How Should the Cardinals Handle Christian Yelich From Now On? The Answer: Duck

As a hitter Christian Yelich is punishing the Cardinals with extreme malice. He won the series for Milwaukee by blasting homers in four consecutive games, and capped his batting practice with a walk-off double in the bottom of the 9th Sunday at Miller Park?

Let’s update the scorecard: In 20 games, 89 plate appearances and 72 at-bats against the Cardinals as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, Yelich has been awfully harmful to the health of the Redbirds. He has four doubles, a triple, 10 homers, 23 RBIs, 22 runs, 16 walks and one hit-by-pitch. Then tack on a .438 OBP and .806 slugging percentage, and you have a monster in the batter’s box.

So, what should the Cardinals do? The four-game series was just the start; the Cardinals will play the Brewers six more times through April 24. They’d better come up with a revised plan.

1. Pitching inside isn’t a reliable solution; Yelich likes the ball middle-in, lower-in. He bruises the baseball. Since the start of last season, pitchers have had success against Yelich by pitching him high and tight. But if they miss … if the high-and-tight offering drifts back over the plate, then say bye-bye to the ball.

Here’s a statistic, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Since the start of last season, when pitchers can spot an up-and-in pitch within the strike zone, Yelich has a weak .367 slugging percentage when he puts the ball in play. Great! That’s the plan! OK, but consider this: if the pitch doesn’t get “in” enough and ends up over the plate, his slugging percentage on strikes at the top of the zone is .514. You can’t miss … or he’ll crush it.

2. Throwing at Yelich’s head isn’t an answer; it’s an act of cowardice. Drilling him in the ribs isn’t a proper line of attack; it’s an confession to frustration and failure. It’s telling the world that you stink, and that you can’t cultivate a smart strategy, and that your pitchers aren’t up to the challenge of getting the best of Yelich in a one-on-one matchup.

3. You can try to back him off the plate without imposing bodily harm. Get his feet moving. That’s fair. It isn’t dishonorable. It can be an effective tactic. It’s baseball. Still, if it happens too often, the Brewers would likely take exception, and then everyone would be reaching for the nuclear launch codes … metaphorically speaking, of course. Any so-called brush back of a hot hitter must be done selectively and carefully.

And if a pitch gets away, resulting in a plunking, the situation would escalate in a hurry. If you can’t trust your pitchers to throw fastballs that aren’t heat-and-serve meatballs in the middle of the strike zone — an easy meal for Yelich — then how in hell can you rely on them to be precise in their aim of getting Yelich to flinch?

4. Add a second lefty reliever, a good one, to the bullpen. Lefty vs. lefty should neutralize Yelich, at least to some extent. Um, sorry … but no.  Since becoming a Brewer, Yelich has a 1.009 OPS in 194 plate appearances vs. lefties, and a 1.035 OPS in 475 PA vs. right-handed pitchers.

5. Try to change the pitch selection, and offer up something Yelich isn’t used to seeing. Or expecting. Well, good luck. From Brooks Baseball, here are his batting average and slugging percentage against every pitch type since the start of 2018:

Four-seam fastball: .338 average, .657 SLG (and 16 homers in 201 at-bats.)

  • Sinker: .353 average, .538 SLG.
  • Changeup: .315 average, .640 SLG
  • Slider: .265 average, .529 SLG
  • Cutter: .355 average, .774 SLG
  • Curve: .339 average, .643 SLG
  • Splitter: .143 average, .143 SLG

Don’t get too excited by that .143 against the split-finger fastball. We’re talking about a 20-pitch sample. If a pitcher has a split, then go for it. But they can’t throw a pitch that they don’t have.

“He’s on another planet, man,” Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff told reporters in Milwaukee this weekend. “He’s so special. He’s so balanced. He doesn’t get fooled much. He’s on time with pretty much everything. It’s fun to watch.”

6. Here’s the harrowing reality: this sort-of Pete Davidson look-alike with the smooth left-handed swing is a terrifying presence in the batter’s box … and has been for a while.

In 312 appearances and 268 at-bats in the aftermath of the 2018 All-Star break (including first four games of 2019), Yelich is batting .373 with a .462 OBP and .806 SLG. That’s a 1.268 OPS. His wRC+ since last year’s second half is 228; that means Yelich is 128 percent above league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created.

That’s sick.

“I’ve never seen anyone this good at baseball for this long,” Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun told reporters after his team’s Yelich-driven 5-4 win over STL on Sunday. “I mean, maybe (Barry) Bonds in his prime,” Braun continued. “As great as (Mike) Trout is. I’ve seen Albert Pujols. I’ve never seen anyone this good for this long.”

The Yelich prevention strategy really comes down to this.

You can make excellent pitches that land — without straying — in one of the few holes that can be found in Yelich’s swing.

When in doubt, walk Yelich. And walk him again … and again. Cards manager Mike Shildt declined to walk Yelich in Sunday’s ninth inning Sunday, and the Cardinals paid the price. Shildt challenged Yelich to beat the Cardinals, and that’s like challenging me to eat a rack of ribs from Pappy’s. It’s easy. It’s no challenge at all. The Cardinals paid the price. That’s just silly.

Here’s the surest way to make your team bulletproof against Yelich:  acquire Yelich from Miami instead of, say, Marcell Ozuna. Even if the Marlins at first say no … and no again. It’s too late; for the Cardinals, that opportunity came and went a long time ago. After getting rejected by the Marlins on Yelich — he supposedly wasn’t a trade candidate, because the Marlins were set on keeping him — the Cardinals quickly pivoted to a deal for Ozuna.

It was a history-changing sequence of events, at least in the NL Central.

Milwaukee wouldn’t accept “NO” from the Marlins, the Brewers front office persisted and got Yelich from Miami before last season. And Cardinals pitchers will be absorbing the consequences for at least three more seasons — and most likely through 2022.

Check out the remainder of the team-friendly contract that Yelich signed with Miami in the spring of 2015:

A salary of $9.75 million this season …

And $12.75 million in 2020 …

A modest increase to  $14 million for 2021 …

Finally, a team option for 2022 at a salary of $15 million.

Well, at least the Cardinals have several more years to come up with a successful plan to halt Yelich.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie