OOTP Brewers: Christian Yelich, Human Hot Streak

In theory, the Brewers offense was set up to be a stars-and-scrubs operation heading into the season. It’s not that it was particularly low-octane, or even misbuilt; when you have a player like Christian Yelich, it stands to reason that everyone else is going to look pedestrian in comparison.

Of course, theory doesn’t always survive in the real world. There are myriad examples of a team expecting a star performance from one player and receiving one from another. But for our OOTP Brewers, that has emphatically not happened. The offense is off to an excellent start — fourth in the NL in runs scored, fifth in wOBA, and fourth in batter WAR. It’s happened exactly the way that you’d expect — with a transcendent performance from digital Yelich and an adequate job the rest of the way down. Today, let’s celebrate Yelich’s brilliance.

In 2019, the major league WAR leader on May 31 was Cody Bellinger. You might remember 2019 Bellinger started the season off on a torrid pace. Even after an only excellent (instead of mega-excellent) May, he closed the month hitting .379/.465/.749. He was walking more than he struck out, he played excellent center field defense, and he even chipped in seven stolen bases (though he was caught stealing four times). It was a true all-phases effort, and it was worth a massive 4.2 WAR in 241 plate appearances. That pace would make for an 11.5 WAR season.

With that as calibration for how impressed you should be by numbers through the end of May, let’s turn to Yelich. His batting line looks a lot like Bellinger’s: .354/.444/.694, good for a 194 wRC+. Has he accomplished it with an absolutely outlandish BABIP? Honestly, not really. He’s posted a .381 mark so far, which is obviously a high number, but he’s posted a career BABIP of .358, and projection systems pegged him for something in the .340 range going into this year.

So if it isn’t a result of batted ball luck, what has Yelich done to reach those great heights? First of all, he’s kept his walk rate up in double digits, which provides a solid baseline to put everything else on. Get on base 12.4% of the time without having to resort to making contact, and the rest of your job is far easier.

Real-life Yelich has an interesting relationship with strikeouts. He’s a high-contact hitter and always has been. He’s also never been a particularly low-strikeout batter. Part of this is because he’s willing to get deep into counts — his career walk rate of 11.1% makes that clear. Part of it is because his contact rates are more solid than excellent; he’s not David Fletcher or Willians Astudillo out there, sacrificing power to goose contact.

There’s been no sea change in Yelich’s strikeout rate. He didn’t pull off the same magic trick as 2019 Bellinger, who dropped from a mid-20’s strikeout rate to 16.4%. Instead, virtual Yelich has simply improved incrementally. He’s striking out 18.4% of the time so far this year, a number that would be a career low for a full season. But he’s had stretches like this before; heck, through last May 31, he struck out only 17.1% of the time on his way to a 172 wRC+.

Okay — so it’s not really the walks, and it’s not really the strikeouts. Both of those are great, superstar-level numbers, but they’re not maybe-we-should-start-building-a-statue stats. The BABIP helps, but it’s not even remotely enough. David Dahl had a .441 BABIP through last May 31, and he converted that into a 114 wRC+.

How about the 20 home runs, one less than the number that real-life Yelich led the majors with last year at this time but only ninth in our offense-mad OOTP simulation? Those are key, obviously. Want to get on base without relying on BABIP? Walks are one solution, but clubbing the ball out of reach of those pesky defenders, with their gloves and attempts to stop you from scoring, is a far more satisfying answer.

Homers aren’t the only way to juice your offensive production without relying on finding a hole in the defense. Doubles aren’t quite as resistant to fielders, but they’re still an excellent way to generate offense. Hit the ball hard enough and at the right angle to produce a double, and you should expect to get on base a lot of the time. Some of those balls will be caught, of course, but many more will turn into extra bases or at the very least singles. And some of them will probably end up as homers. Doubles and homers are both decent proxies for hard-hit balls.

2019 Yelich had 21 home runs on May 31. But he had only seven doubles and a single triple — his hardest hits were, for the most part, getting over the wall. This year, he’s already racked up 16 doubles and a triple. It’s not a case of everything he hits hard becoming a dinger, in other words. He’s just hitting everything hard!

Another way to generate more value is through durability. If you’re a star, playing extra games is one of the surest ways to do more for your team. You might exceed expectations, and you might not. But an extra game of a stud replacing a game from a minor leaguer is straightforwardly great.

So far this year, the OOTP Brewers have played 59 games. Yelich has played in 57 of them. That’s an unsustainable pace, but in the universe of Out Of The Park, it’s not as much of an outlier as you would think. 53 players have more starts than Yelich in our league; for comparison, exactly two players would have at the same point last year in reality. The game simply allows more playing time for starters, and Yelich has been a beneficiary.

Additionally, given that volume generates value, batting earlier in the lineup is an easy way to get more out of Yelich at a low cost. He’s batting second this year, and the difference between batting second and fourth adds up. Over a 600 PA stretch for the number one hitter in a team’s lineup, that gap is worth about 30 plate appearances per this 2017 piece by Joe Douglas.

That might not sound like much, but 30 plate appearances works out to roughly seven extra games of batting. Does an extra 30 plate appearances from one of the best hitters in baseball sound good to you? It sure does to me!

Yelich’s brilliance isn’t limited to simply hitting well or playing often. He’s also adding value on the basepaths, continuing his career-long excellence there. He’s stolen 11 bases while being caught three times this year — roughly breakeven. The real value comes from non-stealing baserunning, and he’s been more or less perfect there this year, at least as far as OOTP can tell. He’s been worth a whopping 4.6 baserunning runs above average already, second only to Adalberto Mondesi, who has 24 steals and only one time caught stealing.

OOTP’s defensive metrics can be confusing, but even there, Yelich has been a standout. He’s already accounted for roughly two outs above average per Zone Rating, the third-best mark among all left fielders in baseball. Elite defense, elite baserunning, and a 194 wRC+, all over a huge population of games and plate appearances — it’s easy to see why Yelich is having a superb season.

Just how superb? As of today, he’s the league leader in our virtual realm, with 4.3 WAR, just ahead of a few other guys you might have heard of:

OOTP Batting Leaders
Christian Yelich 267 194 1.138 20 4.3
Juan Soto 266 196 1.161 18 4.1
Francisco Lindor 256 161 1.024 15 3.7
Yordan Alvarez 259 178 1.098 24 3.0
Didi Gregorius 267 154 1.013 20 2.9
Mike Trout 247 158 .989 15 2.9

This article diverges from the spirit of the OOTP Brewers series. We don’t really have a lot of decisions to make here. Should Christian Yelich continue to be great? Definitely yes in my opinion, but we can’t pull any managerial levers to make that the case.

So much of this series has been about squeezing out extra half-wins of value on the margins. Changing backup shortstops, re-tooling the bullpen, flipping minor leaguers for Kevin Gausman to squeeze out a few extra starts of value; they’re all minor edges. Getting an extra start a week for Brock Holt? It matters, but it doesn’t matter that much.

Meanwhile, Yelich is playing at a 12 WAR pace. We can shuffle all the deck chairs we want; every single decision we’ve made so far this year is less helpful than simply having our superstar go nova. That could make our project seem pointless — why obsess over the 13th member of the bullpen when the total value of that move is maybe 5% as helpful as having our best player improve from last year in a way that’s completely out of our control?

But I actually think it’s a testament to our work so far. Yelich’s outburst has certainly pushed the team over the top. To make those statistics matter, however, is something different. Stars put up absurd numbers every year. “Go out and have a great player with a great season” is meaningless advice to a front office — they all know that.

If this team were put together differently, or if we hadn’t acted quickly to minimize the number of sub-replacement-level innings our bullpen and starters would produce, things could be very different. At the moment, the Brewers are 5.5 games ahead of the Cubs. Some of those games are Yelich’s doing. He’s been worth 3.0 WPA this year, for example. But there’s also plenty of value in getting 37 innings of relief, worth a combined 0.5 WAR, out of Scott Barlow and Tim Hill, neither of whom are on the real-life Brewers.

There’s value in realizing that Orlando Arcia isn’t cutting it and pivoting to Adeiny Hechavarría. We can’t claim all of Hechavarría’s 0.8 WAR or 0.8 WPA — some of that is just a hot streak at a convenient time. But some of that is simply being a good general manager, affecting the team at positions where we can actually make a difference.

No general manager could realistically expect to improve Milwaukee’s left field situation. So let’s pat ourselves on the back for doing what we can, while recognizing that much of this season’s excellent run has been out of our hands. And let’s celebrate Yelich as well. Every GM should be so lucky as to have their best player put up a career-best stretch of baseball. And every GM should be lucky enough to have it happen when the rest of their team is clicking. It might not be our doing — but that certainly doesn’t stop it from feeling good.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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