2020 Underachiever Series Part Five: Christian Yelich and Javier Baez

by Mickey Bell

To recap the articles so far, I buy Cody Bellinger and Yordan Alvarez as values, sell Keston Hiura, and fall somewhere in the middle with Gleyber Torres, Austin Meadows, Victor Robles, and Yoan Moncada. Please check out Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four of this series as well.

Christian Yelich – OF – Milwaukee Brewers
Age: 29
2020 Yahoo preseason rank: 2
2020 final rank: 136
2021 ADP: 11

Yelich went around 2nd overall last year, especially after Mike Trout’s uncertainty around playing arose. But even at that draft spot, he had injury risk related to a fractured knee cap and back issues. As you can see above, Yelich had elite counting stats but a 0.205 average sunk his value. His K% rose to 30% compared to his career 21.2%. He seemed too patient; his Swing% went from 45.1% in 2019 to 34.8% in 2020. With the amount of strikes he watched go by, no wonder he struck out so much! Despite these results, Yelich is still going 11th overall and for good reason.

Yelich started the season 1-for-27 in July (the first six games). From then on, he had an 0.867 OPS with a still subpar 0.237 average (career low before last year: 0.282). That 0.867 OPS lines up with his career average (0.870) but not with his superhuman 2018 and 2019 seasons in which had OPSes of 1.000 and 1.100, respectively.

My Steamer-based z-scores rank Yelich as the 12th best player overall with a 0.901 OPS. This could potentially be a conservative projection considering how unlucky Yelich was last year. His BABIP was 0.259 compared to 0.354 for his career (and his 81st percentile sprint speed suggests this was not an issue with athleticism). Yelich’s splits show he had a 0.169 average with a 0.213 BABIP against righties whom he normally crushes.

His overall xBA (expected batting average) was 45 points higher than his actual results, and his exit velocity and Hard Hit % were both in the top 2% in the league. In fact, Yelich’s 55.6% Hard Hit % was the highest of his career by 4.8%! Considering the authority with which Yelich hits the ball, he will certainly see positive regression toward his career averages. Draft Yelich with the guarantee of a solid floor and the upside of him rebounding to 2018/19 levels.

Javier Baez – SS – Chicago Cubs
Age: 28
2020 Yahoo preseason rank: 18
2020 final rank: 353
2021 ADP: 71

The no-look tags, the laser rocket arm (to quote James’s mortal enemy Peyton Manning), the heady baserunning, the physics-defying slides, the free-swinging madness, the moonshot homers, and the pregame trips to Starbucks in full uniform. When on his game, there is no major leaguer more exciting than El Mago.

However, Baez finished 2020 with a 0.599 OPS (3rd worst percentile in wOBA) in 59 games. If you guessed Baez’s free-swinging ways caught up to him, I would not blame you. But that is not what happened. His Chase % dropped four points and his 1st pitch swing % dropped seven points. Baez’s issues paradoxically occurred on pitches in the strike zone. His Z-contact% dropped about five points to 74.6%, 8th worst among qualifying batters. His infield fly % jumped to 14.9% (10.3% career). As one would expect, his hard hit, barrel, and sweet spot percentages all dropped. 

In a nutshell, he did not square up the ball like he did in past seasons. Baez has been vocal about where he believes his issues stemmed from: the inability to watch film in-game during the 2020 season based on COVID-19 protocols and perhaps as a reaction to the Astros cheating scandal. On September 7, he stated, “To be honest, it sucks because I make my adjustments during the game. I watch my swing. I watch where the ball went, where the contact was. I’m mad. I’m really mad…that we don’t have it.”

At his best, Baez is a menace to pitchers because he can hit any pitch anywhere on any count. He is a freak. Take this stat for example: in 2019, he had an 0.819 OPS after starting down 0-1 in the count and an incredible 0.887 after going down 0-2. In 2020, he had 0.454 and 0.314 OPSes after 0-1 and 0-2 counts, respectively. His career numbers in those counts are 0.655 and 0.513.

Call me crazy, but I just do not feel like Baez has lost the ability to hit strikes at age 28. I believe a combination of not having the replay room available, the mental hurdles of a different routine, and a small sample size affected Baez greatly. My Steamer-based z-scores have Baez as the 71st overall player, exactly in line with his ADP. I am confident in projecting Baez for 30 HR, 10 steals, good counting stats, and an average around 0.270. Ranked as the SS12, he also represents the clear end of a tier as his z-score is a whopping 1.33 higher than the 13th ranked shortstop based on Steamer.

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