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Yelich takes unusual path to productivity

Marlins outfielder posted solid numbers in 2015, despite MLB's lowest average launch angle
MLB.com

Christian Yelich isn't a player who attracts a whole lot of attention, unless he's hanging out with his "Saturday Night Live" doppelganger.

After all, Yelich plays for the Marlins, overshadowed by high-profile teammates Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. But since his debut in July 2013, Yelich has proven to be both productive and remarkably consistent, even at ages 21-23.

Christian Yelich isn't a player who attracts a whole lot of attention, unless he's hanging out with his "Saturday Night Live" doppelganger.

After all, Yelich plays for the Marlins, overshadowed by high-profile teammates Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. But since his debut in July 2013, Yelich has proven to be both productive and remarkably consistent, even at ages 21-23.

Weighted runs created-plus is a good, park-adjusted measurement of a player's overall offensive success, where 100 indicates league-average performance. Here are Yelich's wRC+ from the past three seasons.

2013: 117 wRC+ (62 games)
2014: 117 wRC+ (144 games)
2015: 117 wRC+ (126 games)

What's even more impressive than putting up those numbers at those ages is the way Yelich has gone about it. As Statcast™ will help illustrate -- a little later -- it's quite an unusual path.

Yelich draws his fair share of free passes, sprays the ball around the field (see below) and rarely sends it up in the air. In fact, of all qualified hitters since 2013, Yelich has the highest ground-ball rate (61.9 percent) and lowest fly-ball rate (16.0 percent), while almost never generating infield flies (0.6 percent of the time).

Tweet from @AndrewSimonMLB: Christian Yelich's spray chart from 2015. Only four qualifiers hit the ball to center at a higher rate. pic.twitter.com/bDCNtw6C06

As a left-handed batter with good speed and that sort of batted-ball profile, Yelich has shown the ability to maintain a high average on balls in play, with his .365 career BABIP ranking second in the Majors over that span.

By tracking every batted ball, Statcast™ can shed more light on Yelich's unconventional approach at the plate. Of the 373 batters who had at least 100 balls in play in 2015, Yelich generated the lowest average launch angle, at 0.6 degrees. Only three other players -- Sam Fuld, Eduardo Nunez and J.B. Shuck -- ended up at less than 1 degree.

Launch angle affects the trajectory of a batted ball, with anything below 10 degrees typically creating a grounder and anything between 10-25 degrees typically resulting in a line drive. So this information fits with Yelich's high rates of grounders and liners (22.5 percent).

What makes Yelich stand out more is that compared with most players with extremely low launch angles, he hits the ball hard -- and effectively. Last season there were 51 players (minimum 100 balls in play) who posted a sub-5 degree average launch angle. Out of that group, Yelich's 92.1 mph average exit velocity ranked third, behind only teammate Marcell Ozuna and Danny Valencia. It also placed 42nd among all hitters.

Tweet from @AndrewSimonMLB: Christian Yelich had MLB's lowest avg. launch angle in 2015 (min. 100 balls in play), but he does hit it hard. pic.twitter.com/4N289YPWPi

Meanwhile, Yelich's wRC+ ranked sixth out of that group of 51 players, behind Valencia, Devon Travis, Francisco Lindor, Hunter Pence and Yunel Escobar, four of whom logged significantly fewer plate appearances than Yelich. Only 17 of the 51 posted an above-average wRC+, while nine were at 63 or lower.

But while Yelich has shown year-to-year consistency early in his career, he experienced some serious highs and lows in 2015.

The former first-round pick (2010) signed a seven-year, $49.57 million contract with the Marlins not long before Opening Day but endured a rough first two months. He missed more than two weeks with a back injury and put up a .493 OPS over his first 24 games and 100 plate appearances, through May 22.

Yelich responded by hitting .329/.391/.459 from that point forward, despite another stint on the disabled list in August for a right knee contusion. He got particularly hot late in the season, a burst that coincided with a small but clear change in his Statcast™ metrics. For example, here's a look at Yelich's average exit velocity and launch angle before and after he returned from that second trip to the DL on Aug. 25.

Before (92 games): 91.5 mph exit velocity, -0.8-degree launch angle
After (34 games): 93.6 mph exit velocity, 3.9-degree launch angle

Video: MIA@PHI: Yelich picks up eight hits over both games

Late in the season, Yelich also benefited from making more contact and striking out less, but hitting the ball with more authority and loft helped as well. Of his 116 balls in play at an angle greater than 10 degrees, more than one-third came during that 34-game stretch. Yelich also smacked 15 doubles, a triple and a home over that span, accounting for 44 percent of his extra-base hits. (Only about 0.5 percent of all homers last season had less than a 20-degree launch angle).

Moving forward, the shorter dimensions at Marlins Park could help Yelich, who has hit only three of his 20 career home runs there, same as at three different road stadiums. But if Yelich can carry over some of his late-season changes, that also could serve to unlock more power -- and perhaps raise his established performance level even further in his age-24 campaign.

Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Miami Marlins, Christian Yelich