Christian Yelich, Worm Killer

The Marlins second best prospect heading into the 2013 season, Christian Yelich was understandably hyped upon his debut with the team last year. He didn’t disappoint, accumulating 1.4 WAR over slightly less than half a season. From a fantasy perspective, he offered contributions in four categories, despite being on the worst offense in baseball. It didn’t lead to a whole lot of preseason love in our consensus fantasy rankings though, as he ranked just 59th. We were all wrong, as he finished 23rd in value, offering somewhat similar production to fellow all-around contributor Starling Marte.

Let’s address the article title first. Do you know who ranked fourth in all of baseball in ground ball rate? You could probably guess now, but did you have a clue that it was actually Yelich? He was one of just five qualified batters who posted a GB% of at least 60%. High ground ball rates are typically reserved for speedy slap hitters with limited power. Guys like Ben Revere (who led baseball), Nori Aoki and Dee Gordon.

But Yelich isn’t the type you would expect such an inflated mark from. He posted a .238 ISO at Double-A in 2013, a .189 mark at High-A 2012 and .171 at Single-A in 2011. For someone who clearly does possess some semblance of power, it’s just odd to see him hitting such a low rate of fly balls. For further weirdness, let’s take a look at the home run and fly ball batted ball distances from the top 10 hitters in ground ball rate this year.

Name GB% Batted Ball Distance
Ben Revere 64.7% 250.02
Nori Aoki 61.9% 249.24
Derek Jeter 61.6% 273.39
Christian Yelich 61.0% 289.10
Howie Kendrick 60.0% 275.49
Dee Gordon 59.7% 255.62
Adam Eaton 59.7% 261.55
Jean Segura 58.9% 265.81
Elvis Andrus 58.6% 248.21
DJ LeMahieu 56.2% 275.83

Yelich easily boasts the highest distance among these ground ballers, finishing at more than 13 feet above the next highest mark. It’s clear that he possesses more power than the prototypical ground ball machine. His 11.5% HR/FB rate sits above the league average and confirms that he actually does have decent power as well. So why he chooses to hit so many ground balls, I don’t know. But there is some real power upside here and if he could ever push that fly ball rate up, he could hit 15-20 homers.

All those ground balls do serve him some good, though. We know that grounders go for hits more often than fly balls, so he gets a nice BABIP benefit. Aside from those grounders boosting his BABIP, he also hit a Joey Votto-esque one pop-up all season long, for a minuscule 1.3% IFFB%. It’s therefore not surprising that he posted an inflated .356 BABIP. And you figure that he has maintained a similar batted ball profile throughout his minor league career, as he posted a .373 BABIP in the minors. While he doesn’t possess blazing speed, he definitely has above average wheels, which also helps in the BABIP department in collecting infield hits.

There’s another piece of good news hidden inside his statistical vault. In the minors, his strikeout rate jumped above 20% once he reached Double-A. That’s acceptable when you’re swatting 25+ homers, but not when your career high in a single season is just 15. And during his cup of coffee with the Marlins in 2013, he struck out 24.2% of the time. A strong walk rate and .380 BABIP offset the strikeout issue, but it was still a concern. Below is a table that includes the hitters with similar SwStk% marks as Yelich. Note each of their strikeout rates.

Name SwStr% K%
Derek Jeter 6.6% 13.7%
Jean Segura 6.6% 12.6%
Albert Pujols 6.7% 10.2%
Yunel Escobar 6.7% 11.3%
Christian Yelich 6.8% 20.8%
DJ LeMahieu 6.8% 18.0%
Kyle Seager 6.9% 18.0%
Aaron Hill 6.9% 17.0%
Jose Bautista 7.0% 14.3%
Carlos Santana 7.0% 18.8%
Dioner Navarro 7.0% 14.6%

Yelich posted just a 6.8% SwStk% mark this season, significantly better than his 9.6% mark in 2013. His strikeout rate is easily the worst of this bunch, which sported an unweighted average of 15.4%. That bodes well for continued improvement in his strikeout rate. But, there is an explanation, of course. His Swing% was just 39.3%, which was 10th lowest in baseball. Not swinging is going to boost both your walk and strikeout rates. So perhaps a little more aggression is what he would need to reduce his strikeout rate. And it doesn’t seem like such a bad strategy considering how infrequently he is now swinging and missing.

The future looks extremely bright for Yelich, both in real baseball and fantasy. I think he could sustain a high BABIP to ensure he remains an asset in batting average, while possessing the upside to go 15/20 and flirting with 100 runs scored.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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9 years ago

His career minor league GB% was 53.6%