Turning Christian Yelich Into Joey Votto

I’m sure you’ve noticed that a frequent theme around here has been hitters changing their approaches. An increasingly popular idea has been to generate more lift, either by making mechanical changes, or by at least changing which pitches a hitter looks to swing at. I don’t know if we’re in the early stages of a hitting revolution, but the anecdotal evidence is plentiful. We should assume that the information era, as it were, was always going to come with its consequences.

You know about a lot of the swing-changers to this point. Even some years ago, there were Josh Donaldson and J.D. Martinez. Ryan Zimmerman has been working with Daniel Murphy as part of his own attempt to put more batted balls in the air. Zimmerman is a case of a guy looking to capitalize on encouraging exit velocity. I’ve recently written about how Eric Hosmer could blossom, if only he could get the ball off the ground. It’s fun, especially in early March, to try to figure out which hitters might benefit from finding the air more often. But let’s not beat around the bush. Christian Yelich. Christian Yelich should be the first name on any such list.

Let me give you some truths. Yelich debuted in 2013, and since then, over more than 2,000 plate appearances, he’s managed an outstanding 122 wRC+. You’d think he shouldn’t want to change anything at all. Yet over the same span of time, the only regular or semi-regular to post a higher ground-ball rate than Yelich has been Nori Aoki. Aoki should try to hit grounders and liners — any batted balls with hang time are certain death. But Yelich has legitimate thump. I recognize this is well-trod ground, but it never hurts to be reminded.

Looking at the corrected Statcast numbers, two years ago there were 472 players with at least 50 batted balls. Yelich ranked sixth among them in average exit velocity. Last year, there were 464 players with at least 50 batted balls. Yelich ranked ninth among them in average exit velocity. Although Yelich might not have, say, the raw strength of Aaron Judge, he’s extraordinarily consistent when it comes to getting the better part of the bat to the ball.

And as a different look, we can use the nifty splits leaderboard. Let’s focus just on batted balls in the air. Since Yelich came up, there have been almost 400 players who have hit at least 250 flies and line drives. Here are the top 10 players in hard-hit rate:

FB/LD Hard-Hit Leaderboard
Player BIP Hard%
Christian Yelich 568 56.3%
Corey Seager 303 55.1%
Paul Goldschmidt 903 53.9%
David Ortiz 1125 53.9%
Pedro Alvarez 644 52.8%
Giancarlo Stanton 667 52.5%
Chris Davis 921 52.2%
Miguel Cabrera 1071 52.2%
Jake Lamb 386 52.1%
Khris Davis 675 51.6%
2013 – 2016, minimum 250 batted balls in the air.

That’s Yelich, in first. Even though his profile would suggest he’s attempting to hit grounders, he’s made more consistent good contact on air balls than anybody. In other words, the air balls haven’t been accidental. Like, take this air ball. This air ball wasn’t an accident.

It’s known that Yelich can clobber the baseball. If you talk to Marlins people, they see a developing superstar, a guy who can only get better. It’s been easy for some time to daydream about what Yelich could be if he just hit fewer grounders. I have one idea, I’ve already given away. It’s incredibly flattering, but, I don’t know what to tell you.

A Career Comparison
Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Z – O-Swing% Contact% IFFB% BABIP Hard% Pull/Oppo GB%
Joey Votto 24% 64% 40% 80% 1% 0.359 37% 1.2 42%
Christian Yelich 23% 60% 37% 79% 2% 0.363 35% 1.1 60%

Christian Yelich and Joey Votto have shown similar eyes. Votto has become more disciplined with time, but part of that could certainly come from being pitched around. As a hitter, you earn your respect. Yelich and Votto don’t swing more often than they do. They make similar rates of contact. They hardly ever pop up, which is in part responsible for their similarly elevated hit rates. Yelich and Votto barrel the ball, and they’ve demonstrated a preference for hitting the ball up the middle or the other way. The biggest difference is the glaring difference: Votto doesn’t hit so many grounders. Yelich has hit far too many grounders.

Here’s one encouraging sign, in that regard:

Yelich is coming off his lowest-ever grounder rate. It was still a high grounder rate — too high — but Yelich surged from seven homers to 21. He posted a career-high 130 wRC+. He showed power to the opposite field, which is an uncommon skill. Yelich was already great, but he just took a significant step forward. What remains to be seen is whether there are going to be additional steps.

Because, look: Right now, Yelich is one of the game’s better outfielders. He’s 25, he can play center field, and he can hit against everyone. Christian Yelich doesn’t have to change anything. But if he were to continue with last year’s progress, we don’t need to try to guess at where he could go, because he could conceivably become a Joey Votto level of hitter. The skills are all there. The atypical discipline and bat-to-ball skills are there. The separation is in the launch angle, but we’re starting to see those change, probably more than we ever have. While it would be hard to convince Yelich that he needs to make an adjustment, it appears he was already convinced before 2016. The step forward happened. I’d consider that to be positive reinforcement.

Votto got a later start than Yelich did. Votto had his big breakout in his age-25 season. Yelich turned 25 around the start of last December, and there’s not a lot left for him to prove. He’s already a hell of a hitter. He might yet become an MVP.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Yelich, man. That creep can roll!!

(Disclaimer: Yelich is not a creep. I just like Big Lebowski.)

7 years ago
Reply to  JDX

Shouldn’t you be posting this in a thread about Jose Quintana?

Garys of Oldemember
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

The frogman is not the issue.