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Christian Yelich may fall short of stardom

The talented new Brewer has been very good so far, but we may have already seen his ceiling.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

A series of deft moves on the free agency and trade markets have resulted in giving the Milwaukee Brewers one of the better outfields in baseball. The Lorenzo Cain signing was neat if only because we are all starved for some kind of free agent movement, and also because Lorenzo Cain is well....neat.

But the Christian Yelich deal, that’s the move that truly signaled the Brewers’ intentions. While he didn’t cost the prospect haul the Marlins might have hoped, it was a bold statement that the rebuild is over for Milwaukee. Yelich has been fantastic for the Marlins for years and should help the Brewers as they fight to contend. A quick glance at his stats to this point would make one think he’s destined to be a truly special player. But is stardom truly in the making for Christian Yelich?

He’s spent his career thus far in the hinterlands of baseball, but those paying attention to Yelich’s performance in Miami have been pleasantly surprised. Though overshadowed by his mammoth teammate Giancarlo Stanton, Yelich has turned into an excellent player. It’s actually quite remarkable how consistent his output has been.

Since he’s become a full time player in 2014, he’s put up precisely 4.5 fWAR in every year but an injury-shortened 2015, when he only played 126 games due separate knee and back issues. He’s posted a 118 wRC+ in three of his five professional seasons, a 120 another and 135 in 2016 when he had a big spike in home runs, a year before everyone else followed suit.

The more you look, the more amazing his consistency, with a walk rate never higher than 11.5 percent or lower than 9 percent. Except for his rookie year when he played 66 games, he’s never had a strikeout rate higher than 20.9 percent or lower than 19.7. Yelich is like a metronome, keeping constant, steady time, riding the waves of the league with spikes in home runs but otherwise performing basically the same every time out.

But consistency alone doesn’t make one a star. It can get you paid a lot of money, and being a guy who puts up something like a 120 wRC+ every season can be very, very valuable. Guys like that become fan favorites and usually stick around for a long time.

He’s been a 4.5 win player basically every year he’s played a full season. And he’s shown he plays a strong center field too, which adds to the value. But the Brewers didn’t trade for Christian Yelich simply because they wanted a pretty good outfielder. They hope for development into something more. He’s only just turned 26 and still has his prime to look forward to. One would think he should make a leap soon. From what he’s done so far though, this looks like the ceiling.

Yelich has been good and he has the physical tools to be more than that. His average exit velocity, 90.4 mph, places him 25th in baseball and in between noted power hitters Jose Abreu and Carlos Correa. That’s pretty good company. But let’s dig a bit deeper:

Christian Yelich Exit Velocity By Batted Ball Type

Batted Ball Type Exit Velo(mph) MLB Rank(min. 50 batted balls)
Batted Ball Type Exit Velo(mph) MLB Rank(min. 50 batted balls)
Fly Ball 92.7 87
Line Drive 96.1 39
Ground Ball 87.6 11

He strikes the ball very hard, but the real problem is which way he’s hitting it. There’s potential for more there, but that hitting angle, an average of 4.7 degrees, saps him of some of that potential. It’s likely his swing is the same it’s always been, since he’s gotten to and succeeded in the majors with predominantly the same kind of offensive profile, so it’s hard to wonder what changing that would look like. It could lead to a contact decrease, a strikeout spike, that sort of thing.

Yonder Alonso, who famously increased his launch angle by a massive amount in 2017, also saw his strikeout rate jump nearly nine points to 22.6 percent, and his contact rate drop about eight points to 75.8 percent. This was the cost of selling out for power. Low strikeouts and solid contact have been touchstones of Yelich, even if it’s created a ceiling for him. But the bones are there for something more than what he’s been even if he does have to change.

In fact, Yelich’s own former teammate, Marcell Ozuna, gives us a glimpse into what could be for the young new Brewer. Ozuna’s average exit velocity is nearly the same as Yelich’s, 90.7 mph. But as with Yelich, there’s more to it than that:

Marcell Ozuna Exit Velocity By Batted Ball Type

Batted Ball Type Exit Velo(mph) MLB Rank(min. 50 batted balls)
Batted Ball Type Exit Velo(mph) MLB Rank(min. 50 batted balls)
Fly Ball 95 11
Line Drive 97.7 13
Ground Ball 86.7 34

Ozuna hits the ball at a 10.1 degree angle on average, and his fly ball rate in 2017 was 33 percent, compared to just 25 for Yelich. Ozuna’s 2017 was an incredible breakout season with a 142 wRC+ and blasting 37 home runs while setting a career high in walk rate (9.4 percent) and posting his second lowest strikeout rate at 21.2 percent. This after a career that saw him muddling about with a 116 wRC+ in 2014, his career high home runs at 23. He’s also a year older than Yelich. Perhaps this is what the Brewers hope for with their Marlin expat. But with that batted ball profile of Yelich’s, essentially the opposite of Ozuna’s, that’d be hard to do.

The good news is, leaving Miami for MIlwaukee could be good for Yelich. This past year his OPS leapt massively away from Marlins Park, from .743 to .869. Adding to that, the run scoring environment in Milwaukee is much more hitter friendly. In a theoretical world of 162 games played in the Brewers’ environment, he’d have put up a .297/.385/.459 line, whereas if that were Miami it would have been .287/.374/.444. He actually did hit .282/.369/.422, so expecting some growth is acceptable. Whether it’s star-making or not, that’s the question.

You can never discount that age-27 or so leap, when young players grow into their bodies and gain the fabled Grown Man Strength. We’ve seen it time and again. Michael Brantley suddenly became an MVP candidate after being the most average player on Earth. The aforementioned Ozuna just did it this year.

At 6 foot 3, nearly 200 pounds, the 26-year old Yelich has the frame to flourish into a great power hitter. But he’s not allowing himself to. Whether because of the run dampening environment of Miami, or just because he always has been a line drive/grounder hitter, he’s been held back. A change in scenery, a change in outfield wall distance, a chance to contend and maybe a better, more forward-thinking front office could all be a major boon to him. It’s whether he takes advantage of his gifts or makes some adjustments that will tell the tale of Christian Yelich.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about baseball’s intricacies at Beyond the Box Score, and that of the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. His podcast, Mostly Baseball, is pretty good. Follow him on Twitter at @MerrillLunch.