If all goes as expected, Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich will win MVP in a few days. It’s well deserved - he led an excellent Brewers team to the playoffs, he led NL position players in rWAR, fWAR, batting average, slugging, was second in on-base percentage, and if you care, was second in the NL in RBIs.
He was generally a force of nature, and in case people were needing a some kind of statement he had an absurd September as he hit .370/.508/.804 and helped seal the division for Milwaukee. He was great. He’s also just 26 years old. How could he improve?
It’s a hard thing to think, of a player getting better than the year Yelich had. Seven-plus win seasons aren’t super rare, but there have only been 416 player-seasons that crested that mark since integration, a span that includes 8,418 qualified hitting seasons according to Baseball Reference. So, it happens about 4.9 percent of the time. Six guys crossed that threshold this year including Yelich:
7+ rWAR Player-Seasons in 2018
These are the type of seasons that he’d have to match and surpass to improve on a sterling 2018 season. It’s no small task. And getting better than that you start to get into Trout territory. Which is not what normal humans are allowed to do, at least not consistently.
The question then, where can he improve? On its face, it seems impossible. Yet despite this crazy season of his, Yelich actually did do less than his best in a couple different metrics that surprised me:
Where Yelich Didn’t Excel
These aren’t the numbers we generally point to and say “this means he’s overall better or worse”, but these are all interesting markers. It just seems like he started going after pitches he didn’t used to, and somehow turn that into more damage. Everything is contextual of course.
It’s not as though Yelich was chasing because he was seeing less pitches in the zone to hit though. In fact, the 44.2 percent in-zone mark is the second highest he’s seen in his career, topped only by 2017. That’s likely to change next year now that he’s a monster, which could be a problem. If he’s still as aggressive that could mean a lot less well-struck balls, but it could also mean a spike in the slight depression of his walk rate that we saw in 2018.
That then, may be the key to his making another leap, whether large or small. His discipline on pitches he simply can’t hit, and he’s shown that already in the last two years. These are all the pitches Yelich swung at that were legitimately out of the zone in 2017, nothing on the edge of the strike zone that could go either way:
And here’s 2018:
That seems like improvement, in particular on sliders from lefties that dive out of the zone on him. A further refinement - possible and believable as he gets another year older and learns the game and the pitchers a bit better - could lend itself his not going away from himself as much.
Thinking of one of those other players on that list that had a 7+ WAR season in 2018, Jose Ramirez, one adjustment that helped him reach this new level was his decision to abjectly pull the way, way more. Ramirez pulled it 50 percent of the time, six points above his career average, resulting in a career high - and wholly unexpected - 39 home runs. It placed him in the MVP conversation, the Indians in the playoffs, and rewrote his career trajectory.
It’s not to say Yelich should start getting pull-happy, if anything his ability to spray the ball around is one of his great traits, and actually something I personally miss about Ramirez when he hit that way in 2016 and even 2017 to a degree. But while Miller Park’s right field fence isn’t some kind of porch for lefties, it’s got the 10th highest home run Park Factor in baseball in 2018 according to ESPN, and according to RotoGrinders has the highest left-handed home runs park factor in baseball. As many have pointed out, his ground ball rate needs to tank to take further advantage of that, and a swing adjustment that big could have negative consequences.
Entropy does exist. Yelich is going to have to work hard to just replicate this year. And now pitchers will be more wary of him. We saw that in October, when he was walked six times in 14 plate appearances in the NLDS and didn’t get much of anything to hit in the Championship Series. So, he needs to be smart. He also need to be a bit lucky, since he posted a .373 BABIP this year.
I don’t mean to bury the lede like that, but it definitely helped him to this great year. His 24.7 percent line drive rate certainly helped, but line drive rate is a tough thing to cultivate. That’s why hitters are generally either considered flyball or grounder hitters. If he does go the Ramirez route, that BABIP will sink (because homers are not IP, and fly balls are low BABIP batted balls) but he can probably replicate the same thing. If he holds to the same 50+ percent grounder rate he’s still going to need help. Regardless, he’s going to keep hitting the ball hard, and he’s yet to start peaking. The future is bright for Yelich. We get to see how he deals with the shine next year.
Merritt Rohlfing writes on baseball at Beyon the Box Score and focuses on the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.