PHOENIX -- “Everyone says they don’t hear the [stuff]. But you hear all the [stuff] everyone says about you.”
The thing about being one of the best hitters on the planet over a two-year span in which you won the National League MVP Award and then finished second the next season is that once the bar is set there, it never comes down.
Just ask Christian Yelich.
“No matter what you do,” said the Brewers outfielder, “even if you try to avoid it, you’re going to find it. I’ve heard all the [stuff] about me the past few years, and it [upsets] you in a sense, but it’s part of the game. You sign a big deal, you don’t play as well as you did before that, you’re gonna hear [stuff]. It comes along with the territory.”
The territory Yelich occupied from 2018-19 was trodden by few contemporaries. He hit .327/.415/.631 with 80 home runs and 52 steals in that period, earning him a nine-year, $215 million contract extension prior to the 2020 season.
In September 2019, Yelich fouled a pitch off his right knee, fracturing the kneecap. Between that and nagging back issues since then, the once elite slugger suddenly found himself in unfamiliar territory that has become all too familiar the past three seasons. From the pandemic-shortened ’20 campaign through ’22, he posted a .745 OPS with 35 homers in just shy of 1,400 plate appearances.
What happened? There’s really no single, neat and tidy answer to that question, making it all the more vexing for Yelich and the Brewers. But this past offseason, he got away from it all for a while. He “unplugged” and “went off the grid,” as he put it. He has returned re-energized, both in mind and -- for whatever a small sample size early in Spring Training is worth -- at the plate.
Through 17 plate appearances in his first six games of Cactus League play, Yelich is 6-for-15 with two doubles, two homers and two walks, good for a .400/.471/.933 slash line (1.404 OPS).
Will 2023 be the year Yelich returns to what he once was? Therein lies perhaps the most challenging element that someone in Yelich’s position -- once at the summit of the sport and now trying to find his way back up from base camp -- has to grapple with: balancing his own high expectations of himself with the necessary grind and uncertainty of the process he must undertake to author a renaissance at the plate.
“Maybe it gets better, and maybe it doesn’t,” Yelich said. “You never know what the season holds. Even when you have a good Spring Training and you feel like you’re in a good spot going into the season, it doesn’t work out that way during the season. And then sometimes you have a really good season after feeling terrible during Spring Training.
“You just never really know. You just have to put yourself in the best position to have success. That’s really all you can do. You’ve just gotta play the game and try to stay healthy.”
What Yelich has given the Brewers the past three seasons is above-average production at the plate (a 107 OPS+), production that the vast majority of hitters in the Majors would gladly put on their résumés. But this is Christian Yelich we’re talking about.
Whether it’s fair or not that anything less than the spectacular seems substandard for Yelich, he gets it. He gets that he’s set the standard incredibly high for himself. And he gets that anything below that will not satiate everyone.
“It kind of feels like, for me, the measuring stick is MVP-level performance every year,” Yelich said. “It’s kind of what’s expected. It’s like, ‘Oh, you need an 1.100 OPS every year.’ And for a lot of people, it’s never going to be good enough -- if you win MVP, you were supposed to, and anything short of that is a disappointment. But you acknowledge that and then you block it out.”
If the earliest returns for Yelich during Spring Training are a guide -- and as he knows well, they may or may not be -- the Brewers, with a tremendous pitching staff from top to bottom, figure to play a prominent role in the 2023 NL Central.
Much like Yelich, the Brewers set the bar extremely high beginning in 2018, falling just one win short of reaching the World Series that fall before returning to the postseason in each of the next three years. Then came a disappointing ’22, in which Milwaukee finished seven games out of first place and missed the playoffs altogether.
For the club and its once prolific slugger, the only “22” that matters now is the one Yelich wears on his back as he steps into the batter’s box.
“I’m going to be the best version of me, whatever that is,” Yelich said. “Maybe it is that [MVP-level guy]. Maybe it’s not. But I don’t think my best is behind me.”