The Fall of Christian Yelich

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The Fall of Christian Yelich


The Fall of Christian Yelich


A foul ball away from becoming a two-time MVP. Christian Yelich was rivaling superstars like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. He was an above-average hitter when he was coming up with the Miami Marlins – .290 BA/.369 OBP/.432 SLG/121 OPS+ – who blossomed into an incredible dual power and speed threat for the Milwaukee Brewers. Yelich was the ideal five-tool player from 2018 to 2019, winning two batting titles, hitting 80 home runs and stealing 52 bases during this span. He was a two-time All-Star, won two Silver Slugger awards, the NL MVP in 2018 and was the runner-up in 2019. This sensational production rightfully earned Yelich a franchise record nine-year/$215 million dollar contract extension in March of 2020. However, what would subsequently come after this massive deal for the Brewers franchise player would become one of the most puzzling mysteries in baseball.

Typically, the prime for most players, when they are statistically the most efficient, ranges from their mid-twenties to early thirties. For position players, injuries start to topple onto one another and bat speed decreases. However, going from an MVP candidate with a league-leading 171 OPS+ from 2018-2019 to barely being better than a replacement-level player (106 OPS+ from 2020-2023) is extremely uncommon. 

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Yelich was entering his age 28 season in 2020. This COVID-shortened year was an enigma for many athletes across the sport, but for this established star, more prolific numbers were expected. He only played in 58 games, but even with the small sample size, nobody saw the sort of drop off he endured. In 247 plate appearances, the former MVP hit just .205 with a .786 OPS. For reference, his batting average dropped over 120 points and his OPS plummeted by over 300 points. It is comparing an MVP-caliber season to about a third of another one, but the statistical decline is too great to ignore. Two key attributes to stick out from this season were his strikeout and power numbers. When players sacrifice contact, there tends to be an uptick in slugging percentage. 

However, with Yelich, his strikeout percentage increased from 20.3% to 30.8%, yet his home run percentage dropped from 7.6% to 4.9%. Pitchers discovered the weaknesses in his long swing, and he was unable to adjust. In 2019, Yelich also stole 30 bases along with his 44 home runs. He was a legitimate threat on the basepaths, but his extra bases taken percentage dropped from 56% to 37%. Yelich was not making contact, lost significant power and stopped pushing the envelope with his legs. It was a horrid season, but Milwaukee was hoping this was just a fluke year. With all the variables involved, from a global pandemic to an abbreviated spring training and a completely altered schedule, the Brewers still held on to hope that Yelich could bounce back in 2021.

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, the following season all but confirmed the concerns from the year before. A lingering lower back injury stunted his season from the jump, resulting in significant time missed in April and May. Multiple stints on the injured list made it impossible for Yelich to find any consistency at the plate. His strikeout percentage reduced slightly from his dreadful 2020, but almost all the power he once possessed appeared to just dissipate. In 475 plate appearances, the outfielder had just nine home runs.

This Brewers-supposed three-hitter had his lowest home run percentage since 2015 at a mere 1.9% while his wRC+ was just 102. Weighted runs created plus takes into account the type of hits, i.e., single, doubles, etc., ballpark and league averages. This measurement of productivity helps compare a player’s offensive effectiveness by season with the average being 100 wRC+. Yelich just barely surpassed this threshold in 2021 after having a 167 wRC+ in 2018 and a 174 wRC+ in 2019. He has devolved into a shell of his former self. 

In 2022, Milwaukee had accepted Yelich was no longer the MVP candidate they thought they were getting when they offered him the massive contract, but wanted him to at least contribute to their lineup at a better clip than the previous two years. Yelich played his first full season since 2018 last year, and while he mildly improved from 2021, the numbers remained underwhelming. An intriguing statistic that took a drastic downturn for Yelich in 2021 and 2022 was his hard-hit percentage.

From 2018-2020, his hard-hit percentage was 54.6% and his average exit velocity was 93.6 mph. In the following two seasons, his hard-hit percentage dropped to 48.7% and exit velocity to 90.9 mph. Yelich is no longer driving the ball and it has progressively become worse. In 2022, his line drive percentage was just 19.7% (4.4% drop off from 2019) and his fly ball percentage was 18% (10.1% drop off from 2019). Solid contact and lifting the ball have disappeared completely from his hitting repertoire. Either pitchers have figured him out or he just cannot adjust. 

Yelich still has a good eye at the plate, continuing to draw walks (.358 OBP from 2020-2023) despite the inability to find hits. Though he is getting paid to drive in runs, not walk to first base. Whether it is the buildup of injuries, a mental barrier, swinging mechanics, or a combination of everything, the player that hit 40+ home runs, stole 30 bags, and won a batting title with a 1.100 OPS is gone. He was the reason the Brewers broke their six-year postseason drought in 2018. Yelich became “the franchise” and for a few years, it appeared Milwaukee completely robbed the Marlins.

However, after falling in seven games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series in 2018, the Brewers have failed to make it past the divisional round since. They have a very solid roster this season, but if they want to contend, the play of Christian Yelich will be a major determinant. The MVP award is the greatest individual honor in the sport. They do not just hand it out for a strong season, they give it to the best and Yelich nearly had two of these.

Had a foul ball not fractured his right kneecap to end his 2019 campaign, Yelich wins back-to-back MVPs. Maybe they make a playoff run and do the unthinkable. The team to defeat them in the Wild Card game that season would become the eventual World Series Champions. And the error that led to their demise was by a right fielder – the position Yelich would have been playing. If he does not get hurt, these other injuries down the line may also not follow. 

However, there are endless hypotheticals that could be made. He did get hurt and he has not been the same since. The downfall of Yelich is truly a tragedy. He will likely never be an All-Star again, let alone an MVP, but hopefully, he can find success in this league again one day. He is too talented to just fall into irrelevancy and too young to just end up becoming a has-been.


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