For the first five seasons of his big league career, Yelich was a good player but not outstanding. His batting average hovered around .285. He hit a home run on occasion. Then came 2018, the season the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder erupted, claiming the National League MVP award with a .326 batting average, .598 slugging percentage and 36 homers. He hasn’t slowed down his torrid pace this year, batting .328 with a .667 slugging percentage. For much of the season he had a legitimate shot at becoming the first NL Triple Crown winner since 1937.
At 6-foot-3 and a shade under 200 pounds, Yelich is lean, his swing sweet, powerful and pure. He has hit 41 home runs this season, and he may become the first player not connected with steroids to top Roger Maris’s 61 from 1961. Yelich also could win his second straight MVP award. At 26 a season ago, he led Milwaukee to within a game of the World Series. This season, the Brewers are 69-66, four games back in the race for the second wild card. Yelich, though, may only now be entering his prime.
How he went from good to great traces to a tweak he made last summer, around the all-star break. It was subtle, barely noticeable on film. It’s about as scientific as Yelich has ever gotten on a baseball field: He decided to stand slightly taller in the box, from somewhat wide in his stance to more upright.
“Just what feels natural, a little taller,” Yelich said softly before playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in July. “That’s really it.”
Yelich, 27, functions without the diligence that keeps most elite hitters in check. In this age of technicality — spread your feet, bend your knees, lower your hands, shorten your stride — he doesn’t regard it. The reasoning: He wants to feel powerful and strong, but he doesn’t want to make a conscious effort when swinging. He knows his own swing, not the generic understanding of good hitting. If he were to sit down and analyze his stroke on a computer, he says, he wouldn’t have much to say.
“He’s on the quieter side,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said. “He doesn’t look like the prototypical home run hitter. Yet he is a prototypical home run hitter in a lot of ways.”
His length creates leverage, the popular baseball term used to describe the movement in force from lower to upper body. He has a natural ability to hit to all fields. Teammate Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL MVP, has compared him to Barry Bonds. Like Bonds, Yelich generates tremendous power from the ground.
Asked about the use of his back side, Yelich shrugged. Asked about his beautiful swing, he shrugged again. “It just happens,” he said.
To be sure, he takes the job seriously. He’s often one of the first Brewers to arrive at the ballpark. His routine that follows is not elaborate. He hits some flips and sometimes takes batting practice on the field. If there’s any sort of focal point, any queue that matters to Yelich, it’s how he begins his hitting approach, which is both violent and calm. When his body is aligned and he’s on time, he initiates his swing. The rare at-bats when he runs into trouble come when he’s not aligned or ready in his pre-pitch movements, said Andy Haines, the Brewers’ hitting coach.
Haines has followed Yelich since the Miami Marlins made him a first-round draft pick in 2010. He can’t single out any aspect of his approach or look to any single metric that explains the hitter he has become. But Haines has noticed this, frequently: Yelich mis-hits groundballs, yet they end up going about 100 mph through the infield.
He praised Yelich’s easygoing attitude at the plate. Given the results, the Brewers are not concerned with his approach.
“It’s the epitome of naturally getting his power the right way,” Haines said. “In his swing, a lot lines up for him naturally. When that happens, you don’t want to get in the way.
“He’d be upset with me even mentioning the term launch angle because it implies that you get a certain angle and then there’s this easy task to hit well. He simplifies. There’s no crutch he uses as far as sayings that many guys go to.”
The tee has long been a tool many hitters rely on to tweak mechanics. The last time Yelich hit off a batting tee was … he can’t remember. It has been several years, at least. During the offseason, while many hitters continually revamp their swing, he keeps things the same. Aside from keeping his bat model the same since rookie ball a decade ago — Louisville Slugger S318 — he’s not concerned with the details other players obsess over.
Bat size? “Uh, I don’t know.”
Music? “No music. I just talk to the guys, joke around.”
Pregame ritual? “Stay loose.”
“[I’m] just going with the flow," he continued. "I take a natural swing and see what happens.”
Yelich grew up without a private hitting coach. He’s the first in his family to play baseball, and he has never looked up to a particular hitter. He does just about everything right as a hitter, yet he doesn’t think about that. He prefers to carry on the same way he has since he became a top high school prospect in Southern California: with a gentle demeanor and bashful smile.
“What I’ve had going on in my life the past year or so, it’s very cool if you take a step back and appreciate it,” he said. “Instead of just always having your head down, grinding, blocking everything out, sometimes you just need to enjoy it all.”