When a great player gets injured, it’s not abnormal for their production to fall off a cliff. But when their production stays off the cliff and never climbs back, even when they’re supposed to be healthy, the million-dollar question becomes: how much of their slumping is due to injury and how much is just pure slumping?
Heading into 2022, few players encapsulate this mystery more than Christian Yelich. The former National League MVP is the Milwaukee Brewers’ million-dollar question, especially on a team that slashed .233/.317/.396 with a miserly 91 OPS+. During the division series against the Atlanta Braves, the Brewers looked like they could’ve taken batting practice in a glasshouse without breaking a chandelier. Yelich certainly can’t be faulted for the Brewers’ early exit—there is plenty of blame to go around for the team’s poor hitting—but his dramatic two-year skid is cause for concern.
After winning MVP in 2018, Yelich looked like he might recapture the honor again in 2019. Then he fractured his kneecap in September, ending his season and prompting him to get knee surgery. He came back for a dismal 2020, slashing .205/.356/.430 with 12 home runs in 58 games. Everyone expected him to rebound in 2021, and while he didn’t hit .205 again, by some measures he was even worse. The right fielder hit just nine home runs in 117 games and posted a 99 OPS+, indicating that he was a below-average major league hitter.
Naturally, there have been countless articles about Yelich’s bizarre slump. So much has changed for Yelich since 2019, making it easy to point fingers and look for a scapegoat. But once you break down the underlying data, it becomes clear that there are two main factors affecting Yelich’s ability to hit well, both of which may partially come down to injuries.
Toying with a More Passive Approach
The most obvious change in Yelich’s game since 2019 is his plate discipline. His swing rate plummeted from 45.2% in 2019 to 34.6% in 2020 and 41.4% in 2021, indicating a more passive approach at the plate. This wasn’t an entirely bad thing—his 2021 chase rate ranked in the 96th percentile and his walk rate ranked in the 98th percentile. His batting eye has gotten better. But as his walk rate has jumped, so has his strikeout rate. After striking out 20.6% of the time in 2018-19, Yelich struck out 26.2% of the time in 2020-21. That’s not a drastic leap, but it’s a significant one.
Could the passive approach be the result of injuries? Yelich battled persistent back problems throughout 2021. When your back is fragile, it’s only natural to be more selective at the plate and avoid going after pitches that you would throw your back out swinging at. So there’s an element to Yelich’s new approach that injuries can probably explain.
However, the passive approach in and of itself does not explain Yelich’s woes. The problem is that pitchers have adjusted to Yelich’s passive approach and are getting more aggressive—and Yelich hasn’t really adjusted back. Only 42.8% of pitches against Yelich in 2019-20 landed in the strike zone. Last year, his zone rate was up to 50.5%. When you’re swinging at fewer pitches but pitchers are throwing more strikes against you, that’s a recipe for the kind of poor season Yelich had.
A Sharp Decrease in Launch Angle
Still, zone rates do not explain all of Yelich’s woes. After all, the most glaring weakness in the right fielder’s game this year was his lack of power. He still hit the ball hard—his hard-hit rate ranked in the 87th percentile. But the problem is where Yelich hit the ball. In 2019, his groundball rate was 43.2%; in 2021, it was 54.4%. His launch angle in 2019 was 11.3; in 2021, it was a meager 2.7. Even when Yelich did hit the ball in the air, he just didn’t crush it hard enough.
The jump in groundball rate could also be partially attributed to injuries. Swinging for the fences is tough on a bad back. Even when Yelich was healthy in 2021, he may have gotten so used to swinging defensively that he wasn’t able to reconnect with his power.
Breaking it all Down: What to Expect from Christian Yelich Heading into 2022
You can’t just ask a player to hit for more power. Yelich can improve his launch angle, but given his slew of back problems, it’s unlikely that he will hit 40 home runs in 2022. Instead, Yelich would be wise to focus on the area of his game that he can control: his swing rate.
Granted, Yelich’s walk rate has been one of the few positives of his last couple of seasons. But as pitchers have adjusted to his passivity and are throwing more strikes now, it’s time for Yelich to get more aggressive. He may have to sacrifice a few walks, but if his batting average jumps, it would most likely even things out.
If Yelich can stay relatively healthy and make the necessary adjustments for 2022, you can expect him to hit better than he did last year. He may never be an MVP-type player again, but that’s okay—few players can keep up such a pace. Brewers’ fans can probably expect him to perform somewhere between his level of play the last two seasons and his level of play during 2018-19. And on a Brewers’ team that was ultimately derailed by poor hitting, that could make a world of difference.
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