After tough '20, Yelich ready for 'fresh start'

February 26th, 2021

PHOENIX -- Brewers fans prefer the batting title-winning, MVP Award-contending version of . But self-deprecating Christian Yelich can be entertaining from time to time.

Take Friday, when Yelich was asked to assess the totality of his 2020, everything from the brutal start to the better finish.

“I thought it went pretty good,” he deadpanned. “How about you?”

Then he answered for real.

“I thought I was pretty much all-around terrible,” Yelich said. “It just wasn’t good. But it is what it is. This is baseball. That stuff happens. You can’t change it now and you can’t do anything about it. Good or bad, what you did the previous year doesn’t matter because you can’t do anything about it. Whether you were the MVP the previous year or you [stunk], everybody starts at zero in Spring Training and the new year.

“We live in a business where it’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ What I’ve done lately is play terribly. So, I’m looking forward to a fresh start and starting a new year.”

If he’ll permit one final look back, what a year it was for the Brewers’ best player. After winning the National League MVP Award in his debut season in Milwaukee in 2018 and finishing runner-up in ‘19, and winning the first two batting titles in franchise history, Yelich was rewarded with a new contract that extended his current deal by seven years and positioned him to stay with the Brewers through at least 2028 and potentially through ’29, which would be his age 37 season. Yelich sat for a press conference and talked of finishing his career as a Brewer.

That was March 6.

The glow lasted less than a week.

On March 12, baseball suspended Spring Training due to the coronavirus pandemic. Players scattered, then gathered back at the beginning of July to prepare for a 60-game regular season, which saw Yelich go 1-for-27 with 12 strikeouts at the start, and never completely recover. His hard-hit rate remained sky high, but his strikeout rate soared (20.2 percent in 2019 to 30.8 percent in ’20) while his swing rate plummeted (45.2 percent in ’19 to 34.6 percent in ’20). He admitted to feeling lost at times in the batter’s box.

Self-deprecating Yelich became a semi-regular attendee of the Brewers’ Zoom Room. Remember the pop-up down the left-field line in Chicago that became an inside-the-park home run because White Sox outfielder Eloy Jiménez got tangled in the net? Yelich called it the luckiest homer in baseball history, called his recent performance “a zoo,” and said, “it was nice to be able to differentiate balls and strikes again instead of just blindly waving at things and hoping they throw something off your bat."

About a week later, after his home run at Wrigley Field provided the margin of victory over the Cubs, Yelich credited a bucket of bubble gum. He was so bad in his first two at-bats that night, Yelich explained, that he popped some gum before his third time up so he’d have something else to think about.

All season, that’s how it went. He found ways to fight through it.

After the season, Yelich set about fixing it. He has some ideas about what went wrong but opted not to share them with the 29 other MLB teams.

“I feel like I know and have a handle on it, and some other people do as well,” he said.

One of those people is Andy Haines. Yelich and Haines go all the way back to 2011 at Class A Greensboro, when Haines was a young manager and Yelich was having his breakout season as a prospect. Haines joined the Brewers as hitting coach in 2018, two weeks before Yelich was named NL MVP.

During the winter, Yelich traveled to Haines’ home in Nashville to spend time talking about hitting and working through some adjustments. Haines participated in similar sessions with other Brewers hitters, traveling to Miami, for example, to see Omar Narváez and Avisaíl García.

"I've known him for, what, probably 12 years now, and he's known me since I was 18 years old,” Yelich said. “He's seen me in a lot of different stages in my career. He's seen me play really well. We've been through a lot together. So, I had no hesitation really to -- I really wanted to go out there. It's a different environment. You can really work on some things. You can really just take your time and do whatever. So, that's what we wanted to do. I thought it was a productive trip."

Said Haines: “[What] 2020 showed us was nothing is automatic in the game. However, I just don’t worry much about Christian. I’m pretty excited for him to get a full, normal Spring Training. Christian having normal preparation -- and he doesn’t need extra motivation. I know people might think there’s some there. But the way he’s made, he never lacks motivation anyway. He’s always pretty much on a mission.”

There are a couple of big changes around Yelich. Ryan Braun is gone, though he’s not yet formally retired. And Lorenzo Cain is back after electing not to play last season. A return to form for Yelich would be the most impactful addition of all, and he is motivated to make it happen.

“If you're not motivated, stay at home, kind of, in my opinion,” Yelich said. “A Major League season requires so much out of you. It asks for a lot. You have to give the game a lot and if you're not willing to meet the game at that level, it's not going to go well for you.

“So, previous seasons are irrelevant in my opinion. They have no bearing on what you need to do in the future. Every year is a fresh start."