Should You Be Selling Christian Yelich in Dynasty Fantasy Baseball?
Yelich came within a whisker of winning the Triple Crown this season, something no NL player has done since Joe Medwick in 1937. Yelich led the NL in batting average (.326), finished two home runs behind Nolan Arenado (36) and one RBI shy of tying Javier Baez (110). He stole 22 bases, led the NL in slugging percentage (.598), OPS (1.000), OPS+ (164) and total bases (343).
It was a remarkable season that saw Yelich improve dramatically in virtually every offensive category. But the question fantasy owners -- especially those in dynasty formats -- should be asking themselves going into next year is whether or not this is repeatable. Is this a one-year aberration, a fluky season, or is he a power hitter now?
Some players, especially a 27-year-old in his fifth full season as a Major League starter, just entering his prime, have had seasons like this that act as a springboard to greater things. But with Yelich, there are some reasons to be skeptical.
From 2014 to 2017, Yelich was a solid hitter, but he was a guy with a huge weakness -- a lack of power. Below are his numbers during that four-year stretch, compared to his numbers for 2018.
|Year||wOBA||wRC+||ISO||HRs Per Season|
|2014 to 2017||.350||122||.145||13.75|
This year, Yelich's stats jumped across the board, led entirely by his increased power. In 2014, he hit 9 home runs, and the following year, hit just 7. He increased his power game a little in the 2016 and 2017, with 21 and 18 dingers, and he saw his isolated power go up a bit, as well (.185 ISO in 2016, .156 last year), but there was no indication a monster dinger season was in store for 2018.
One of Yelich's big problems was that he hit the ball on the ground a lot. His 55.4% ground-ball rate in 2017 was the sixth-highest in baseball, and in 2016, it was 56.5%, fourth-highest. It is very difficult to hit home runs when you hit the ball on the ground more than just about every other player in baseball. So one would think that, given his big uptick in home runs this season, his ground-ball rate would have dropped and his fly-ball rate would have taken a big jump, right?
Not so. Yelich's grounder rate was a bit lower this season, but at 51.8%, he was still tied for 11th-highest ground-ball rate in the Majors. His 23.5% fly-ball rate was eighth-lowest. So how did Yelich hit all those home runs? Simply, he had an incredible home-run-per-fly-ball ratio of 35.0% that dwarfed all his career numbers to this point. That number was tops in baseball, and it was far higher than his previous career high of 23.6%, which came in 2016.
In the past five seasons, the only two players with that kind of homer-per-fly-ball rate were Aaron Judge (35.6%) and Giancarlo Stanton (34.3%), and both those players put those numbers up during a time when many believe the ball was juiced.
Essentially, when Yelich hit one of his rare fly balls, it left the yard about one-third of the time. That's not sustainable.
There are plenty of reasons to think Yelich is going to continue to be a very productive player moving forward, and one of them is a change in home ballparks. Miller Park played as the 10th-friendliest environment for home runs this year, whereas last year, Marlins Park ranked as the 25th-friendliest home run environment, a trend that was not relegated to just 2017.
He also increased his hard-hit rate from 38.0% in 2016 and 35.2% in 2017 to a whopping 47.6% clip this year. His strikeout rate (20.7%) is right around his career average, as was his walk rate (10.4%), and both are very solid numbers. He's always had a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which this year was .373, so he wasn't any "luckier" in 2018 than he was before.
When you factor in his consistency along with a switch to a friendlier park for hitters, an increase in some of his numbers is more than understandable.
Change In Approach
As noted in a recent piece by ESPN, one other thing Yelich did was change his approach at the plate. In 2018, Yelich hit 12 home runs on the first pitch, the most in baseball this year, with a 1.178 slugging percentage when swinging on the first pitch. In 2018, he swung at the first pitch 188 times, up from 135 times in 2017.
Certainly a more aggressive approach, hunting for first-pitch fastballs, helped him jack up his power numbers a bit. But given that, will pitchers learn by refusing to throw him as many first-ball heaters next season? It would seem like an obvious adjustment to make.
Can You Believe?
There's plenty of reasons to believe Yelich is going to continue to be one of the best players in baseball for the foreseeable future. He now plays in a ballpark that is far more conducive to hitting bombs, and as he enters his prime, it's likely he's going to be more of a power threat than he was in Miami.
He's also going to hit for a good average, get on base, and give teams speed on the base paths. But it would be dangerous to count on 36 home runs every year from Yelich, given his batted-ball data, and it would be wise to assume he probably won't lead the league in slugging and OPS next year.
If you own Yelich in a dynasty league, you're probably not looking to move him unless somebody drops Mike Trout or a stud starting pitcher in your lap. But his 35.0% home-run-to-fly-ball ratio is fluky, and it's unlikely to repeat itself moving forward. Instead, it is more likely he goes back to being the high-average, high on-base, 25ish-home run player he was before his career year this season.
That's still a darn good player and a great fantasy asset -- just maybe not the superstar stud he's been in 2018.