Yelich using tough '21 as learning experience entering '22

March 14th, 2022

PHOENIX -- Right up until the moment Christian Yelich watched Will Smith’s slider go by, and home-plate umpire Tony Randazzo called the third strike that ended Game 4 of the National League Division Series and the Brewers’ season, Yelich was confident he was on the cusp of a turnaround.

Confidence, Yelich insisted, was never the problem in 2021.

“In that situation, you're like, ‘Cool, I went through all that [stuff] for this moment right here, and it's going to be great,’” Yelich said. “As soon as you give in, it's over. It's a wrap. It's not going to go well. So, no matter if it's going good or bad, you have to fight it to the end. I can say I did that. Obviously, it didn't go my way, but you can't give in in this game. You have to keep battling.

“I used that as a learning experience, realized it's going to be hard sometimes. Some years you do well, other years you don't. Hopefully, this year is one of those good ones.”

Last year was not one of the good ones for Yelich, who battled a bad back for the first two months of the season and then never found the form that lifted him to superstar status during his first two seasons in Milwaukee in 2018 and ’19. He finished ’21 with the toughest statistical output of his career -- his first sub-.400 slugging percentage for a full season (.373), his lowest OPS (.736) and his first below-average OPS+ (99). He hit nine home runs in 475 plate appearances, his lowest rate since 2015.

Now, having turned 30 in December, Yelich enters the first season of the contract extension signed in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when he was at the height of his skill. Yelich will earn $26 million in each of the next seven seasons.

“He’s had two challenging years, there’s no question about it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “But we think, he thinks, there’s no reason why he can’t have a great year this year.”

That starts with the health of Yelich’s balky back, and he reported that he arrived in camp in a good place. When his offensive numbers didn’t jump last season after he returned from multiple stints on the injured list, many assumed he was still dealing with discomfort that affected his swing. But Yelich and Counsell both insisted Yelich was healthy for the final four-plus months of last year’s regular season. According to Counsell, Yelich never had a day off for the back after May.

This spring, Yelich is getting to know three new hitting coaches. The Brewers dismissed hitting coach Andy Haines -- Yelich’s onetime manager in Miami’s Minor League system -- and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz in favor of a three-man team. Ozzie Timmons and Connor Dawson are co-hitting coaches, and Matt Erickson is the assistant hitting coach. So far, everyone is feeling each other out. Deeper conversations, Yelich said, will come later.

One item for examination: Why did Yelich hit so many ground balls last season? His ratio of 2.29 ground balls for every fly ball was Yelich’s highest since 2016. 

"It's not conscious effort to do that,” Yelich said. “It's just what happens. If you hit ground balls in the big leagues, it's just not going to go well for you. There were just a lot of things that were going on. You can understand what's happening, but being able to fix it and stop it, is a whole other thing. 

“It's hard to really explain. It wasn't anything that I was consciously trying to do or Andy or Cruz was making me do. It's just baseball sometimes. Sometimes, it's hard.”

What would constitute a good season for him?

“It's hard to slap numbers as, ‘This is what I would consider a good season,’” Yelich said. “You just want to contribute to a winning team and be part of a really good team. Do stuff that gets us back into the postseason and hopefully make a run into the postseason.”

He added: “Obviously, we’re trying to take it all the way one of these years and win the World Series. But you can’t do that without getting in first, and you need little goals, little steps throughout the season to do that. … This is a new team, a new group, and this group has nothing to do with the past four years. Just because we’ve been successful around here for that long doesn’t mean it’s going to go well for us this year if we don’t earn it, we don’t work hard to accomplish that goal.”