Christian Yelich won NL MVP honors while leading the Brewers to a division title and within one win of a trip to the World Series last year, but hopes for repeating that magic took a severe blow on Tuesday night. In the first inning of the Brewers’ game against the Marlins in Miami, the 27-year-old right fielder fouled a pitch off his right kneecap and was forced from the game. In the aftermath of the team’s 4-3 victory, general manager David Stearns told reporters that Yelich had fractured the kneecap and will be out for the remainder of the season, a crushing blow to a team that has overcome a slew of injuries to win five straight games and climb to within one game of the second NL Wild Card spot.
Ouch. Ugh. F***. A player with a reasonable claim as the NL’s best is down for the count as far as 2019 goes, and while thankfully it’s not an injury with career-altering ramifications, right now there’s no joy in Mudville or Milwaukee. This completely sucks.
Facing righty Elieser Hernandez, Yelich fouled a 1-1 slider squarely off his right knee, crumpled to the ground, and remained there for several minutes while being tended to by Brewers athletic trainer Rafael Freitas. He could not complete the plate appearance (pinch-hitter Trent Grisham completed the strikeout, which was charged to Yelich) and limped off the field under his own power (you can see the video here).
Stearns said that Yelich would be flown back to Milwaukee to meet with team doctors and determine whether surgery would be necessary and what the prognosis would be going forward. He praised his star slugger, saying, “Look, I think first and foremost, we feel awful for Christian. This is a guy who has carried us in a number of ways over the last two years. He could have been two and a half weeks away from a repeat Most Valuable Player Award. That’s where our thoughts go first.”
— Christina De Nicola (@CDeNicola13) September 11, 2019
Indeed, with a hot start to September (.345/.513/.724 in 39 PA), Yelich had put a bit of daylight between himself and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger (.250/.400/.464 in 35 PA) atop the NL leaderboards and, in theory, in the MVP race:
|Christian Yelich||580||44 (2T)||30 (3)||.329 (3)||.429 (1)||.671 (1)||173 (1)||7.7 (1)|
|Cody Bellinger||600||44 (2T)||11 (15T)||.306 (9)||.410 (3)||.639 (2)||164 (2)||7.2 (2)|
That’s not to say that the likes of the the Diamondbacks’ Ketel Marte or Nationals’ Anthony Rendon aren’t relevant to the race; they finished Tuesday with 6.9 and 6.8 WAR, respectively, for teams who are also in the playoff hunt. It’s fair to say that the battle for the award, which has been cast as one between the Milwaukee and Los Angeles sluggers for most of the season, is now wide open.
As for the Brewers, Yelich’s injury comes at a time when infielders Keston Hiura and Mike Moustakas have both been sidelined by injuries, while center fielder Lorenzo Cain has played through recurring knee soreness, and left fielder Ryan Braun has battled back tightness.
Hiura, a 23-year-old rookie who has been the team’s second-best hitter since arriving (.301/.369/.571 for a 138 wRC+ in 295 PA), has been sidelined by a Grade 2 left hamstring strain since August 31. He took batting practice on Monday, and is now eligible to come off the injured list, but beyond that, his current timeline is unclear. Moustakas, who has hit .260/.332/.522 with 31 homers (second on the team to Yelich), has taken just seven plate appearance since August 26, when he took a groundball off of his left wrist. He drew a walk as a pinch-hitter on Tuesday night, his first plate appearance since September 2, and while he is hopeful of returning to the lineup as early as Wednesday, he’s been dealing with “significant pain” and is clearly not yet 100%. Cain has hit a thin .253/.321/.353 for a 77 wRC+ this year, though his defensive numbers are still well above average. Braun (.282/.338/.484) has started just eight of the Brewers’ last 13 games, though he’s pinch-hit on three other occasions. Additionally, backup catcher Manny Pina (.230/.305/.419) was diagnosed with a concussion after the team’s September 5 game and is expected to be sidelined until at least Friday.
And then there’s the pitching staff. Adrian Houser is the only member of the current starting five (which also includes Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Lyles) who hasn’t spent time on an injured list this year, and Davies, Anderson and Brandon Woodruff are the only Brewers to make at least 20 starts. Woodruff has been out since late July with an oblique strain; he tossed two innings in a simulated game on Sunday and should return in the second half of September, though his pitch count may be limited. Jhoulys Chacín, the team’s Opening Day starter, missed time due to back and lat strains and pitched poorly enough that he was released last month. Freddy Peralta, another key contributor last year, has been exiled to the bullpen after struggling in the wake of inflammation in his sternoclavicular joint, and Corbin Burnes hasn’t pitched for the big club since mid-July due to shoulder irritation, though he rejoined the team on Tuesday.
Jimmy Nelson finally returned from his late-2017 torn labrum and rotator cuff strain but has been limited to 16.1 innings due to elbow inflammation. The bullpen, such a vital part of last year’s run, lost Corey Knebel to Tommy John surgery in the spring and then Jeremy Jeffress to a hip strain in late August; the latter, who had also battled shoulder trouble in the spring, was recently released. And so on. A staff that finished last season fourth in the NL in ERA (3.73) and eighth in FIP (4.01) has slipped to 11th in the former (4.59) and 10th in the latter (4.57).
Last year’s Brewers were particularly deep in the outfield, but trades of Domingo Santana and Jesús Aguilar, the latter of whom cleared Eric Thames‘ path for regular duty at first base, have thinned the ranks. Grisham, a 22-year-old rookie who was the team’s first-round pick in 2015, has hit .263/.324/.455 (98 wRC+) in 111 PA thus far, figures to see the bulk of the remaining time in right field, though Ben Gamel (.255/.338/.387) is also an option. Both are lefty swingers; righty first baseman Tyler Austin, who has 307 games of minor league experience in right field but just 43 innings at the major league level, could provide platoon help given his career numbers against lefties (.256/.347/.545, 134 wRC+ in 248 PA). Righty Tyrone Taylor, who hit .269/.334/.461 for Triple-A San Antonio, joined the team earlier this week, though he has just two plate appearances so far.
For all of the injuries and two straight months of sub-.500 play (24-27 in July and August, after just a 13-13 June), the Brewers are very much alive in the Wild Card race, with 21.5% odds, not to mention a 3.5% chance of overcoming their five-game deficit in the NL Central race. The loss of Yelich doesn’t help their chances, obviously, but among Wild Card contenders, they have the easiest schedule remaining (.474), with all of their remaining games save for this coming weekend’s three-game series in St. Louis against teams below .500. By comparison, the Diamondbacks (.486), Mets (.488), Nationals (.497), Cubs (.501), and Phillies (.528) have it harder. The Cubs themselves just lost Javier Báez for the remainder of the regular season, and they have other issues as well. It won’t be easy, but despite losing Yelich, it’s not at all out of the question that the Brewers pull this off.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.