The Similarities of Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts

Yesterday, the Marlins agreed to sign outfielder Christian Yelich to a deal that guarantees him at least $51 million over seven years, locking up one of the game’s best young players. This morning, Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reported that the Red Sox are considering approaching Mookie Betts about signing a long-term deal of his own, which might both serve to lock in some future cost savings as well as temper the speculation about if they’ll use Betts as a trade chip to relieve their outfield logjam. The timing of Yelich’s deal and the rumored possible offer for Betts serves as an opportunity to look at them side by side, and note that while they’re physically quite different, they might be pretty similar players going forward.

Certainly, Yelich and Betts don’t look similar. Yelich is six inches taller, standing at 6-foot-3 compared to the 5-foot-9 Betts. Besides just the size difference, Yelich hits from the left side while Betts is a right-handed batter. If you watched them both swing, you wouldn’t necessarily draw a connection between them.

YelichPull

BettsGood

Yelich is a tall and slender, looking like the kind of guy who can fill out and add power as he ages. Betts is short and compact, and from a projection standpoint, is probably closer to a finished product. That’s one of the reasons why Yelich was a first round pick while Betts lasted until the fifth round of the 2011 draft. But if we look at their professional track records, it becomes a bit more clear why these two are actually decent comparisons for each other.

I’ve lined up their 19-21 seasons up by age, combining their stops at each minor league level of the ladder into a single line for that year. Their side-by-side numbers are below, with only their age-21 Major League numbers broken out separately.

Minors Age PA BB% K% BABIP ISO AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Mookie Betts 19 292 11% 10% 0.298 0.040 0.267 0.352 0.307 0.322 103
Christian Yelich 19 521 11% 20% 0.373 0.171 0.312 0.388 0.484 0.393 140
Minors Age PA BB% K% BABIP ISO AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Mookie Betts 20 619 15% 11% 0.330 0.182 0.309 0.411 0.491 0.414 157
Christian Yelich 20 550 10% 19% 0.389 0.168 0.324 0.392 0.492 0.403 149
Minors Age PA BB% K% BABIP ISO AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Mookie Betts 21 464 13% 11% 0.372 0.183 0.346 0.431 0.529 0.429 168
Christian Yelich 21 270 12% 24% 0.341 0.229 0.275 0.359 0.504 0.390 149
Majors Age PA BB% K% BABIP ISO AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Mookie Betts 21 213 10% 15% 0.327 0.153 0.291 0.368 0.444 0.361 130
Christian Yelich 21 273 11% 24% 0.380 0.108 0.288 0.370 0.396 0.341 116

The top line shows why Yelich shot to the top of the prospect lists pretty quickly, while Betts flew a bit more under the radar. Yelich was excellent in A-ball as a teenager while Betts’ short-season performance lacked any kind of power. But in two years that followed, Betts figured out how to drive the ball, not only closing the gap but but actually outperforming Yelich at pretty much every stop along the way.

The main advantage Betts has is a significantly lower strikeout rate, which has consistently been around half of Yelich’s strikeout rate. The walk rates, ISO, and BABIP have been pretty similar, but because Betts has made more contact, his overall lines have been slightly better. It is worth noting that Yelich’s 2014 season isn’t represented above because Betts hasn’t yet had his age-22 season to compare, but Yelich did cut his strikeout rate down to 21% last year; he may not continue striking out at double Betts’ rate going forward.

Beyond that difference, though, everything else is pretty similar. Yelich is more likely to sustain his higher BABIPs due to his high groundball rate and ability to avoid infield flies, but both are speedy line-drive hitters who should be able to run higher than average BABIPs in order to offset their somewhat low number of home runs. Yelich plays left field like a center fielder, so the positional difference is mostly irrelevant. Both are excellent baserunners, though Yelich has had more base stealing success in the big leagues; Betts’ minor league SB/CS numbers suggest this will be a strength for him too, but that’s more forecast than evidence at this point.

Because Yelich is taller, it is easier to forecast future power growth and dream about his upside, but it’s also very difficult to hit a lot of home runs while hitting 60% of your balls in play on the ground. While Betts isn’t as likely to put on muscle as he gets older, he also doesn’t have to adjust his batted ball profile, and his ability to get the ball in the air may very well make their future power levels more similar than you’d expect based on their size. And if Yelich isn’t hitting for a lot more power, then Betts’ lower strikeout rates should allow him to be at least a comparable hitter.

And this is basically what the forecasts see for 2015 as well. From our depth charts, which are based on a 50/50 split of the ZIPS and Steamer projections.

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA WAR WAR/600
Christian Yelich 630 0.274 0.349 0.415 0.339 3.6 3.4
Mookie Betts 560 0.276 0.343 0.418 0.338 3.2 3.4

These two forecasts are about as similar as you’re going to find, especially once you adjust for the playing time differences. Yelich and Betts might not be seen as similar players based on their perceived upside or their physiques, but for 2015, picking one or the other is probably a toss up. They won’t get there the exact same way, but the overall results should be pretty similar.

Of course, the Red Sox aren’t going to offer Betts the same deal that Yelich just signed. Because Betts doesn’t even have one year of service time yet, he doesn’t have the leverage to demand a $50 million guarantee; he’d be in line for that kind of deal next winter, if he had the kind of year the projections are calling for. Yelich’s deal should give Betts an idea of what kind of contract he can get after the 2015 season if he wants to bet on himself this year; if he takes a deal now, he’ll have to settle for a bit less.

But there are plenty of reasons to think that Betts should be pretty confident that he’ll be able to land a significant extension if he has the kind of year his numbers suggest he’s capable of. Yelich is proof of concept for this skillset being valued as a star player, even without a ton of power. While there will likely always be some Mookie-skeptics due to his diminutive frame, baseball has become far more accepting of the reality that players with this type of value are indeed impact performers. Christian Yelich just got paid like one of the game’s best young players because that’s exactly what he is. And so is Mookie Betts.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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