If this is the third act of Christian Yelich’s otherwise outstanding career, consider it easily the most confounding one.
First, there was the doubles-machine young Marlin, the one who hit the ball hard but never off the ground enough to truly take advantage of all that power – yet managed to post All-Star level production anyway. Then, briefly, there was the Milwaukee megastar, a truly elite slugger who mashed 80 homers in 2018-19 with a 1.046 OPS, winning one MVP and narrowly missing out on a second.
Then, there was … whatever happened the last two years, when he posted a league-average 103 OPS+ and just 21 homers, more than a little troublesome coming as it did beginning a new nine-year contract, especially since he missed time with back trouble.
And now? Now, he’s hitting .195, with a .699 OPS, coming after the .752 OPS he had over the last two seasons. Whatever went wrong the last two years, it seems like it hasn’t reversed itself, which is more than a little concerning for a Brewers team desperate for enough offense to support their stellar pitching. But we can’t help but notice this, either, which is to say that no one in baseball is hitting the ball hard as often as Yelich is.
2022 Hard-Hit Rate leaders (per batted ball)
69% — Yelich <—-
63% — Rhys Hoskins
59% — Marcell Ozuna
59% — Manny Machado
56% — Aaron Judge / Matt Olson
That’s hard hit per batted ball, which excludes swing and misses, which helps make strikeout-prone sluggers like Joey Gallo look a little better. If you just prefer hard-hit per swing, well, look where Yelich is also. When he chooses to swing, he hits the ball hard.
2022 Hard-Hit Rate leaders (per swing)
29% — Wander Franco
27% — Marcell Ozuna
27% — Alex Verdugo
24% — Yelich <—-
24% — Manny Machado
Which leaves us with a conundrum, in that at just 30 years old, hitting the ball harder than ever, and harder than anyone, it would seem like Yelich is ready for a rebound 2022 season. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. Will it?
We wanted to dig deep into the numbers, to dip and dive through a variety of different metrics to explain what’s happening here, but it’s a little easier to just sum it up into one premise:
When he hits the ball hard, it’s more often than ever hit hard into the ground.
It’s not about the ground balls in general, as you’d think; while his 50% rate is higher than the 43% he had in 2019, it’s less than the 52% he had in 2018, when he hit 36 homers. He’s hit grounders like this before, while still crushing homers. It’s not about an inability to hit the ball hard; as we showed, he’s absolutely smashing the ball.
It’s about the combination of those things. That’s it. Hard-hit balls are great. But if they’re into the ground, an incredible amount of value is lost. It might be easier to show it like this. The overall ground ball rate, in gold, is down, which is good. But the ground ball rate on hard-hit balls, in blue, is up, and has been for some time.
The rest of it, well, it doesn’t factor as much into his success. Consider:
Those lost homers are coming from the fact that when he hits it hard, now it’s on the ground nearly 60% of the time. In his big 2019 season, those hard-hit balls were on the ground 37% of the time.
So it’s all well and good that he’s hitting the ball harder, but whatever trend was being slowly reversed from 2015-’19 has reverted back the other way, to the point that now, he’s putting 55% of his hard-hit balls on the ground, just what he had in 2015.
If there is a change, it’s extremely hard to tell in his swing.
“There’s not much difference,” MLB Network analyst and 16-year- veteran player Mark DeRosa said when attempting to break down Yelich’s current and past swings on Monday.
Nor has Yelich himself been terribly forthcoming in his process. “It’s a constant work in progress,” he told MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy on Monday night. “You’re just trying to be as consistent as you can. There’s good days and there’s bad days but like I told you in Spring Training, it’s a long year.”
Since no one’s identified a swing difference, perhaps it’s about approach, where Yelich has become noticeably more passive.
After swinging at about 45% of pitches in his big 2018-19 years, that’s down to just 35% this year – despite pitchers challenging him in the zone more often. That’s one of the 10 lowest swing rates in the game, and only a dozen hitters are swinging in the zone less often than he is.
In 2018, he hit a dozen homers on the first pitch. In 2022, he’s only even offered at the first pitch four times. Or, to put it another way, look at his swing rate and slugging rate early in the count, when it’s 0-0, 1-0, or 0-1.
2018-’19 on early counts
38 home runs, .960 SLG
2020-’22 on early counts
8 home runs, .636 SLG
If Yelich has answers to what’s causing all the grounders, he doesn’t seem interested in sharing them, as he told McCalvy in March.
“It’s not [a] conscious effort to do that,” Yelich said. “It’s just what happens. If you hit ground balls in the big leagues, it’s just not going to go well for you. There were just a lot of things that were going on. You can understand what’s happening, but being able to fix it and stop it, is a whole other thing. It’s hard to really explain. It wasn’t anything that I was consciously trying to do or [former hitting coaches] Andy [Haines] or [Jacob] Cruz was making me do. It’s just baseball sometimes. Sometimes, it’s hard.”
No kidding. Nearly as hard, it seems, as trying to explain the ups and downs of Yelich’s ever-changing career. The signs are positive, if you want them to be. You don’t hit the ball this hard if you’re completely out of sync; you aren’t this selective at the plate if your eye is gone; no one in baseball has increased their barrel rate as much as he has. It just all seems like it hasn’t quite come together yet. It all seems, however, like it could quite quickly.