Christian Yelich might decide the destiny of NL Central this season
In the bottom of the third inning of the Milwaukee Brewers 7-4 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, Christian Yelich managed a triple home run.
It wasn’t really anything special from a home run that was hit at 107.9 mph and a starting angle of 20 degrees. Diamondback’s right-handed Jon Duplantier’s pitch was an 84-mile change in the middle of the plate, about as bad as you can make. With a lot of topspin, the ball came just over the right fence.
But don’t underestimate what that homerun in Brewers Land meant: it was really huge. It was the Yelich vintage of 2018 and 2019 – if we can call the recent past a vintage – and this is the Yelich that brewers have been desperately looking for over the past two seasons. It was only his second home run in 2021, his first at home, and while he missed a lot of time with his back problems, he only has two home runs and four extra base hits in 75 at-bats. This from a slugger who averaged a home run every 13.3 at-bats and an extra base hit every 6.9 at-bats in these two monster seasons.
Given Yelich’s struggles in 2020 when he hit 0.205 with a strikeout rate increasing from 20.3% to 30.8%, and his health issues and lack of performance in 2021, it is reasonable to ask: will we See the rest of the season MVP caliber Yelich? ?
Maybe Yelich just has to stick with the blonde bat he used on Thursday instead of his usual black bat. Yelich said it had nothing to do with turning things around.
“We just had them,” said Yelich. “You’ve been here for a week or two. I played around with them, broke one the other day and [Travis] Shaw persuaded me to use it today. I’m not really superstitious about what kind of club I’m using – just pumped it up there and it paid off. “
He’d be the first baseball player who wasn’t at least a little superstitious. We’ll find out whether we’ll see the blonde bat again on Friday.
The Brewers can win the National League Central, but they need Yelich to score. With the big three from Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and a breakout Freddy Peralta, the Brewers have one of the best rotations. The bullpen is solid, with one of the best closers in the game in Josh Hader, who turned 13 on Thursday. The center defense is one of the best in the game after taking over shortstop Willy Adames from the Rays, giving the Brewers the smooth double -Play combination of Adames and Gold Glover brought Kolten Wong, with either Jackie Bradley Jr. or Lorenzo Cain occupying midfield.
What the Brewers need when they make their fourth postseason in a row is offensive, and that’s where they need Yelich. That makes him perhaps the most important player in the sport for the last two-thirds of the season, as NL Central looks like a three-team battle with the better than expected Cubs and the ever tough cardinals.
The Brewers offensive has faltered. In 2018 when they won the division with 96 wins, Yelich won the MVP award when he hit .326 / .402 / .598 with 36 home runs. Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw also combined 67 home runs and the Brewers finished seventh in the NL in runs. In 2019, Yelich was MVP runner-up after hitting .329 / .429 / .671 with 44 home runs, but Aguilar and Shaw struggled and, despite the additions of Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal, the Brewers dropped to ninth place . The Brewers dropped to 12th place in the 2020 runs and are currently 11th with 3.88 runs per game.
Despite Thursday’s home run, concerns about Yelich remain. Its strikeout rate is even higher than 2020 at 33.7%. It hits 0.253 thanks to a 0.405 GDP – much higher than its 0.373 mark in 2018 or 0.355 in 2019. The positive thing is that it has remained effective against fastballs ( albeit with a higher strikeout rate):
2018: .997 OPS
2019: 1,107 OPS
2020: .999 OPS
2021: .945 OPS
He absolutely destroyed them in 2019, but his 2020 and 2021 fastball numbers remain in line with what he did in 2018, so his problems were directed against off-speed courts. The strange thing is that Yelich’s car chases over the past two seasons have actually been way better than those of 2018-19: 24.7%, 27.4%, 17.0%, 16.4%. Usually that’s a good sign. But he certainly won’t hit the ball that hard in 2021, and his average shooting angle is exactly minus 0.5. That explains the lack of extra base hits since he hit the ball into the ground. What we don’t know yet is whether this is all just timing or a mechanical problem, or it is all related to the health of his back.
He was asked about his timing after Thursday’s game and gave a one-word answer starting with “horse”. He certainly doesn’t use health as an excuse.
At the moment, Yelich just hopes that everything will go its own way.
“Just loop on and maybe one day it will be different,” he said after the game. “That’s baseball. You can suck for a while and you never know when you’re going to turn, so you just have to keep going.”
The Brewers will continue to do so, at least until General Manager David Stearns can find a way to improve the offensive at close of trading. He’s already postponed deadlines – Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop at close of trading in 2018, Krug Drew Pomeranz in 2019. The obvious upgrade area for 2021 would be the first base where Daniel Vogelbach and Keston Hiura had problems, although it may be too early giving up what could still end up as a decent move. Bradley offers at least some good defense, but he only hits 0.160 after playing 2-3 on his fifth home run on Thursday. Maybe they check out the third base currently shared by Shaw and Luis Urias. But in a year where many teams are looking for a bat, there may not be many available – especially if the Cubs hang out at hot Kris Bryant (which seems likely) or the Rockies keep the Trevor Story (a possibility).
That returns to Yelich, a reminder that he exploded in the second half of 2018, hitting 0.367 with 25 home runs after the All-Star hiatus.