Finding This Year’s Christian Yelich (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
It’s March of 2018. You just opened another tab in another window on another browser and now, in addition to competing with league-mates for the next pick, you’re also fighting for screen space. You can’t help it. Your turn to draft is rapidly approaching and you are filling a continuously emptying queue as you also check the news for last-minute injuries or updates on a recent trade. This year, in particular, the latter was critical.
Marcell Ozuna was just dealt from the Miami Marlins to the St. Louis Cardinals. Christian Yelich was also shipped to the National League Central to join the Milwaukee Brewers. And, as fate would have it, both players are staring you in the face as the next possible pick for your fantasy team. Which also needs an outfielder.
How do you choose?
Two years later, this is an almost laughable scenario. Not only was Yelich the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2018, but he followed it up with a second-place finish in the MVP race the following year. Even if you missed him the first time, there was another buying opportunity that would have paid dividends. But, it isn’t two years later. Not in this scenario.
According to FantasyPros’ 2018 Average Draft Position data, Ozuna and Yelich were being drafted around the 45th and 48th picks, respectively. As former teammates joining new organizations, these two had direct comparisons that, on the surface, appeared one-sided.
Which is, of course, why we can’t simply look “on the surface.”
Using standard hitting categories of batting average, home runs, and runs batted in, Ozuna not only beat Yelich head-to-head but did so handily. Ozuna batted .312, drove in 124 runs, and belted 37 home runs. Yelich’s numbers in the same categories? A .282 average with 81 runs batted in and 18 home runs. Granted, Yelich had speed, and it led to a big advantage in a league in which stolen bases are scarce. But, all things being equal, the quick look at the two would have, at least, brought about a debate.
What is it, then, that we should have seen in Yelich prior to the 2018 season? And what did the Brewers find that led them to make the trade?
In a narrative sense, Yelich had a clear path to grow by virtue of his age and pedigree. He had been a prospect with potential and was likely undervalued by the perception of slow growth. Being able to trade for a 25-year old hitter with a solid background is, in itself, a positive setup. But, there needed to be a catalyst for the improvement coupled with his stage of development.
He hit the ball harder. I know, splitting the atom here.
Let me rephrase it.
He hit the ball less softly.
It sounds silly and simplistic. It is. But only if we take the two – age and type of contact – individually. If we put them together, the results are quite impressive.
According to FanGraphs, Yelich had a 15.9 soft hit percentage in 2017 – where the lower percentage of time a hitter makes “soft contact,” the better. This came immediately after back-to-back seasons of a soft hit percentage above 17. The 15.9 ranked in the top-50 for all qualified hitters in 2017. To keep with the initial comparison, Ozuna had a soft hit percentage of 18.3 – worse than any of Yelich’s seven seasons, to date.
Not surprisingly, Yelich’s soft hit percentage continued to decrease in his two outstanding seasons with the Brewers, finishing at 14.5 and 14.4 percent in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
We obviously can’t use one hitter to determine a trend, but the analysis had to go backward before we can move forward. Let’s try to support it with more examples.
Carrying the same setup from 2017 to 2018, we can look for any player 26 years old or younger – basically, enough years to have data and a pedigree but still time to develop – and sort by the lowest soft hit percentage in the league.
In 2018, the first name on the list is eye-popping. Almost too good to be true.
Eugenio Suarez, who went from 34 home runs – which we would have gladly taken again – in 2018 to a whopping 49 in 2019 led all qualified players no older than 26 in soft hit percentage the year before his statistical explosion.
The next four names on the list are, in order, Bryce Harper, Nicholas Castellanos, Mookie Betts, and Joey Gallo. To widen the net a bit, hovering around Yelich’s 2017 mark of 15.9 percent would give us a group of Teoscar Hernandez, Trevor Story, Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, and Matt Chapman.
Using FantasyPros’ overall point total rankings from 2019, of the ten players listed above, nine finished in the top-100 – only Joey Gallo missed, due to playing only 70 games – seven landed in the top-50, and, more impressively, four were in the top-15.
Like any trend, it can’t be perfect, but it looks like the same growth potential – age coupled with low soft hit percentage, either compared to the league or compared to prior standards – that resulted in Yelich’s breakout season is repeatable. Which leads us to the obvious question.
Where can we find this year’s Christian Yelich?
Ignoring other factors – park, defense, etc. – and sticking only to the parameters already established, we can identify last year’s top-five hitters in low soft hit percentage and the five clustered around Yelich’s 15.9 – to be consistent with the range. The top-five include three repeats from last year’s tested group in Harper, Story, and Betts. But two new names appear: Yoan Moncada and Dansby Swanson. What makes these two particularly interesting is that, like Yelich, Moncada and Swanson have a history backing a possible surge.
Moving to the 15.9 percentage, the five to consider are Ketel Marte, Pete Alonso, Matt Chapman, Bryan Reynolds, and Francisco Lindor. Again, we have some repeats – and the National League Rookie of the Year in Alonso – but the two key names are Marte and Reynolds. The latter is being touted as a sleeper in many drafts, but Marte is one of the most common regression candidates. According to this trend, that may not be the case. In fact, it’s possible that Marte exceeds his expectations, much like Yelich in his 2019 encore.
It’s certainly a stretch to ask any player to follow Yelich’s footsteps and blossom into one of the league’s best hitters, but the signs are there for an improvement in results due to a better ability to make solid contact. Or, more specifically, to avoid making weak contact.