Some might scoff at the idea so soon, but Christian Yelich isn’t just the straw that stirs the Milwaukee Brewers’ drink: he’s already compiling a Hall of Fame resume. A lot can happen between here and eternity, but it’s not too early to appreciate the all-time-level impact of a 27-year-old phenom and consider the trajectory he’s taking.
A self-professed baseball fan would have needed to live under a rock to not have seen or appreciated Christian Yelich‘s superstar 2018 with the Milwaukee Brewers. A triple crown contender to the end of the regular season, Yelich raked his way to a batting title, 36 HR and a cool 1.000 OPS (aesthetically sublime for the numerically OCD amongst us.)
He’s following up that breakout 2018 with something entirely different, though; with one-third of the regular season behind us, Yelich is flirting with another batting title — assuming, unsafely, that Cody Bellinger regresses — and a 1.200 OPS. As of right now, Yelich’s 2019 looks a lot like Miguel Cabrera‘s 2013, when he won the second half of back-to-back MVP awards. And like Cabrera, Yelich has a BB/K ratio that’s improving to almost even, while continuing to hit for power and average.
It has been noted, here, on this writer’s Twitter feed and elsewhere, that Yelich’s swing in no small part resembles no less than Ted Williams, and the production, 2019 baseball composition notwithstanding, is about what one would expect from a Splinter replica: it looks like it, but it’s decidedly not the real thing.
Nevertheless, this is where all-time careers begin, imitation to actualization. And Christian Yelich has not only emerged as a present-day superstar, but has pivoted his career from Miami to Milwaukee and now, toward Cooperstown.
This is where I pump the brakes, albeit slightly, and note that a lot of things could happen between now and a presumptive speech on a steamy day in upstate New York. Yelich could theoretically regress, though there isn’t anything in his body of work suggesting there hasn’t been a natural development in his quality of play and a fortuitous move from the impossibly-gigantic Marlins Park to the hitter-friendly confines of Miller Park and attainable fences throughout the NL Central. (Yelich also, to be fair, has developed swing mechanics that make fence distances more of an arbitrary matter.)
Injuries could derail a promising career. Yelich’s back, which has flared up on occasion, could be a factor. Beyond that, he continues to appear 145-150 games a season. Yelich is the same lanky dude now he always was and seems to take care of himself and his body. Health shouldn’t be much of a variable.
Some seamy scandal could implode his career and reputation.
Let’s be honest: the most likely factor keeping us from saying ‘Christian Yelich, Hall of Famer’ in about 20 years’ time is Christian Yelich. And there is nothing about him, from the outside observer to beat writers with the team on a daily basis, to suggest that he’s not what Tom Haudricourt called “a dream come true.” He’s not going anywhere for a while, a thought that should terrify National League pitchers for the next decade or so.
Consider the Brewers’ all-time career bWAR leaders: Robin Yount (77.3), Paul Molitor (60, 75.7 career), Ryan Braun (46.3), Cecil Cooper (30.7, 36), Don Money (28.4, 36.5, and invoked here at BtB last week.) Yelich is already sitting at a career 30.7, having amassed 4.3 WAR this season, about 1.5 of which he’s piled on in the last three weeks.)
Money was a beloved figure for the Brewers in that ascendant pre-1982 era for the franchise. Cooper, low WAR and all, had a fringe Hall of Fame campaign that Harry Dalton almost singlehandedly murdered and was one of the most feared hitters in an era of feared hitters. Braun is top-five in nearly every offensive category in franchise history — admittedly, the bar is low — and his career is the template for Yelich in that it is a perfect cautionary tale of what not to do (and a rehabilitated, good citizen Braun is probably telling him as much right now.)
In half the time it has taken Braun to get to 46, Yelich will end this season with roughly 35 and an upward trajectory. In my mind, a bWAR of 60 is where I lean toward a default positive case for the Hall of Fame.
He also projects well against JAWS, given his age and experience, Yelich is almost certainly showing signs of arriving at his baseball prime. Jay Jaffe’s system is structured by position; while it wouldn’t be unsurprising for Yelich to move to left field (where it is marginally easier to slide into HoF consideration given those already there) after Braun’s contract is up, he should stay in right as long as he continues to provide value there. Switching out his early career WAR totals for higher totals in his seven-year peak — essential within this matrix — will only make his case more compelling.
According to Bill James‘ Hall of Fame monitor, Yelich is halfway there: he scores 50, a probable case is 100, a lock is 130. Assuming sustained performance, he will add at least 10 points to that total (HR, RBI, runs, and an All-Star Game appearance all count) and could add 20 or more if he goes on another late-season run for the ages as he did in 2018 or if the Brewers win the NL pennant or World Series. Yelich’s high performance and increased profile only improves his chances within this method.
And, for those less inclined toward the alchemy of deep math and sabermetric dark arts, the counting stats are already turning toward Yelich’s favor: he will likely have hit 1,000 in the bag by the All-Star break, will almost certainly have his 200th double by the trade deadline, has already become a career-average .300 hitter with an .862 OPS. Your average Hall of Famer hits for .302, .841. Your median HoF hitter as of 2019? Rick Ferrell, who hit .282 with a .741 OPS.
Let’s project out some: assuming average performance over the last four years and this season’s production, with a level of regression built in over the next ten years, Yelich would have roughly career totals of 2500 hits, 350 HR, 600 2B and 1600 runs scored. Everyone who hit those numbers not named Barry Bonds has a rock solid Hall of Fame case: Hammer, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken Jr. All except Bonds have 3,000 hits.
More likely, Miller Park will take away from Yelich’s doubles and at least get him to 450 HR/2B, a club comprised currently of 27 players (19 currently enshrined, four Steroid Era suspects, three more who are only waiting for Coopertown’s call. And Gary Sheffield, who is probably better than anyone particularly cares to remember, myself included.) Considering this projection includes his still-nascent Marlins tenure, and accept the proposition that Yelich the Brewer is the actualized version, the more far-fetched notion is that he somehow doesn’t make it.
No matter how one runs the numbers, this much is clear: Christian Yelich is favorably projecting not just as a great player, but an all-time great player. He’s not at the point where players either switch to another gear or level off, he’s already passed it. The groundwork for a Hall of Fame resume is in place.
Best of all, the last person concerned about personal accolades and accomplishments is the guy best positioned to earn them. And that’s what gives him the potential to not just be great, but Milwaukee’s best.