How did Christian Yelich get this good?
Officially, Christian Yelich finished the season with 36 bombs. But if you count the F-bombs that he helped way back in January, it was closer to 40.
The date was Jan. 25, to be exact. Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns was in his office, waiting breathlessly for a phone call from Miami Marlins GM Mike Hill. The night before, Stearns and Hill had agreed in principle on a trade that would send Yelich to Milwaukee in exchange for four prospects. It was the kind of blockbuster that could make or break a franchise.
If Stearns’ inklings about Yelich — the former first-round draft pick whom he’d admired from afar ever since taking over in Cream City a couple of years earlier — were right, the deal could help catapult the club into the upper echelon of National League contenders. If the GM was wrong, it could cripple the Brewers, robbing them of a host of young, affordable talent and setting them back years.
In the wee hours of a winter morning on which he barely slept, Stearns had already managed to get approval from Brewers ownership. Although he was optimistic that Hill would be able to do the same from a Marlins group that was led by Derek Jeter and seemed intent on liquidating all assets, including Giancarlo Stanton, the damn phone wouldn’t ring. Until it did.
At about 10 a.m., Stearns finally received a call from Hill. The deal was a go. Stearns sprang up from his chair and stomped into the office of assistant GM Matt Arnold.
“We got him!” shouted Stearns.
Beside themselves with excitement and unsure of how to react that the chase was finally over, that they’d finally gotten their guy, the two execs just stood there. Then Arnold dropped an F-bomb and Stearns did the same. Arnold dropped another, and so did Stearns.
Just like that, Christian Yelich was unofficially on his way to joining the 40-bomb club.
Given Yelich’s resume, the level of excitement that Stearns showed on that morning was inordinate, to say the least. After all, Yelich was arguably the third best of the three outfielders that the Marlins let go during their fire sale last offseason. He certainly wasn’t in the same league as Stanton, the reigning National League MVP who was shipped to the New York Yankees (along with his $325 million contract) in early December. He wasn’t as accomplished as Marcell Ozuna, the two-time All-Star who was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals a week after the Stanton trade. He’d never hit higher than .300. He’d never driven in 100 runs. In five big-league seasons, he’d managed to hit exactly as many home runs as Stanton hit in 2017 alone (59).
So why all the fuss?
“Christian was one of the guys near the top of our list who we thought could eventually develop into an elite type of player,” says Stearns, standing in the visiting dugout at Coors Field. It’s the day before Game 3 of the National League Division Series with the Colorado Rockies, a contest that the Brewers would win. Just like they won the first two games of the series. Just like they won their tiebreaker against the Chicago Cubs before that. Just like they won their final seven contests of the regular season before that.
To say that Yelich is the sole reason for the Brew Crew’s improbable 11-game winning streak would be an injustice to the rest of the roster. To say that he and he alone is responsible for Milwaukee reaching the league championship series for just the second time since 1982 wouldn’t be fair to Lorenzo Cain, the Milwaukee center fielder who signed as a free agent on the very same day that Yelich was traded and who spent the majority of the season at or near the top of everyone’s MVP rankings. It wouldn’t be fair to Josh Hader or Jeremy Jeffress. It wouldn’t be fair to Travis Shaw or Ryan Braun or Craig Counsell or Bernie Brewer or the good citizens of southeastern Wisconsin, among others.
That said, if there’s one person who’s at the heart of Milwaukee’s playoff push, one player who has been the driving force behind a 96-win season that’s tied for the best in franchise history, it’s Yelich. “He’s a special player,” says hitting coach Darnell Coles. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
This is what the numbers say: According to Fangraphs, Yelich accounted for 7.6 WAR this season, best among NL position players and more than a full win higher than the next closest guy (Washington’s Anthony Rendon). Thanks to an otherworldly second half — more on that in a bit — he came this close to becoming the first National Leaguer since Ducky Medwick in 1937 to win the Triple Crown. Instead, he had to settle for leading the league in batting (.326) while finishing with 110 RBIs (one fewer than Javy Baez) and 36 homers (two behind Nolan Arenado). But perhaps nothing speaks to Yelich’s value quite like this: His OPS in Brewers wins this season (1.205) was 524 points higher than in losses, the largest differential in the majors, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Says Stearns: “He’s an important player for us.”
“I thought that over the course of his time here, he had the chance to get to a year like this. … To say that we saw this coming immediately would be a little unreasonable.” Brewers GM David Stearns
Yelich was at his most important — and impressive — down the stretch. After the All-Star break, which the Brewers entered with all the steadiness of a stilt-walker (they finished the first half by losing six straight and eight of 10), he went on an absolute tear. The lanky lefty swinger batted .367 the rest of the way, best in the majors. His 1.219 OPS in the second half also was tops — by more than 150 points. In August and September alone, he mashed 21 homers, a number that matched his previous career high for an entire season. Over the final week of the regular campaign, when Milwaukee had to win out just to force a Game 163, Yelich was a one-man wrecking crew, reaching base 21 times and driving in 16 runs.
His second-half siege turned a wide-open MVP race into what appears to be a foregone conclusion. More importantly, it helped the Brewers win a division title for just the third time in the franchise’s 50-year history. The success, both team and individual, came quicker than anyone expected.
“I thought that over the course of his time here,” Stearns says, “he had the chance to get to a year like this. That was in the realm of possibility. To say that we saw this coming immediately would be a little unreasonable.”
It’s not like Christian Yelich didn’t have the pedigree.
Like 10 of the 12 drafted players who have won a most valuable player award this decade, he’s a former first-round pick. He was part of the 2010 draft class, a vaunted group that produced superstars such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The 23rd overall selection, he was taken in the same neighborhood as Mike Trout (25th in 2009). Still, prior to this season, the closest Yelich got to an MVP was playing alongside Stanton, who won last year’s award.
“Everyone wants to pencil you in as the kind of player that you’re going to be after a few years in the big leagues,” Yelich says. A speedy outfielder who has earned a reputation for being a plus defender in Miami, he hit .290 and averaged 12 homers per season during his time with the Marlins. His stat lines were so consistent from one season to the next that it was easy to envision them repeating in perpetuity.
“When you’re still really young, they think that’s what you’re going to be forever,” Yelich says. “I came in at 21 years old, still learning in the big leagues. You’re still learning yourself as a player. Everyone wants to be like, ‘Oh, this is what you’re going to be forever.’ They look at it like you’re never going to change. You’re never going to do better, you’re never going to do worse. This is what you are. I think that’s a stupid way to look at things.”
It’s especially stupid considering where Yelich spent the first five years of his career.
Every year from 2013 through 2017, Marlins Park ranked next-to-last in homer friendliness, according to FanGraphs. Even after the center-field fence was moved in prior to the 2016 season — from 418 feet to 407 feet — the field has remained a hitter’s nightmare because, well, 392-foot power alleys (like the one that Miami features in right-center) have a way of doing that. Says Yelich: “You feel like your best bullet is not going to be good enough.”
Miller Park, on the other hand, is a hitter’s haven: Over that same five-year stretch, from ’13 to ’17, Milwaukee’s field placed among the top five homer-friendly stadiums in baseball. It’s also where Yelich hit 22 jacks this season, four more than he hit at Marlins Park during his entire tenure in Miami.
“If you look back at what he’s done, he’s always driven the baseball.” says Brewers outfielder Curtis Granderson, a former Met who saw Yelich regularly during their time as NL East rivals. “He’s just getting rewarded for it now.”
That’s not to say that park factors are the only things that have impacted Yelich’s production. If that were the case, then he wouldn’t have led the National League in OPS+, a metric that levels the playing field by accounting for variations in stadiums, among other things. Clearly, when it comes to this Brewer’s breakout, there are other forces in play. More natural forces.
“What’s been so cool is to watch the organic improvement,” Stearns says. “This isn’t a Chris Taylor story, where he went and fundamentally changed his swing. It’s not a J.D. Martinez story. This is a really talented player who trusted himself, trusted his process, and just incrementally got better over time.”
It’s a kind of gradual improvement that has become almost conspicuous in recent years, as players have seemingly started to reach their potential younger and younger. In 2014, Trout was just 22 when he bagged his first MVP. The following year, Harper was the same age when he nabbed his. The year after that, Kris Bryant won it at the ripe old age of 24. This season, 20-year-old Braves phenom Ronald Acuna and 19-year-old Nats sensation Juan Soto have been two of the best, most-talked-about players in the game. Meanwhile up in Milwaukee, there’s Old Man Yelich, two months shy of his 27th birthday, doing his best fine-wine impression.
Physically, he doesn’t appear to have changed much, if at all. He’s still rail-thin and still looks just like Pete Davidson from “Saturday Night Live.” He scoffs at the age-27 theory, which stipulates that players of a certain maturity level suddenly reach power puberty, thereby magically turning doubles into dingers. “I feel like the last few years, I’ve been the same strength,” he says. Instead, he chalks up the bulk of his evolution to revelation, to finally figuring out who he is as a hitter. “I think it’s understanding an approach. Understanding your swing. Understanding what you do when you’re successful and not successful.”
One of the main things that Yelich has been doing during this, his most successful season, is ambushing pitchers. Earlier in his career, he was one of the more passive hitters in the game, routinely ranking near the bottom in first-strike swing percentage. In 2018, he swung at the first pitch 188 times, up from 135 times last year. More often than not, he did serious damage. Despite posting a league-average swing rate on initial offerings (29 percent), Yelich blasted 12 home runs on an 0-0 count, most in the majors. On the 73 first pitches that he put in play, he hit .521, nearly 100 points higher than his career mark entering the season. Despite the seemingly obvious correlation, Yelich’s increased aggression doesn’t appear to be the result of a premeditated tweak in his approach.
With his team the winners of 11 straight games, MVP candidate Christian Yelich says having a day-by-day mindset has fueled Milwaukee’s hot streak.
“I don’t think he’s changed anything,” says Coles, the Milwaukee hitting coach who was once a teammate of Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., and who sees a lot of both in Yelich. “He fits the mold. He just has a good understanding of what he wants to do, and how he wants to do it.”
“Just looking for a pitch to hit hard, whether it’s the first one, the fifth one, third one,” Yelich says. “There was no conscious effort to be more aggressive or anything like that.”
When informed about his massive first-pitch production this season, he claims ignorance.
“I didn’t even know that, honestly. I had no idea,” he says. “It was just, be ready to hit. I wasn’t going up there just swinging to swing. Be ready to hit, be locked in on a zone, have a plan, and go execute it.”
Exactly 15 minutes after the final out of the Brewers’ NLDS sweep over the Rockies, Yelich stands in the middle of a tight circle inside the visitors clubhouse at Coors Field. Goggles draped around his neck, he bounces up and down as his teammates shower him with ice-cold alcoholic beverages and chant repeatedly.
“M-V-P! … M-V-P! … M-V-P!”
Although the results of postseason awards voting won’t be released until mid-November, the smart money says that Yelich will prove his Milwaukee mates prophetic in the end. As productive as Baez and Arenado were, as good as Matt Carpenter and Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rendon were, the growing consensus is not only that Yelich was better, he was at his best when it mattered most. And because of that, the Brewers — who haven’t lost a baseball game since the autumnal equinox — are still alive and kicking as they prepare to battle the Dodgers for a trip to the World Series.
“This is the goal,” says Stearns, moments after receiving a cold beer shower of his own in the clubhouse. “When you pick up players like that, the goal is to win a World Series. That’s our goal as an organization. It’s been our goal since I got here.”
It’s why, way back in January, Stearns didn’t think twice about dropping a couple of F-bombs.