Christian Yelich is awesome, and not coincidentally, so are the Brewers. Yelich has been the best position player in the National League this year, and he played for the team with the league’s best record. This all seems strange, because the Brewers have so rarely in their history been this good, and almost as rarely have they employed this good a player.
Yelich’s 7.6 fWAR is the second best in team history, as is his 166 wRC+. While it’s hard to ask for anything more from Milwaukee’s best player, it’s possible he’s leaving some production on the table. At the very least, he’s getting his biggest hits in a rather strange way.
Unsurprisingly, Statcast loves Yelich. He’s 16th in baseball in Barrels/plate appearance (8.8 percent) and average exit velocity (92.3 miles per hour). He’s one of only 12 players with a hard hit rate above 50 percent. Some of the others include Aaron Judge, Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton... lots of dudes known for smashing baseballs. Again, Yelich is a heck of a hitter, so he certainly belongs with this group. Besides, he did hit 36 home runs— just two off the NL lead. Here is that NL home run leaderboard, with accompanying average launch angle for each hitter:
NL Home Run Leaders with Launch Angle
|Player||HR||Launch Angle (degrees)|
|Player||HR||Launch Angle (degrees)|
One of these things is not like the others. Yelich’s average launch angle of 4.7 degrees is almost impossibly low for such a power hitter. Actually, not too many hitters of any kind averaged a lower launch angle— Yelich’s was the 16th lowest in baseball. Some of the names ahead of him (below him? not really sure) include Ian Desmond, Travis Jankowski, Dee Gordon, and Jonathan Villar—not exactly the company you would expect a likely MVP to keep.
How exactly did he hit all these home runs? His fly ball percentage of 23.5 was the eighth lowest by a qualified hitter in MLB. His 51.8 percent ground ball rate was the 12th highest. This data doesn’t compute with a near-home run champion. The home run-to-fly ball ratio clears things up a bit:
When Yelich hits a ball in the air, he sure knows how to make it count! More than one out of every three fly balls he hit all year left the ballpark. The gap between him and Giancarlo Stanton in fourth place is as large as the gap between fourth place and 52nd.
Generally speaking, home run-to-fly ball ratios are a measure of luck rather than skill. If a player has a career year but his home run:fly ball ratio is out of whack, it probably means he just got lucky and will come back to earth next year. In this case, the opposite might be true. All four of the players listed above can really rake (well, Gallo rakes when he happens to make contact). As stated above, Yelich’s hard hit rate is no joke. Therefore, all Yelich needs to do is change his launch angle and he’ll become Barry Bonds, right?
If only it were that simple. If asked about home runs, Yelich would probably respond with the well-worn trope, “I’m not a power hitter.” In that case, he’d be right. Before this season, his career high was 21 home runs. His .272 isolated slugging in 2018 was 87 points higher than his previous best. He hits the ball up the middle or to the opposite field 65.1 percent of the time—18th most in MLB. His game simply isn’t built around pulling fly balls.
Sure, Yelich could probably alter his swing to hit for more power, but that would be dangerous if not reckless. He’s probably better off just trying to be Christian Yelich instead of Joey Gallo or Jesús Aguilar. Instead of selling out to hit ten more bombs, he should probably just keep bludgeoning opponents with singles and doubles.
Milwaukee is a few games away from the World Series for the first time since 1982, and there are parallels between that team and the present one. The ‘82 squad was led by shortstop and AL MVP Robin Yount, who posted a .415 wOBA and 164 wRC+. That’s pretty similar to Yelich’s .422 wOBA and 166 wRC+, even though Yount hit just 29 home runs.
Yount is indisputably the greatest player in Brewers history, and he’s got a plaque in the Hall of Fame. He retired long before Statcast could lay its all-seeing eyes on him, so we don’t know much about his launch angle. Still, just 251 of his 3,142 career hits cleared the fence, and the 29 in 1982 were his career high, so he probably hit the ball at an angle similar to Yelich’s 4.7 degrees.
While it seems like the entire baseball world is trying to raise launch angles, it’s still possible to succeed by simply spraying line drives all over the field. It works for Yelich just as it worked for Yount. All the same, there’s nothing wrong with driving the occasional mistake into the seats, and Yelich seems to get the best of both worlds.