Inside Christian Yelich's Epic 80-Grade Power Surge
As the spring of 2010 unfolded, Tim McDonnell formed an opinion firmly outside the scouting mainstream.
McDonnell, the Marlins’ area scout for greater Los Angeles, believed Christian Yelich had the potential for 25-home run power.
Few others felt the same. The overall consensus was Yelich, a skinny corner infielder with a sweet lefthanded swing from Westlake (Calif.) High, would primarily hit for average and might approach 15 home runs in his best years, similar to Casey Kotchman or James Loney.
McDonnell saw otherwise.
“You go back to his junior year and we saw him against Tyler Skaggs, myself and our national crosschecker at the time, and he homered to dead center off of Skaggs that day and we were both looking at each other like, ‘Woah, what did we just see?’” McDonnell said. “And then we had a workout at the Urban Youth Academy before the draft in Compton (Calif.). He was hitting them into and over the parking lot in right field with wood. Same thing, we were looking at each other like, ‘This guy’s got way more power than we think.’”
That belief in Yelich’s power was one reason McDonnell pushed the Marlins to draft Yelich with the 23rd overall pick in 2010, a touch above industry consensus. McDonnell and his superiors, contrary to the majority view, believed Yelich could one day be a home run threat in the major leagues.
But even McDonnell, as prescient as he was, did not see this coming.
Yelich, 27, has hit .340 with 55 home runs, 141 RBIs and 31 stolen bases in his last 162 games dating back to last season. Fresh off winning a batting title and the National League Most Valuable Player award, he is in the midst of a stretch that rivals the greatest individual performances in baseball history.
“We thought batting title, yeah, sure,” McDonnell said. “But this kind of home run output, I don’t think anyone saw this coming.”
Yelich’s 55 home runs in his last 162 games are five more than the next closest player (Khris Davis, 50) in his last 162. His .742 slugging percentage leads the majors this season, a year after his .598 slugging percentage led the National League.
In terms of major league production, Yelich’s power has become the best in the game—an 80-grade tool on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, far from the 45- to 55-grade power projections initially labeled on him.
“That’s really the thing,” Yelich said. “I think people want to label you as what kind of player you’re going to be . . . and don’t really think you can get any better, can’t get any worse. They’re just like, ‘This is what you are.’ I’ve never really agreed with that mindset.”
Yelich largely performed like the player he was projected to be at the start of his career with the Marlins. He hit for a high average (.290 over five seasons), moderate power (15 home runs per 162 games) and by age 25 had already earned a Gold Glove award, a Silver Slugger award and MVP votes, validating his status as a first-round pick.
But beneath the surface, Yelich was laying the foundation for a power leap with help from baseball’s all-time home run leader.
“I think you have to learn how to hit for power, especially in the big leagues,” Yelich said.
“You have to learn how your body works, what pitches, how it happens. You could homer right now and you might not know why you hit it. You hit it over the fence, but why did that happen? So being around (hitting coaches) Barry (Bonds) in Miami and Frank Menechino there, you learn things as a hitter and then you try to just apply them. Learn how to do it consistently, get your body in a good position to hit constantly . . . That’s’ really my thought process, and Barry helped me understand what went into that. Frank as well.”
The notion that power is the last tool to develop has long held up to scrutiny. That is especially true of someone who makes his major league debut as young as Yelich did.
Yelich was 21 years old when he debuted for the Marlins in 2013. He was 22 his entire first full season in 2014.
“I thought there was another gear there because he hadn’t even hit his man strength,” McDonnell said. “He was still just a kid.”
The foundation for Yelich to grow his power came from his hitting ability, which was never in doubt.
“We all thought he could really hit from day one,” McDonnell said. “I’ve looked back at my first follow report and my hit grade, 70, never really changed on him . . . The bat was really, really polished. He had good feel, he had good vision, all the simple things that were important. He was already better than everybody else. It was just how much further could he go?”
The answer has been revealed over these last 162 games. Unfortunately for the Marlins, it has come with Yelich playing for the Brewers after a trade trending as one of the most lopsided deals of all-time.
“I don’t think anybody expects (what he’s done),” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The trade would have looked a lot different if it was. We saw a player who was very successful in the league coming into the prime of his career. You’re hoping he takes a jump forward and you’re kind of planning on that when you trade for him. But he’s taken a huge step forward, for sure, and that’s a credit to him.”
It must be noted Yelich’s power spike has occurred in the midst of a home run explosion all around baseball. The 2018 season saw the fourth-most home runs hit in any season. The 2019 season is on pace to have the most home runs hit in MLB history.
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Further, Yelich moved from playing his home games in pitcher-friendly Marlins Park in Miami to launching pad Miller Park in Milwaukee.
But even with those caveats, Yelich’s power increase is tangible. During his torrid last 162 games, 35 of his 55 home runs have traveled at least 400 feet, according to Statcast. His barrel percentage has steadily increased, from seven percent in 2017 to 12.9 percent in 2018 to 16.9 percent in 2019. His exit velocity, launch angle and hard-hit percentage this year are all the best of his career.
“I think there are a lot of people who said I wouldn’t be this player in Miami, or I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did in Marlins Park, and I don’t think that’s true,” Yelich said. “I’d think I’d probably lose a couple homers in Marlins Park compared to Miller Park, but I think it’s a different case. My setup is different, swing is different, everything is different than when I was in Miami because you grow as a player and you learn and things change.
The fact that Yelich has become a standout isn’t necessarily a surprise in the context of what came before. He was a mainstay on the high school showcase circuit and starred at every significant event leading into his senior year. He had committed to Miami as one of the top recruits in the nation and entered the draft a surefire first-day selection. If the Marlins hadn’t drafted Yelich at No. 23, according to McDonnell, the Phillies were set to take him at No. 27.
Yelich won the Marlins' minor league player of the year award in his first full professional season in 2011, entered the 2013 season ranked the No. 15 prospect in baseball and jumped straight from Double-A to the majors to make his big league debut.
But what Yelich has become is something different altogether. He has turned projected 45- to 55-grade power and turned it into an 80-grade tool. He’s done it while batting .340, stealing bases and playing solid outfield defense.
It was something few saw coming, and it's a testament to how a tool—and thus a player—can always change.
“That’s really my thing,” Yelich said. “You really just try to grow as a player all the time and get better. What you are in your first few years doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be what you are in your career.”