Christian Yelich did something he’d never done before on Tuesday, hitting a ball 499 feet for one of the more colossal home runs you’ll ever see. It measured as the longest homer in the majors since 2019 and the third-longest since Statcast was introduced in ’15, as well as the longest recorded by a left-handed hitter at Coors Field. While the length of the ball’s majestic flight was surely helped by Denver’s thin air, this would’ve been long gone anywhere and far outpaced Yelich’s previous career best of 462 feet.
Yelich’s moon shot, his first since Aug. 28, was a reminder of what Milwaukee has been missing in recent seasons. It has not been Yelich’s fault that the Brewers have steadily drifted away from the Cardinals in the National League Central standings over the last month and failed to surpass the Phillies or Padres in the wild-card race; the 30-year-old has actually been quite good, while the Crew’s usually steady pitching has faltered in the wake of the Josh Hader trade. Indeed, the Brewers blew what was a five-run lead in the eighth inning Tuesday to lose to the Rockies in extra innings and waste Yelich’s leadoff home run. Meanwhile Philadelphia and San Diego each won to put Milwaukee three games behind both teams in the race for the NL’s second and third wild cards. The first spot almost certainly will belong to either the Mets or the Braves. (More on that race later.)
But with the NL Central race just about over—St. Louis owns an 8.5-game lead with less than a month to go and holds a 98.5% chance of winning the division, per FanGraphs—it’s hard not to see the contrast in how each team’s superstars have played. While the Cardinals have gotten the best out of their two NL MVP candidates, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the Brewers have only gotten a shell of their former MVP winner, Yelich. Milwaukee sure could use more of what the three-time Silver Slugger conjured up Tuesday, as his numbers this season have been far closer to what they’ve been in the previous two disappointing seasons compared to what the team’s brain trust expected from him coming into 2022.
For the first couple months of the season, Brewers manager Craig Counsell slotted Yelich third in the batting order, reflecting trust in him to drive in runs with extra-base hits. But he’s produced those less often than ever. His slugging percentages over the past two seasons are the two worst marks of his career. Yelich’s home run Tuesday was just his 12th of the season. Even in 2020, the beginning of his decline, he hit 12 homers in fewer than half as many games during the pandemic-shortened season. He’s collected just 33 home runs over the past three seasons after he had 80 in his two MVP-worthy campaigns. (He won the award in ’18, and then was even better in ’19, but a season-ending knee injury in early September cost him the remaining few weeks of the season; ultimately, he finished second to Cody Bellinger.) This year, he’s endured homer droughts of 32, 26 and 14 games, rounded the bases just twice in both May and June and had just eight long balls at the All-Star break. Perhaps his current streak of three home runs in eight games means he’s finding his power stroke. But he also connected on three homers in six games between late April and early May, only to hit one in his next 32 games.
This isn’t just about hitting balls out of the park, though. Indeed, the Brewers rank third in homers this season. The team’s overall offense ranks closer to the middle of the pack, however, and Yelich’s production has stagnated. His 57.4% ground-ball rate is the highest it’s been during his Milwaukee tenure, and his 9.1% barrel rate is a far cry from his 2019 peak of 15.8%. While his average exit velocity remains around the 90th percentile of the league, his launch angle has decreased and placed a ceiling on his output. His 109 wRC+ over the past three seasons is equal to the paces set by outfielders Ramón Laureano of the A’s and Chas McCormick of the Astros, and his .750 OPS this year is lower than teammate Jace Peterson’s. The Brewers, as demonstrated by their decision to trade Hader in the middle of a playoff race due to his looming free agency after next season (and perhaps some signs of regression), can’t afford their $215 million man to hit like a couple of defense-focused outfielders and a 32-year-old journeyman. Yelich is signed through ’28 and the next few years could get ugly if the two-time batting champion can’t come a little closer to his previous heights while Milwaukee’s standard of excellent pitching tails off.
You can’t ignore that injuries have been a part of the story here since. In addition to the fractured kneecap that ended his ’19 season early, his lower back bothered him through much of last year. But that also can’t be the explanation in a season when he hasn’t spent time on the injured list.
To Yelich’s credit, his production has improved since he was moved to the leadoff spot on June 8. Maybe Milwaukee wants him to focus more on getting on base rather than rounding the bases himself. But the Brewers are missing an opportunity to capitalize on what’s been a far better lineup around him than many expected going into this year.
The Brewers have been relegated to the wild-card race, but that’s not such a bad place to be these days. Even if they’d lived up to the most optimistic preseason expectations, they would’ve wound up in the first round of the playoffs as the NL Central champion and No. 3 seed, anyway, just as St. Louis will. And they may even make up for finishing behind the Cardinals in the regular season by beating them in a three-game playoff series, where their accomplished rotation would be set up to succeed. But they have to get there first, and to do so, it’d help a whole lot to have the face of the franchise slugger actually slugging again.
• The Mets’ NL East lead, 10.5 games at the start of June and seven games Aug. 11, is officially gone. After New York lost to the Pirates and Atlanta escaped Oakland with a wild 10–9 win, the two teams are tied atop the division entering Wednesday. The Braves have now won six in a row, while the Mets have lost three straight against a pair of last-place teams, Washington and Pittsburgh. The battle for the NL’s No. 2 seed and the first-round bye that comes with it should be the best of the many miniraces set to take place in the first year of a 12-team postseason field; both teams are on pace to reach 100 wins and qualify as each other’s fiercest in-division rivals. The Braves have a superior run differential (+156 to +115), while the Mets have a better record against winning teams (39–30 vs. 27–30) and a softer schedule down the stretch. Circle their only remaining series against each other, on the final weekend of the regular season, in Atlanta, on your calendar.
• Orioles shortstop Jorge Mateo has been one of baseball’s best defenders this season, but his best defensive play may have come outside the diamond Tuesday. He somehow managed to hold back both Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernández on the outskirts of a dugout-clearing incident in Baltimore. Both Blue Jays came charging hard out of the opposing dugout, but Mateo managed to contain each of them quite well, enough so that the argument didn’t escalate into a brouhaha or a fracas or whatever the heck we call basebrawls in which no punches are thrown. Yeoman’s work here by the 27-year-old, who may deserve a nomination from Orioles pitcher Bryan Baker for teammate of the year.
• Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel may or may not have turned around his season by letting his wife change his walk-out song to “Let It Go” for International Women’s Day and just letting it ride ever since. Here’s to hoping this bit goes all the way to an elimination game in the playoffs.
More MLB coverage:
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• What History Tells Us About Aaron Judge’s Pursuit of 61 Home Runs
• Albert Pujols Is Writing the Perfect Ending to His Legendary Career