With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, we turn our attention to Christian Yelich, a 25-year-old star who figures to be bandied about in trade discussions over the coming months.
Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins
2017 statistics: .282/.369/.439, 18 home runs, 16 stolen bases
Quite a bit of attention in recent years has focused on Christian Yelich’s difficulty lifting the baseball. While the conversation about Yelich’s ample ground balls is worthwhile (he has not benefited from the league-wide power spike to the extent that some other players around the league have), it can tend to overshadow his current merits as a player. Over the past three seasons, Yelich has run wRC+ marks of 120, 132, 115 (the league-average is 100), making him a well above-average hitter despite his high ground-ball rate. He has also chipped in baserunning and defensive value.
Yelich’s biggest strength is his feel for the strike zone. His swing rate at pitches out of the strike zone has consistently been much lower than the league average, and that patience has enabled him to post double-digit walk rates in three of his four full big-league seasons to date. In each of those years, Yelich has managed to keep his strikeout rate below the league-average thanks to solid bat-to-ball skills, as his in-zone swing and contact rates are right around normal, enabling him to put the ball into play despite a willingness to work deep into counts. While walks are not, in and of themselves, particularly beneficial in many fantasy leagues, Yelich’s consistent on-base ability has afforded him ample opportunities to score runs and steal bases, categories that are directly beneficial to fantasy owners.
As noted above, Yelich has a reputation for hitting the ball on the ground, long a gripe for analysts hoping to see an improved power output. His ground-ball rate, despite hitting a career-low level this season, has stayed north of 55% in every year of his career, undoubtedly capping his home run upside. He has also demonstrated significant spray tendencies, peppering left and center field, difficult areas for a left-handed hitter to do a ton of power damage.
That said, these factors have also made him an incredibly difficult player to defend, as line drives and ground balls are more likely to turn into hits than are fly balls. Plus, a willingness to use the whole field makes him essentially impossible to shift (unsurprisingly, defenses have shifted on Yelich just 129 times over the course of his career, and he has hit an overwhelming number of opposite-field ground balls in those situations, enabling him to run a .395 BABIP in that limited sample).
Also working in his favor, of course, is that Yelich hits the ball extremely hard. He ranked 25th this season in average exit velocity (minimum 100 batted-balls), directly in between Jose Abreu and Carlos Correa. This combination of bat-to-ball skills and batted-ball authority is quite rare leaguewide; only 24 players (minimum 500 plate appearances) had a hard contact rate north of 35% with a strikeout rate below 20% this year, a list that unsurprisingly contains many of the best hitters in baseball.
Accordingly, it should be unsurprising to find that Statcast’s expected weighted on-base average, which measures strikeouts, walks and batted-ball quality, estimates that Yelich deserved his strong offensive numbers rather than benefiting from any amount of good fortune (his .352 xwOBA is a near perfect match for his actual .348 mark, continuing a three-year trend of Yelich’s peripherals supporting his strong results). Yelich possesses the combination of bat-to-ball skills, plate discipline, contact quality, and whole-field approach that often get him pegged as a potential future batting average champion. Because of these myriad factors, Yelich should indeed be expected to run extremely high BABIPs every season, making him a consistent threat to hit .300 or slightly above, on the backs of that strong, low-trajectory contact.
Rumors have indicated that Miami intends to drastically cut payroll going into next season, which would involve trading away some of the team’s core position players, most notably Giancarlo Stanton. If the Marlins do embark on a rebuild, then Yelich’s fantasy stock could be impacted rather significantly.
On the one hand, Marlins Park plays extremely pitcher-friendly (6th most difficult park in MLB in 2017 for hitting home runs, according to ESPN’s park factors), and so any trade involving Yelich would likely move him to a park more conducive to unlocking the one remaining flaw in his game: over-the-fence power. There is some evidence that Miami is suppressing his home-run output; despite Yelich’s strong contact quality, his 15.3% HR/FB rate this season is only slightly above the league-average, so a move to a friendlier home park could artificially inflate his home run totals a bit, even in the absence of any swing change to increase his fly-ball rate.
On the other hand, Yelich seems to be the core piece most likely to remain in Miami through any sort of sell-off, given that he just recently signed a cheap seven-year contract extension that could convince new Marlins’ ownership to hold onto him as a potential building block for potential contending teams in the franchise’s future. If Miami elects to sell off most of its supporting cast (especially Stanton) but retains Yelich, then he will not only not benefit from leaving Marlins Park, but he would also be burdened with playing on a drastically-reduced Miami offense that could very well limit opportunities for him to score or drive in runs. The course of the organization’s offseason, while an easy factor to overlook, could have a somewhat sizeable impact on Yelich’s fantasy stock for next season and beyond.
Because of the external factors surrounding the organization, it is difficult to pinpoint Yelich’s exact fantasy stock at the moment, although those questions should resolve themselves well in advance of next season’s drafts. He has long been seen as a player one mechanical tweak away from unlocking the impactful in-game power that is the only thing between him and superstardom. And, at only 25 years old, it is not impossible to imagine him making that necessary adjustment.
On the other hand, Yelich will now be entering his fifth full major-league season, and, coming off of four consecutive seasons in which he has been at least 15 percentage points better than the average major-league hitter by wRC+, he may justifiably be reluctant to make any wholesale changes to his approach. Lost somewhat, perhaps, in the discussion of a potential swing change, is that the current version of Yelich is a very valuable player, a potential .300/.380/.475 hitter who has eclipsed 15 stolen bases in three of his first four full seasons. Even if projecting any further on his power may be more hopeful than rooted in any sort of strong evidence that it is coming, Yelich is a high-end fantasy outfielder, one who should continue to offer average or better production in all five major fantasy categories, particularly batting average and runs scored.