The Milwaukee Brewers, the most talked about playoff team, fell short yesterday in a manner that befits a team most people didn't know existed. They scored six runs in four games and were shut out twice. The dramatic Game 4 was a big factor, but it wasn't enough to make them whimper.
The Brewers had more than enough pitching. This was their M.O. All season. The National League's best rotation was made up of Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta. They cruised to the title despite their offense being basically Suck Balls Mountain.
This is an odd thing to say about a team with a former MVP on its roster. The big question for the Brewers heading in to the winter is what happened to Christian Yelich.
Yelich actually had a better 2019 season than his MVP 2018 campaign. With less than a month left, Yelich broke his kneecap and has not been the same since. The 2020 season-in-a can was a far cry from his Milwaukee two, but it could be viewed as one of those strange ones due to the unusual circumstances.
Yelich's.248/.362/.373 was slashed for an absolutely average 101 wRC+. Yelich enjoyed a great August, after returning from a positive COVID testing. Brewers fans may have started to believe he would close with a bang. He instead slugged on the streets with a.305 slugging percent in September and then topped it off by going 3-for-17 in the Division Series (all singles).
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What's the matter with him?
Yelich almost stopped swinging at all last season. Yelich watched pitches pass by him and hoped for better. His walk rate (13.8% to 18.6) and strikeout rates (20.3 to 30.8) both increased. That would explain a lot of the mess. Yelich's swing rate this year was 41.6 percent, which is his career average. According to BaseballSavant.com, Yelich's chase-rates for all types of pitches were among the lowest in his career. The problem was not related to plate discipline, however.
Yet, Yelich lost his ability to hit the ball well. Yelich's average exit velocity dropped to 91.7 MPH. This was three MPH less than 2020. And this was during a season when most people's average exit velocity went up. This three-MPH drop is much more significant than it appears. He couldn't handle the 94.0 MPH he received this year, even on pitches middle-middle.
Worse, any contact Yelich made, or none at all, went straight into the ground. Yelich's ground-ball rate has increased from 43.2 percent to 50 percent in 2019, to 54.4 percent in 2020. It might not be as disastrous as it seems, or at least not nearly as bad as it appears. Yelich had a ground ball rate of over 50 percent in his MVP season, and an average launch angle just 5 percent. He made his airborne contact count and had some luck in 2018, with a.373 BABIP. Yelich's insanely high BABIP has been a hallmark of his Marlin days, partly because he is a Marlin. As he enters his 30s, that will be less of his game.
Even when he was getting the balls in the air, he noticed a significant drop in the number of people leaving the park. In the previous three seasons, 30%+ of Yelichs' fly-balls were for homers. That number was 12. That's not an accident considering how hard Yelich hits the ball now. Yelich had one of the highest barrel-rates in 2018, but that number fell to half of what he achieved in 2019, (7.6 percent to 15.8 compared to 7.6 percent two years ago). He's simply not hitting the ball hard enough.
Yelich had back issues early in the season. Maybe they lingered throughout. Back problems don't tend to get worse in your 30s, as everyone will tell you. Although Yelich has seen a decrease in violence on contact, he has not seen an increase in the number fastballs that he whiffs from his prime years. BrooksBaseball.net reported that Yelich was less likely to be in the zone on fastballs this year, which could indicate that he isn't getting there as well.
They need offense because the Brewers will always be in contention so long as their rotation is intact. This should be possible since all of those starters have been under team control for many years. Kolten Wong, Willy Adames and shortstop will return to second. Because Lorenzo Cain's splits this season don't suggest that he is capable of being a platoon player, they may need to look for help in the center. They should grab Freddie Freeman and/or bounce Josh Haders for any hitting (the Blue Jays seem like a prime candidate for Hader).
Yelich is owed $26million per year, so signing free agents is not an option. Although they can definitely go over the $114 million they have secured for next year's contract, it is not clear how much they are willing to pay. They'll have to make do with what they get from Yelich for almost a decade if that's all.
Yelich will be a problem for the Brewers in the future, so they should hope Yelich gets an offseason.