MILWAUKEE -- It took a while, but Christian Yelich is on the board in 2022.
Yelich’s first home run of the year was a two-out grand slam to the second deck in the fourth inning of the Brewers’ 6-1 win over the Pirates at American Family Field, the latest loud contact for a hitter who has spent the past two years searching for his power.
“You want to get rid of all those zeroes as fast as you can,” Yelich said. “It's out of your control, but it's definitely nice to get the first one -- especially like that.”
Yelich’s fourth career slam ended a power drought that dated to last Sept. 24 against the Mets. He went homerless the rest of the way in 2021, including in the National League Division Series against the Braves, then went homerless in Spring Training and the Brewers’ first 10 regular-season games of ‘22 before connecting in Game No. 11 against Pirates right-hander Zach Thompson.
Home runs have been hard to come by so far for the Brewers. They entered Monday with just five this season, tied with the Pirates and Royals for the second fewest in MLB ahead of only the Orioles’ four.
"It's a fun thing to see, isn't it?” said Brewers starter Eric Lauer, who did his part by holding the Pirates to a solo home run over six innings. “It's fun to watch him kind of be in that zone again and watch Yeli be Yeli. That's what everybody's used to seeing. That's what we expect out of him. I think there's only more to come."
Yelich hit nine home runs all of last season while posting a .735 OPS in his least productive year in the big leagues. It was part of a team-wide funk -- particularly late in the year -- that led to the dismissal of hitting coach Andy Haines, who was hired by the Pirates over the winter and returned on Monday for the first time with his new team.
He and Yelich go back to the left fielder’s earliest years in the Marlins’ farm system, and yet not even Haines could unlock the mystery of Yelich’s slide from NL MVP Award winner in 2018 and runner-up in ‘19 to a relatively pedestrian hitter in the shortened ‘20 season and one who downright struggled in ‘21 when, for the first time in his career, Yelich posted an adjusted OPS below league average. Brewers officials said the decision to dismiss Haines was not directly related to any one player, arguing that new voices were needed.
“The hitting world is challenging,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I don’t have it figured out and I don't think the industry has as good a handle on it as some other areas, so it’s led to more change in that position. We have to get better at it. We have to get better at understanding it so we can make better decisions there and reward the people who are doing good jobs.”
Said Yelich: “I think something that Andy did really well is that nobody worked harder than this guy. I know everyone's going to say, like, 'Oh, it's your guy, you've known him forever.' But even if I didn't know Andy, you can objectively say this guy works his [rear end] off. He would text me at 2:30 in the morning, like, 'Hey, I saw this. This is what we're going to work on tomorrow. Don't text me back. I'll see [you on] the field tomorrow. Let's go.' That's awesome. He had all this energy. Always helping guys. Just kind of 'wearing it.'
“It is what it is. Guys move on. Half the league fired their hitting coaches last year.”
Monday afternoon marked the first time that Haines addressed questions about the Brewers’ decision to rebuild their hitting department with three coaches: Co-hitting coaches Ozzie Timmons and Connor Dawson and assistant hitting coach Matt Erickson.
“My respect level for [Brewers president of baseball operations] David Stearns and Counsell is as high as it can be. I was not going to press David for hard reasons [for my dismissal],” Haines said. “For lack of a better term, he and ‘Couns’ have been brilliant decision makers. I also told them I accept it but I don’t agree with it. I’m not going to concede that. I wouldn’t have a chance to be good at this job if I did, to be honest.”
On one point, everyone agreed: Hitting is hard. Coaching hitting might be even harder.
"You know, I think it's a really unfair job,” Yelich said. “It's a tough job to have because you don't really get any credit, and you get all the blame.”
The same can be true for highly-compensated players. But Yelich is off to a promising start to 2022, leading Brewers regulars so far in percentage of barrels, hard-hit percentage and average exit velocity.
“All he can do is put everything on the table every day to be the best player that he can, and he does that every single day,” Counsell said. “That’s all you can ask for as a player. There’s no question we need him to reach our goals. He’s doing everything he can every day to try to get there and try to be that productive hitter he knows he’s capable of.”