not “this single was 80 feet beyond the outfield wall”.

This could all be wrong though.