The South Atlantic League at the Low-A level features some exciting prospects and players who could be big league superstars within a few years. We continue the league’s All-Stars with the second of the team’s three starting outfielders, Christian Yelich.
Name: Christian Yelich
2011 Team: Greensboro Grasshoppers (MIA)
Basic Batting Stats: .312/.388/.484, 32 doubles, 15 homers, 77 RBI, and 32 stolen bases (5 CS) in 122 games
Fielding Stats: 86 games in left field, .972 Fld%, 6 outfield assists in 86 games in left field and 28 games in centerfield
Yelich was a first round pick by the Marlins in 2010 out of Westlake High School in California and signed for an above-slot 1.7 million dollar bonus. He was touted primarily as a first base prospect coming out of high school but the Marlins decided to play him exclusively in the outfield as a pro in order to take advantage of his speed and athleticism.
Yelich was not your typical first base prospect coming out of high school, possessing excellent speed and a nice smooth stroke with only an average fastball. That profile sounds a lot more like a centerfielder, and the Marlins tried Yelich out in center with solid results (.985 Fld%) in 2011, although he primarily played left field.
Yelich put up an excellent offensive season, hitting for average and power while stealing over 30 bases and posting a very good on-base percentage. But his batted ball tendencies were downright bizarre. When you scroll down Yelich’s Minor League Splits page, the first thing that jumps out is his HR/OFB%, the percentage of home runs he hit among his flyballs to the outfield. His HR/OFB% came in at 19.2%, well above the league average of 9.1%. That isn’t so crazy, but Yelich hit just 15 home runs! Scrolling a little further down on the page, we get to his batted ball ratios. And those are pretty outlandish. His LD% (line drive percentage among his batted balls) was an impressive 22.2%, well above the league average of 16.4%, but he hit way too many balls on the ground, 53.7% of his batted balls compared to the league average of 42.8%. The only reason that Yelich was able to get away with that is because he’s so fast and was able to beat out decent percentage of those groundballs in addition to the groundballs that went for hits by pure luck. Yelich didn’t hit very many flyballs at all, just 21.9% of his batted balls compared to the league average of 26.4%. But among his batted balls, Yelich was extremely efficient. A minuscule 1.3% of his flyballs were pop-ups on the infield, exponentially better than the league average of 19.8%. When Yelich hit the ball in the air, he hit for tons power, with 30.2% of his line drives and flyballs ending up as extra-base hits. But well over half his batted balls were groundballs, preventing Yelich from posting elite power numbers. Yelich was basically two different hitters meshed into one: a Juan Pierre-esque hitter that hit tons of groundballs but beat a lot of them out and a healthy Josh Hamilton-esque hitter that hit everything hard for extra-base hit after extra-base hit. Yelich’s BAbip was .373, right around where it should have been, but it’s insane how he got there. The results were spectacular: Yelich’s .312 batting average led all Sally League qualifiers (minimum 3.1 PA’s per game which in this case is 434 plate appearances). But Yelich has to right his batting ball tendencies to maximize his potential. If he can trade a bunch of groundballs for flyballs to the outfield, he’ll hit for more power and his batting average won’t suffer very much because he’ll still have the speed to beat out groundballs.
Yelich’s strikeout rate came in just below the league average of 20.1% at 19.6% of his plate appearances, a nice mark for a first baseman. Yelich’s 59.2% contact percentage on his swings was exactly the league average to one decimal place. You almost want that to rise a little though because Yelich needs to swing more aggressively in order to utilize more of his power. Yelich showed a nice eye, walking unintentionally in 10.4% of his plate appearances compared to the 8.3% league average as he was willing to be patient and either wait for his pitch or get on-base and steal bases. Yelich was somewhat of a pick-his-spots type of power hitter like Rays fans saw from Casey Kotchman in 2011 (Baseball America actually compared Yelich to Kotchman, but Yelich’s speed makes it an irrational comparison and Yelich has more power than Kotchman anyway), and he did do well in that regard, but he could be even more of an extra-base threat in the batter’s box.
On the season, Yelich showed a lot of potential at the plate and showed off his skills. However, he needs to commit to being a power hitter to maximize his potential.
Yelich put up very nice numbers in his first full season as a pro and showed scouts why he was a first round pick in 2010. Yelich has the ability to be a very productive corner outfielder even if he can’t handle centerfield, being a 25-40 threat (25 homers and 40 stolen bases) while hitting for a nice average. Yelich is extremely athletic for a 6-4 player and that athletic ability sets him apart as a prospect. He has a graceful line drive swing that helped hit for a high average and 2011 and as he swings more aggressively, should help him hit for a good amount of power. Yelich is the Marlins’ best prospect and the expectations are for him to only get better in coming seasons. He has the ability to be the next young star that the Marlins developed, and he’ll look to keep showing that type of potential at High-A in 2012.