MILWAUKEE -- Had he spent the final three weeks of the season in action rather than on crutches, perhaps Christian Yelich would have heard his name called Thursday when the Baseball Writers Association of America handed out the MVP Awards.
It was a bittersweet finish for Yelich, who has become good friends with Bellinger over the last year or so, even going head-to-head in MLB’s “Belli vs. Yeli” ad campaign. The two were jockeying in the MVP race with Rendon and the D-backs' Ketel Marte before Yelich fractured his right kneecap on a foul ball with about three weeks of regular season remaining. Yelich congratulated Bellinger on Instagram on Thursday night.
“It was well-deserved [for Bellinger],” Yelich said a few minutes after the result was announced on MLB Network. “He had a great season, definitely an MVP-caliber one. I’m happy for him. … I figured that once I got hurt, that was a wrap on that. But I guess you never really know until the end.”
Bellinger led the way with 19 first-place votes to Yelich’s 10 and Rendon’s one, denying Yelich a second straight season winning the honor.
“The fact that some people still saw me as worthy to garner a first-place vote and thought that it was an MVP-caliber season is pretty cool,” he said. “[The injury] is not the ending that you draw up. For your season to end like that is really frustrating. It’s part of the game. It’s still an honor to finish in the top three and have some first-place votes.”
Before fouling a pitch off his right kneecap on Sept. 10 in Miami, Yelich hit .329 with 44 home runs, 97 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. He already had enough plate appearances to qualify, so he finished the season as the NL’s batting champion for the second straight year while also leading the league in categories ranging from old school to new age.
“You can affect the game in different ways every night, whether it’s a stolen base or hitting a homer,” Yelich said during Thursday’s awards show. “That was my mindset going into the season. I didn’t think about last year at all or anything I did in 2018. I just always wanted to improve on that and prove that it wasn’t a fluke. It was something I was capable of.”
Whether you prefer to keep things simple or dive deep into the stats, you can take your pick and Yelich likely led the way. He topped the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and thus OPS, runs created, weighted runs created plus and deserved runs created plus, weighted on-base average, win probability added, situational wins added, adjusted batting runs, adjusted batting wins and baserunning score.
Yelich led the three NL MVP Award finalists in stolen bases. He tied Bellinger for the league lead in Fangraphs’ version of wins above replacement and finished second to Bellinger in the Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus versions of WAR.
All despite missing the Brewers’ final 18 regular-season games.
“And that’s how good his season was,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said earlier in the week. “That’s the simplest way to say it. He’s got a really good chance and should win because his season was just that good.”
Bellinger and Yelich both started the season scorching hot, Yelich matching a Major League record by hitting a home run in each of his team’s first four games. They jockeyed for the Major League lead in home runs before Yelich pulled ahead a bit in other categories during the second half.
Yelich hit three home runs and matched the Brewers’ record with seven RBIs in an April 15 win against the Cardinals. He also tallied five hits while hitting home runs No. 40 and 41 in an epic,14-inning win at Washington on Aug. 17.
But if you ask Counsell, Yelich’s best game was Sept. 7 against the Cubs at Miller Park, when it was clear Chicago wasn’t going to give Yelich anything to hit and he won the game anyway. In his first four at-bats that night, Yelich singled, walked three times and stole three bases to become baseball’s first 40/30 player since teammate Ryan Braun in 2012 (Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies later joined that club).
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Yelich finally got something good to hit and poked a walk-off double to the left-field corner for the second of Milwaukee’s seven straight victories. It was part of a stretch of 18 wins in 20 games that coincided with Yelich’s injury.
The Brewers believed they were getting good value when they sent four premium prospects to the Marlins for Yelich on Jan. 25, 2018.
They could not have imagined this.
“Nope,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said this week at MLB’s GM Meetings. “No one can imagine that. We thought we were trading for a good player. He’s taken it upon himself to turn himself into one of the elite players in the game, and we’re very fortunate for that.”
In terms of his knee, the Brewers expect Yelich to be full-go well before the start of Spring Training.
“The timetable, there’s been no surprises,” Counsell said this week. “Progress has been at every step. He’s doing really well. We get periodic updates and they’ve all been positive.”
Said Yelich, “I’m basically just building back strength in my quad and slowly progressing to running and getting back to normal. We’re a pretty good ways out now, and it’s looking like it will be a full recovery before Spring Training. It should be like it never happened.”