Yelich discusses 'terrible' tailspin at plate

Former MVP eyes continued adjustments in hopes of spurring 2nd-half hot streak

July 10th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- The .401 on-base percentage and 118 wRC+ that Christian Yelich carried into Friday night’s game against the Reds does absolutely nothing for him. So Yelich and Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines spent the afternoon out on the field for one of their hour-long sessions with a jarringly simple goal:

“Just learning how to hit again,” Yelich said.

Yelich said a lot of the things you hear from a player in slump a lot deeper than the one his numbers suggest he’s in. Yelich said he is “slowing it down” and “trying to figure things out” and “trying to get back to basics.” He said he’s never struggled like this, “but that’s baseball, and it’s a hard game.”

Then he put it more bluntly.

“I’m trying not to suck anymore,” Yelich said.

These frustrations are going on two years. Yelich, the 2018 National League MVP Award winner in his first season with the Brewers and the runner-up for the award in '19 -- when he missed the final three weeks of the season with a fractured right kneecap from a foul ball -- signed a mega-contract extension with Milwaukee just before the pandemic shut down the sport in March 2020. He has struggled to produce at the same high level since then.

In 2020, he started the year 1-for-27 with 12 strikeouts and finished with a .205/.356/.430 slash line. In '21, he has endured two long stints on the injured list with a low back strain -- Yelich says he is completely healthy now -- and entered Friday slashing .237/.401/.373 with five home runs in his first 227 plate appearances.

“I think I’m pretty bad right now,” he said. “Terrible, actually. But we have a lot of season left and [I'm] just [going to] keep grinding, trying to help the boys and contribute to a winning team.”

He’s buoyed by the Brewers’ success. Milwaukee entered Friday night, their 90th game, with the biggest cushion of the NL’s division leaders -- seven games over the second-place Reds and nine and a half games over the Cardinals and Cubs.

The Brewers have scored more runs of late, especially since shortstop Willy Adames arrived May 22 after a trade with Tampa Bay and provided a jolt of energy. Catcher Omar Narváez continues to produce at a high level offensively. Jace Peterson has been an unexpected contributor while second baseman Kolten Wong is injured.

But without Yelich’s previously gaudy power numbers, the Brewers entered Friday 10th of 15 NL teams with a .382 slugging percentage, and last with a .220 batting average. Opponents have been content to pick around the strike zone against Yelich and limit his pitches to drive.

When he has seen a pitch to hit hard, Yelich has done so less often. His percentage of barrels, measured by Statcast, put him in baseball’s 92nd percentile in 2018 and 97th percentile in ’19 before falling to the 80th percentile in ’20 and the 51st percentile so far in ‘21. His expected slugging percentage was in the 99th percentile in both ’18 and ’19 before falling to the 71st percentile in ’20 and the 32nd percentile in ’21.

This season, his contact percentage on pitches inside the strike zone is 77.2 percent, a career low. After a career-worst 30.8 percent strikeout rate in 2020, he was at 28.6 percent entering Friday.

“It’s been a lot of things, honestly, for the last two years. It’s hard to explain quickly,” Yelich said. “Me and Andy have been talking about it. I know what I want to do, it’s just a matter of being able to do it.”

Does that mean driving the baseball?

“That’s the end result, yeah,” he said. “Literally, we’re starting from square one and trying to figure [stuff] out. It’s been a mess, but that’s part of the game. In the grand scheme of things, it feels like it’s been two years, but it’s been 400 at-bats. It’s been a really [lousy] 400 at-bats.

“I think today was a positive and we’ll try to build off of that.”

He plans to head home to California for the All-Star break to clear his mind, but Yelich wasn’t ready to think about that yet. The Brewers are in a stretch of seven consecutive games against the Reds, with a chance to add to their division lead.

“I think the All-Star break is coming at a good time here,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Four days off with no responsibilities and time to himself is going to be a good thing for Christian. It’s a challenge. I think he’s close to doing what he did in the first half of 2018, but he’s doing it a little differently. He’s getting on base at an elite level. He’s not driving the ball like we’ve seen the second half of ‘18 and ‘19, but he can flip the coin really fast.

“I still think he’s been really productive for us. The break is going to do him good for sure, but most importantly, we’re in a great place health-wise. I know he’s looking forward to finishing this half strong and starting off good in the second half.”

Is Yelich keeping his spirits up?

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “It’s been fun winning. We have a great group of guys and we have a chance to have a special year. No reason not to be in good spirits.”