Could the former MVP get back to his old form by expanding his zone?
Everyone is trying to figure out what is “wrong” with Christian Yelich. Despite the Milwaukee Brewers being among the best teams in baseball, its franchise outfielder has lost all semblance of power and barely looks like the elite hitter he was in 2018 and 2019.
What if the solution is a counterintuitive effort to swing at more pitches OUTSIDE the strike zone? Yes, it sounds stupid, but it isn’t REALLY about swing at bad pitches more often. The true focus is on a hitter being truly ready to attack pitches, even if it means chasing more than usual – and either whiffing or making less-than-ideal contact.
Let’s start with the mindset of a hitter and how much that can play a role in success or failure.
Over the past two seasons, it looks like Yelich has focused on “better” plate discipline, laying off close pitches, and drawing more walks. This likely stemmed from pitchers starting to pitch around him, and Yelich swinging at a career high 30.6% of pitches outside the zone in 2019. That may have gotten in his head a bit – despite the fact he had career highs in a ton of categories, including home runs, walks, average and OPS.
Let’s presume Yelich is trying to see the ball deeper to determine the quality of the pitch. The longer a hitter waits to decide to swing, the more likely he will be late, especially against good velocity. According to my scouting eye, it’s clear that most of the time when Yelich whiffs on pitches he should crush – or hits them poorly – it’s because his swing is late. His bat is either too slow through the zone, missing underneath the ball (bat not on the proper path yet) or making weak contact for those same reasons.
I’ve seen this plenty in my years of coaching from the youth levels to high school to small college ball. Hitters are so worried about swinging at the right pitch or NOT swinging at a bad pitch that it screws up their timing and often leaves them unsuccessfully trying to catch up to the pitch with a late swing. These hitters often do draw a lot of walks – in part because they take more pitches and make less contact on their swings. However, they also strike out more than they should.
Take a look at Yelich the past four seasons and you’ll see the same type of statistical movement. The “O-Swing%” stat represents the percentage of swings at pitches outside of the strike zone.
Sure, you can point to small sample sizes in 2020 and 2021, but the percentages still tell a story. Interestingly, when Yelich swung at the most pitches outside of the zone in his career, his strikeout percentage (K%) was the lowest of his four seasons in Milwaukee. Then as you watch his “patience” improve in 2020 and 2021, the walk percentage (BB%) improves by about 5%, but his K% went up around 7-10%.
Of course, Yelich’s overall production has been down significantly these past two years, going from a 1.000 and 1.100 OPS down to .786 and .739 respectively. And again, this is about being fully ready to do damage on every pitch – particularly the ones that are over the heart of the plate. But because Yelich is being more passive and “selective,” he is not making pitchers pay like he used to do.
A few weeks ago, Jack Stern talked about this in an article about Yelich – ironically saying being more aggressive wasn’t the immediate answer (at least not at that time). But his article included a chart on Yelich’s numbers on pitches over the heart of the plate. All of his stats in this category are significantly worse than in his two best seasons. And as of the time of that article, Yelich was swinging and missing at 19.28% of pitches over the heart of the plate.
Once again, my theory on this remains. It is often because he is waiting too long to decide if the pitch is good enough, causing him to swing late. He just isn’t trusting himself.
Now hitting funks are rarely about one thing. They are never a simple thing to diagnose and correct, either. There has certainly been some mechanical issues with Yelich’s swing (front shoulder pulling out early, not getting extension on his swing/follow through), but some of that can be contributed to his passiveness causing him to “catch up” on his swings.
An ESPN article from 2019 talks about Yelich finding his power stroke – once in Miami and then again in 2018 with the Brewers – and each related to hitting the ball just out in front of the plate more, while also swinging at more pitches early in the count. The first mention is from 2017:
Then after “losing it,” Yelich took the 2018 All-Star break to figure out what it was that got him that special feeling he had briefly in 2017 when the power showed up.
In both instances, Yelich keys on the getting the ball out front, clearly not worrying about whiffing or being too early or anything else. Just attack the ball wherever it is. He also says it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to swing more often early in counts; however, once again, it came down to the mentality of ready to destroy the ball every single pitch and he was not missing many of those meatballs he has whiffed on the past two seasons.
Back to swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. Remember, in Yelich’s two best seasons he swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone than in any other seasons in his career. But does that mean anything?
Of the top six home run hitters this season, all have a 26.4% or higher swing percentage at pitches outside of the strike zone (as of August 9):
o Shohei Ohtani (30.2%) – 37 HR, 1.015 OPS
o Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. (26.4%) – 35 HR, 1.047 OPS
o Fernando Tatis, Jr. (28.9%) – 31 HR, 1.024 OPS
o Matt Olson (27.9%) – 28 HR, .954 OPS
o Rafael Devers (37.5%) – 27 HR, .921 OPS
o Salvador Perez (50.2%) – 27 HR, .805 OPS (swinging a bit too much)
Reminder: Christian Yelich’s last four seasons
o 2018: 27.7%
o 2019: 30.6%
o 2020: 20.3%
o 2021: 21.8%
I’m not saying this means everything, but it has to account for something – especially when it comes to the success of the Milwaukee Brewers and their franchise player.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs