Patience is a virtue Christian Yelich exhibits not only when in the batter’s box.
Seven games into the 2022 Major League Baseball season, Yelich is off to a strong start at the plate and has the underlying numbers that back up those results.
But the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder is just as slow to rush to any conclusions about positive early-season plate appearances as he would be if they were littered with strikeouts and pop outs.
“Players in April, teams in April, everyone on the outside likes to overreact,” Yelich said before Friday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals at American Family Field. “It’s either you’re gonna win the World Series or you’re the worst team ever. You’re either gonna win the MVP or you suck after April, then there’s five months to go.
“That’s a long time. You’re just kind of settling into the season.”
Through 30 plate appearances, Yelich is batting .261/.400/.391 and is third on the team in OPS, but let’s ignore all of that for now.
The underlying numbers of Yelich’s at bats are the topic worth discussing.
Entering games Friday and among players with at least 100 pitches seen, Yelich is 10th in average exit velocity at 94.6 mph. Of his 17 balls put into play, 13 have been hit 95 mph or higher, the fourth-most in baseball.
Is that a sign that Yelich is feeling more comfortable at the plate early in 2022?
“Whatever you want to make of that, you can,” Yelich said.
Perhaps it is only worth making as much of those numbers as Yelich is – which is to say very little. But batted ball data can also be indicative, even in small samples at times.
During Thursday’s home opener, Yelich scalded a line drive 109 mph and a projected 409 feet for a double off the top of the centerfield wall. Earlier in the week, he hit a ball 111 mph and 398 feet.
Last year, Yelich had just one batted ball of 109 mph or greater that went at least 390 feet.
After a 2021 season in which less than half (49%) of Yelich’s batted balls were hit 95 mph or harder, the early results are encouraging signs for the Milwaukee offense.
“He’s off to a good start,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The biggest thing is he’s hitting the ball hard. He’s driving the ball. He’s had two balls over the center fielder’s head, off the top of the wall.”
Hitting the ball hard was rarely the issue for Yelich last season as his numbers dipped to .248/.362/.373, good for an OPS+ of 98. OPS+ is a metric that takes a player’s OPS and normalizes the number across the league on a scale with 100 being average. His average exit velocity of 91 mph ranked 42nd out of 203 hitters with at least 1,500 pitches seen.
Doing consistent damage with those hard-hit balls was the greatest difference in Yelich’s game from his first two seasons in Milwaukee.
His average launch angle dropped to 2.8 degrees, down from the 11.3 degree mark from 2019 when he hit 44 homers. When Yelich would square the ball up, it was often pounded into the ground, where less damage can be done than with hard-hit fly balls.
Any launch angle numbers this early in the season are to be evaluated with extreme small-sample caution, but Yelich so far has elevated the ball more than last year and three of his five hardest-hit balls have been fly balls.
Yelich has also been statistically the most disciplined hitter of the young season. He has swung at only 10.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, which is tied with Chicago Cubs rookie Seiya Suzuki for the lowest in the majors. Yelich has always had excellent strike zone discipline – the big league average chase rate is around 31% – but this season he is tracking well below his career rate of 24%.
“He’s got a good strike zone,” Counsell said. “The strike zone has always been a strength of his. I think he’s pitched in a challenging way but he’s doing well.”
During Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio’s news conference before the home opener Thursday, he indicated, unprompted, that injury problems contributed to down years for Yelich the last two seasons.
“A lot of this has been health-driven,” Attanasio said. “He will never make an excuse, but he’s in good health now and I think we’re seeing signs of that.”
Yelich has never given any indication that lingering effects from injuries – including a fractured kneecap suffered in September 2019 that ended his season – have had any impact on his production since 2020. When asked if he was feeling any more comfortable due to health than early in 2021, when he missed extended stretches due to oblique and back injuries, Yelich maintained a similar refrain as before: it’s too early to make any judgments.
“I don’t know yet. We’ll see,” Yelich said. “It might be a good year, it might not be a good year.”