The Milwaukee Brewers, probably the playoff team that everyone thought about the least, bit the dust yesterday in a fashion befitting a team that most didn’t realize were even there. They scored six runs across four games, got shutout twice, and while maybe not quite a whimper thanks to the dramatic Game 4, it was certainly whimper-adjacent.
The Brewers got more than enough pitching, which had been their M.O. all season. Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and eventually Adrian Houser formed just about the best rotation in the National League. It’s why they cruised to the division title even though their offense was basically Suck Balls Mountain, at least for a playoff team.
Which is a weird thing to say about a team that has a former MVP in its lineup, and the big question for the Brewers heading into the winter is just what’s happened to Christian Yelich?
Yelich was actually having a better season in 2019 than his MVP 2018 campaign. Then he busted his kneecap with about a month to go, and nothing has been the same since. The season-in-a-can of 2020 was far below his previous two in Milwaukee, but could be dismissed as just one of those weird ones thanks to the unique circumstances.
But this one was even worse, as Yelich slashed .248/.362/.373 for a definitely average 101 wRC+. Yelich had a big August after coming back from a positive COVID test, and Brewers fans might have begun to dream he’d close with a flourish. Instead he splattered on the pavement with a .305 slugging percentage in September, and capped it off by going 3-for-17 (all singles) in the Division Series.
So what’s going on with him?
Last season, Yelich just about stopped swinging at everything. His walk rate (13.8 percent to 18.6) and strikeout rate (20.3 to 30.8) both went up as he just watched pitches go by him and hoped for the best. Which would explain a fair potion of that mess. But this year, Yelich’s swing rate was back right on his career norm of 41.6 percent. In fact, his chase-rates on every kind of pitch were the lowest of his career, per BaseballSavant.com. Whatever the problem this year, it didn’t have much to do with plate-discipline.
And yet Yelich just lost the ability to hit the ball hard. His average exit-velocity dropped to 91.7 MPH, three MPH lower than even 2020, and this was in a season where the new baseball saw most everyone’s average exit-velocity go up. So that three MPH drop plays bigger than it looks. Even on pitches middle-middle that he used to turn into mush as recently as 2019 (100.5 average exit velocity), he couldn’t do all that much with this year (94.0 MPH).
Worse yet, whatever hard contact Yelich was making, or contact at all, was going straight into the ground. Yelich’s ground-ball rate has gone from 43.2 percent in 2019 to 50 percent last year to 54.4 percent in 2021. This might not be the disaster it looks like, or at least not as much of one, as in his MVP year he had a ground-ball rate over 50 percent as well, with an average launch angle of just 5 percent (boy, what the fuck happened that season?). But he made his airborne contact count, and maybe got a little luck (.373 BABIP in 2018). Yelich has always run a crazy-high BABIP even when he was a Marlin, partly due to having plus-speed. But that’s going to be less and less of his game as he moves into his 30s, which he does starting next year.
And even when he was getting balls into the air, he saw a huge drop in how many of them left the park. The previous three seasons, 30+ percent of Yelich’s fly-balls went for homers. This year that figure was 12. And considering the bounce in how hard he’s hitting the ball now, that’s not a fluke. Yelich carried one of the best barrel-rates in 2018 and 2019, but saw that figure fall this year to less than half of his 2019 rate (7.6 percent to 15.8 two years ago). He’s just simply not hitting the ball very hard.
Yelich battled back problems early in the season, and maybe they lingered all season. As everyone on the planet will tell you however, back problems don’t tend to get better in your 30s. The drop in violence on contact might suggest a dip in bat-speed, though Yelich has only seen a slight rise in the number of fastballs he whiffs on from his prime years. But he was more easily beaten up in the zone this year on fastballs, according to BrooksBaseball.net, which could be another sign that he just can’t get there the way he used to.
The Brewers desperately need offense, because they’ll always be in contention as long as that rotation is intact, which it should be, as all those starters are under team control for years. Kolten Wong will be back at second, Willy Adames at short. They may need to find help in center and turn Lorenzo Cain into a bench player, because his splits this year do not suggest he can be a platoon. They should be all over Freddie Freeman, and/or bounce Josh Hader’s needy-ass for whatever hitting they can get (the Blue Jays feel like a prime candidate to overpay for Hader in my head).
But signing free agents isn’t a given, with Yelich being owed $26 million a year until the Earth collapses on itself. The Crew can certainly go above the $114 million they have locked in for next year, but how much they’re willing to is another question. And if this is all they’re getting from Yelich, they’re going to have to work around that for nearly another decade.
The Brewers better hope an offseason of rest is all Yelich needs, because this guy swinging silly putty at the plate is going to be an issue going forward.