Whither Christian Yelich

Christian Yelich had a rough 2020. That’s true of all of us, of course — global pandemics have that effect. You might even argue that his year wasn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things. He got paid $4.6 million dollars, didn’t suffer any catastrophic injuries, and made the playoffs. On the baseball field, however, he had his worst year as a big leaguer. Was it small sample theater, or something more worrisome? Let’s dig into his brief season and hunt for signs.

The first thing that jumps out at me when looking at Yelich’s 247 plate appearances is the strikeouts. The magic of his game has always been in his ability to smash the ball — increasingly into the air as time has gone on — without disastrous contact numbers. His previous high for strikeout rate was 24.2%, as a rookie in 2013. Since then, he’d consistently kept that rate around 20% while incrementally improving his quality of contact every year. Voila — an MVP.

Let’s dig in a little more, because strikeout rate is the composite result of many inputs. First, there’s swinging and missing. Yelich has historically lived around league average when it comes to connecting on swings. Last year? Not so much:

Career Contact Rate, Christian Yelich
Year O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2013 57.9% 85.4% 76.2%
2014 65.6% 90.2% 82.4%
2015 64.3% 87.7% 79.7%
2016 54.0% 88.4% 77.3%
2017 61.6% 88.4% 79.6%
2018 62.2% 88.1% 79.0%
2019 56.8% 87.0% 73.8%
2020 45.5% 81.9% 68.2%

Yes, it’s a small sample. But Yelich swung at 381 pitches in 2020, enough that we can’t completely dismiss it. He swung at 112 pitches out of the zone, again enough to worry. And let me tell you, you don’t want to be near the top of this list:

Highest Out-of-Zone Miss%, 2020
Player O-Miss% K% wRC+
Miguel Sanó 70.5% 43.9% 99
Michael Chavis 64.4% 31.6% 65
Ian Happ 63.9% 27.3% 132
Kole Calhoun 62.1% 21.9% 125
Evan White 62.0% 41.6% 66
Christian Yelich 61.6% 30.8% 113
Gregory Polanco 59.6% 37.4% 41
Franmil Reyes 59.3% 28.6% 113
Kyle Lewis 58.6% 29.3% 126
Keston Hiura 58.3% 34.6% 87

There are good hitters here, sure. The ones who are doing well are doing so on the back of their power on contact, though, and there are no MVP candidates on the list. If you’re missing that often when you chase, you’ll be striking out a ton, likely too much to make up for it elsewhere.

This isn’t some trick of the count. The sample sizes get vanishingly small, but if we split it up by count, Yelich posted the lowest or second-lowest O-Contact% of his career in each count other than 2-0 and 3-1, where he swung a combined 10 times. That’s not exactly a great sign.

Of course, O-Contact% is only one aspect of plate discipline, and it’s certainly not the most important one. Want an obvious reason why? 10.8% of the time that an opposing pitcher threw outside the zone, Yelich swung and missed. That’s below league average (12.1%), despite how poorly he fared when swinging, because he simply didn’t swing much at bad pitches. It’s the third-highest mark of his career — but the two years that were higher were 2018 and 2019, the good years we’re hoping he gets back to. Confusing!

In fact, a more worrisome trend is what happens when pitchers challenge him. The closest baseball gets to pistols at high noon is when a pitcher throws in the strike zone with two strikes. Here it is, he’s telling the batter. I’m either striking you out or you’re hitting this one. There, Yelich has reached another low:

In-Zone Whiff Rate w/Two Strikes
Year In-Zone Whiff%
2013 9.0%
2014 7.9%
2015 14.5%
2016 11.8%
2017 14.8%
2018 12.7%
2019 13.9%
2020 23.2%

This isn’t a fatal flaw. Fernando Tatis Jr., to name one example, checked in at 29% and was an MVP candidate. Ronald Acuña Jr. fared poorly by this metric as well. If you’re taking big hacks, you’re bound to miss once in a while.

For Yelich, however, the beauty of his game is in the synthesis of the parts. He hits the ball hard, no doubt. He takes his walks. To put up his gaudy numbers of 2018-2019, he needs to do all those things well at the same time.

Going full Zapruder film on Yelich’s swings to see if there’s some bad habit to pick apart is normally what would come next in this article, but I’ll save you the trouble. I tried that and came up completely empty, and I like you readers too much to subject you to the same treatment. Suffice it to say that Yelich’s swing is unchanged enough for my purposes, whiffs and all.

You could also pin the blame on a lack of in-game video. Yelich discussed it even before the season, seemingly foreshadowing his decline. If he can’t make his customary adjustments, how is he supposed to crush his opponents? No tape, no glory.

On first blush, this theory looks reasonable. Take a look at how he fared as he saw pitchers more often, both in 2020 and in his prior career:

wOBA by Times Facing Pitcher
Times Through Order 2020 wOBA Career wOBA
1 .362 .373
2 .312 .372
3 .304 .382

Did we solve it? I’m skeptical. The third-time-through sample is all of 40 plate appearances. That’s nowhere near enough volume to draw any conclusions. Even then, the samples aren’t similar. The pitchers Yelich faced the first time through posted an average FIP of 4.66 in 2020. The second time through, that cohort checked in at 4.18. The third-time-through group was even better, at 4.07. The first-time split includes every replacement level middle reliever he saw, while the third time through is basically all good starters. Standardize the sample — include only the starters that Yelich saw three times in each bucket — and he hit for a .301 wOBA the first time through.

Could that still be an artifact of video? I suppose so, but the evidence looks far weaker this way. Recast his career platoon splits to consider only starting pitchers, and his first-time-through wOBA barely dips (.366 against starters, .373 overall). This year had a truly outlier sample of opposing pitchers, both in terms of who batters saw exactly once in a game and who they saw three times. That’s because 2020 was a truly unique environment, and teams reacted by pitching in a unique way, using fathoms-deep bullpens and lightning-quick hooks to get enough innings out of stressed rosters.

Yelich had never faced a crop of relievers so poor — that crew had a FIP over five and gave up nearly two home runs per nine innings. He’d also never faced so many relievers; 36.8% of his plate appearances came against relievers, the highest mark of his career.

None of this means we should believe that Yelich suddenly forgot how to hit. Anyone can have a bad few months, and the 2020 season was just that — a bad few months. Heck, in 28 July plate appearances, he hit .037/.071/.148, good for a -50 wRC+. He had a 134 wRC+ the rest of the way. You can’t cut and choose statistics like that, but it’s a good reminder that last season was so short that a week-long funk can have a huge effect on seasonal numbers.

Let’s look at this a different way. Yelich put together one of the greatest batting lines of the 2000s from 2018 to 2019. His two-year wRC+ of 171 is the 22nd-best mark of the century. I cut it off at the 30 best seasons to create a cohort. Next, I looked at how each player did in their next 60 games or so of playing time. Not the next year — just their first 60 games of the next year, to mimic the 2020 season. Here are Yelich’s closest comparables:

Notable Great Hitter Declines (subsequent 60 games)
Player Years wRC+ Next wRC+
Albert Pujols 2005-2006 171 125
Christian Yelich 2018-2019 171 113
Jason Giambi 2001-2002 184 110
Albert Pujols 2009-2010 172 109
José Bautista 2010-2011 173 108

That’s some good hitting seasons followed by some rough starts, which is exactly what happened to Yelich. If you slice into each of those seasons, you could have seen some problems in their approach or statistics. And yet… here’s how they did over the next 365 days after that slow start:

Notable Hitters Post-Decline
Player Years Decline wRC+ Next Year wRC+
Albert Pujols 2005-2006 125 177
Christian Yelich 2018-2019 113 ?
Jason Giambi 2001-2002 110 165
Albert Pujols 2009-2010 109 142
José Bautista 2010-2011 108 160

There are some bad comps in here! 2010 Pujols really was getting to the tail end of his prime. José Bautista never again approached those heights. Giambi wasn’t the same as a Yankee. All of them hit far better in the subsequent year than they did in their initial slow start.

That view of Yelich’s 2020 is, in my not-particularly-humble opinion, the best one. Yeah, he struck out too much. Yeah, he was too passive. Yeah, it would be better if his 2020 had gone differently. Yeah, his batted ball data and overall line disagree.

The point here is that that’s all noise. It’s all noise. You can’t focus on the ones you believe in and ignore the rest. 2020 was insanity. The Cardinals spent a week in a haunted hotel in Milwaukee. The Brewers alternated between madcap activity — doubleheaders galore to make up their season series with St. Louis — and huge chunks of not playing at all. Trying to work out what went right or wrong is near-impossible.

That’s not to say that you can’t take 2020 into account. It really happened, and Yelich was really disappointing. My point is merely this: great hitters have bad stretches. If you’re worried that Yelich has gotten worse, fair enough. I am too! Just know that lots of other people have done this before too, and you just didn’t notice it because those seasons weren’t pandemic-marred. Boring? Certainly. That doesn’t mean it’s not the best answer, though.

Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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I think what you said about the rough stretch dragging down his whole season makes the most sense. He ended with a 113 wRC+. Quite respectable. Unrealistic to expect him to maintain his 18-19 pace anyways. I say given 300 more plate appearances in 2020 he would’ve settled back in to his career numbers, which is right where to projections have him for 2021. Not as great as he was in 18-19 but not like he as in 20 either.


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