Christian Yelich is Kind of an Historically Unique Hitter

So there’s this table I’m going to show you. Actually, you can already see it. I know you can. But humor me and pretend that only the next word appears after you read this one, and that the table simply hasn’t manifested yet. This table holds within it Christian Yelich’s career statistics, parsed by year. It’s unlike a normal table because I prorated all of the counting stats to 600 plate appearances. The rest, however, are rate statistics, or component metrics presented as rate statistics. Basically, everything is comparable on a playing time basis. What it will all tell you is what ended up being a discarded title for this post:

Christian Yelich is a remarkably consistent hitter.

Christian Yelich per 600 PAs
2013 Marlins 600 9 22 11.4% 24.2% 0.108 0.380 0.288 0.370 0.396 0.341 117
2014 Marlins 600 8 19 10.6% 20.8% 0.119 0.356 0.284 0.362 0.402 0.341 117
2015 Marlins 600 8 18 9.0% 19.2% 0.116 0.370 0.300 0.366 0.416 0.343 117
2016 Steamer 628 12 18 10.0% 18.8% 0.138 0.344 0.288 0.362 0.426 0.343 117

On a per-plate appearance basis, Yelich has barely changed a bit since his debut in 2013 (as a 21-year-old, mind you). Alas, in an attempt to avoid burying the lede, I’ll write what’s on the tip of my tongue: Yelich, at age 23, appears to already be a very stable asset. His weighted runs created (wRC+) has literally, litrully, not moved. His weighted on-base average (wOBA) has moved so microscopically, my sleeping cat has moved more. Naturally, Steamer expects more of the same: a perfectly identical 117 wRC+ and nearly identical .343 wOBA.

It’s truly incredible, this consistency that’s partly the result of freak statistical luck cultivated by baseball’s offensive landscape but mostly the product of excellent contact skills and what Keith Law allegedly once called “the prettiest swing in the minors.” Said contact skills and prettiest swing will buoy his fantasy value for another decade, even as his power and speed wax and wane.

Which, at the moment, neither has done. It seems like we’ve debunked the age-29 is a hitter’s peak myth and lean more toward an age-26 or age-27 peak. Regardless, that leaves room for growth, and Steamer sees it, projecting what will finally be Yelich’s first double-digit power display of his young career alongside a lock for roughly 20 steals.

However, regardless of how much Yelich grows, whether literally or figuratively, in the next few years, fantasy owners may never see real gains given Yelich’s propensity to kill worms. It’s actually kind of a boring way to generate offensive production: hit lots of grounders, always get on base. This approach won’t always work for Yelich as he ages, and he’ll have to adjust, as all players must do. But it’ll work for now.

It’s just that nobody hits the way Yelich does. He hits more ground balls than anyone. More than you. More than me. More than Dee Gordon. And while that’s simply an anecdote in and of itself, nobody hits as hard as Yelich while killing worms. He kills ’em hard.

Jason Heyward comes close. At a 28.9-percent hard-hit rate (Hard%) and 57.2-percent ground ball rate (GB%) this year, he’s but a few percentage points short of Yelich in both categories and could, rather simplistically, be a legitimate comp for Yelich in terms of batted ball profile. But it was an unusual year for Heyward — his GB%, which hovered a few percentage points below 50 percent for three years, spiked to its highest rate ever, at 57.2 percent. So it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Heyward to revert to a previous form.

Joe Mauer also comes close, with a 29.2 Hard% and 55.7 GB%. But he’s getting older. His legs are beginning to forsake him the way Yelich’s haven’t. When sorting by GB%, the first hitter to record a better Hard% than Yelich in 2015 is David Peralta. But with a 52.1 GB%, more than 10 percentage points lower than Yelich’s GB%, the comparison becomes a bit forced.

Yelich has no equal, not only contemporaneously but also historically. Here’s a list of hitters for whom we have batted ball data with a career Hard% and GB% higher than both of Yelich’s:

And here’s a second list of hitters who posted particular three-year spans with a higher Hard% and GB%:

Dating back to 2002, only five batters (with at least 1,000 PAs) hit more ground balls in their careers than Yelich has so far. Between them, they barely mustered half of Yelich’s hard-hit rate. The highest GB% of any hitter with a better Hard% than Yelich is David Freese and, like Peralta, his GB% is a full 10 percentage points lower than Yelich’s. Regarding particular three-year durations, only early-2000s Jacque Jones, mid-2000s Derek Jeter and, recently, Howie Kendrick posted similar GB%-Hard% combinations. Jeter’s and Kendrick’s respective offensive outputs somewhat resemble Yelich’s career thus far, but they hadn’t done it quite the way he has, nor did they do it at this young an age.

So, again: nobody hits, or has recently hit, quite the way Yelich does. As far as the age of quantifiable batted ball data is concerned, he’s a singularity, a statistical anomaly, a historical outlier. He hits ’em hard, and he hits ’em low. When he hits ’em on a line, you never know where they’ll go.

Meanwhile, there’s not a lot to say about his plate discipline. An improvement to his out-of-zone contact rate (O-Contact%) in 2014 coincided with a sharp drop in his strikeout rate (K%), and the gains were here to stay for 2015. If Yelich can curb his swing rate, which he has room to do given his talent, he can buff his walk rate (BB%) and add marginal value in the on-base skills department.

The same injury risk caveats apply for virtually any player, but tossing those aside: Yelich offers fantasy owners a high floor with the upside that any former first-round pick and organizational No.-1 prospect could potentially provide. His approach isn’t glamorous, but it gets the job done.

Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022, 2023). Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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8 years ago

Please retract this article and do not re-publish until after my auction. Thank you.

I have been amazed by his hard hit plus high GB% as well. I’m hoping that moving in/lowering the fences in Miami will lead to one or two more of his rare fly balls making it into the seats.

8 years ago

I was surprised to see that Yelich’s HR/FB% isn’t better given his reputation for hitting the ball hard while having only one IFFB over the last three seasons.

Marlins Park
8 years ago

Look at my park factor for lefty home runs!

8 years ago

Great point. Holy crap, that Home/Away HR/FB% split is ridiculous.