Christian Yelich Sees Power Surge
Had Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich started the season on a sour note, then he would have had a ready-made explanation.
Struck by an errant bat while standing in the on-deck circle during spring training, Yelich sustained a deep bone bruise in his right elbow that forced him to the high Class A Jupiter disabled list at the outset of the season.
He returned with a vengeance following a 10-day layoff, however, and by mid-May the 20-year-old said his elbow felt 100 percent healthy.
Yelich’s early-season performance spoke much louder than his words ever could. Upon his return, he went 12 for his first 24 and collected six extra-base hits in seven games for Jupiter, his first exposure to the Florida State League.
A smooth-swinging lefthanded batter—as well as the 23rd pick in the 2010 draft—Yelich popped 15 home runs for low Class A Greensboro last season while making his full-season debut, doing his best to answer criticism of home-field bias by swatting seven homers away from NewBridge Bank Park, a noted bandbox. He also hit .312 to finish fourth in the South Atlantic League batting race.
“The home park is the biggest difference this year,” Yelich said in reference to Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium. “It’s tough in this park to hit home runs to right field because the wind blows straight in—though it blows out a bit to left field.”
To that end, Jupiter manager Andy Haines stresses to young Hammerheads hitters that they must believe in their approach because neither park nor league is conducive to offensive fireworks.
“We’ve tried to show them players in the past who have played in this league and gone on to have success,” Haines said, citing past Jupiter stars Miguel Cabrera and Logan Morrison. “Traditionally there are not a lot of home runs hit, so it’s more about your approach, doing little things well and taking care of your at-bats.
“You have to concentrate on the little things because it’s more difficult to score runs. Your mistakes probably get exposed a little more here, so I feel like it can be a really good learning experience.”
Yelich seems to have received the message.
“Christian’s strength as a hitter is that he uses all fields, and that he has power to all fields,” Haines said. “He’s a pure hitter, but also he’s hit some home runs to the big part of the park. The key is he doesn’t rely on one aspect of his game.”
Through his first 127 at-bats with Jupiter, Yelich had batted .283/.368/.551 with seven home runs, good for a longball per at-bat ratio, 18.1, unmatched in the FSL. His slugging percentage ranked third.
More impressive than his power pace was Yelich’s home-run spray chart. According to Minor League Baseball game logs, he had pulled just two of his first seven homers this year to right field, instead taking three out to left field and two out to center. The pattern holds for his time with Greensboro in 2011, when he hit 11 of 15 homers to either left or center field.
“I’ve been pitched away a lot this year,” Yelich said, “but I’m starting to get pitched in a lot more. So the home runs to left and center are a function of the way I’m being pitched, yes, but I do have a bit of power the other way.”
Marlins Southern California area scout Tim McDonnell, who recommended Yelich out of his Westlake Village high school, credits his signee with having a tremendous work ethic and said it’s heartening to see him use the whole field for power.
“We did see him hit a home run to dead center field off of (current Diamondbacks Double-A) lefthander Tyler Skaggs when Christian was a junior (at Westlake High),” McDonnell said, “so we thought he’d be capable of things like that.”
Another thing Yelich proved capable of this season was going deep twice in one game, at home on May 9, for the first time as a professional. His victim: Tampa Yankees righthander Jose Ramirez. Like many of the best hitters, Yelich remembers pitch sequences and outcomes, filing them away for future use.
“The first home run was a first-pitch fastball, right down the middle. I think (Ramirez) was trying to get ahead, but I hit that one over the center-field wall,” Yelich said. “The second one actually was a pretty good pitch, a 1-1 two-seamer with a little bit of sink. I ended up putting the barrel on it, and it went out to left field.”
Young lefthanded hitters must learn to make their peace with opposing southpaws if they wish to avoid being marginalized by a parade of relievers in the late innings of major league games. The task of learning to hit lefties continues this year for Yelich, who had batted .256/.329/.412 with seven homers in 234 plate appearances versus same-siders this season and last.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better against lefties,” he said. “I don’t look at the numbers, but from a comfort standpoint I feel like I’m taking a lot better swings. I haven’t been chasing the curveball in the dirt, which has led to lots of quality at-bats.”
Haines observes some of those same qualities from the third-base coach’s box, saying, “He’s not afraid to go the other way or let the ball come to him, and those are the things young lefthanded hitters need to do to hit lefthanded pitchers.”
The power surge and quick recovery from injury have enhanced Yelich’s profile this season, but perhaps nothing has improved his prospect stock quite like his shift to center field on an everyday basis. He spent the majority of his time in left last year, while as an amateur he played a lot of third base—but also first base on the showcase circuit.
“I’ll speak only for myself and say I didn’t have him pegged as a center fielder,” McDonnell said. “I thought he’d be able to handle left field, and he showed us he could at our (pre-draft) workout.”
Haines, who also managed Yelich last season, has come to expect the best from his pupil because he’s a quick learner.
“He has good instincts and he trusts them, which has been a big asset for him playing center field,” Haines said. “We saw what a good runner he was, so we thought, ‘Hey, let’s play him in center field.’ He looks very natural out there, and his strong instincts allow him to play center field.
“I believe it’s something he could handle as he moves up just because of his athletic ability, running speed and instincts.”
Haines noted that Yelich’s speed—the Marlins have him at a solid-average 4.2 seconds to first base—is often his most overlooked asset. He had gone 9-for-11 in stolen bases this season on the heels of a 32-for-37 effort in low Class A.
“He’s athletic, but he’s also 6-4,” Haines said, “and his long strides are kind of deceiving because you don’t always notice the ground he’s covering.”
The remaining glaring deficiency in Yelich’s game at this stage is a below-average arm, but Haines believes it’s something that can be improved with work.
“He’s got the arm strength, and the ball comes out pretty well,” he said. “It’s just that he has a long, loopy arm stroke, and his exchange and release are slow. But it’s gotten better since he signed with us.”
Count McDonnell among those who believe Yelich will round out his game.
“Nothing he does really surprises me,” the scout said. “He’s a wonderful kid, a gifted athlete and an extremely driven kid with an unbelievable work ethic.”