The fielding restrictions won’t benefit Christian Yelich

The fielding restrictions won’t benefit Christian Yelich

Major League Baseball is instituting a new pitching rule for the 2023 season designed to limit the extreme infield swing that has become increasingly common over the past decade.

Under the new rule, defenses must have two outfielders on each side of second base and all outfielders who are infield when the pitcher is on the rubber. As a result, the shift commonly used against left-handed hitters, which includes three fielders on the right side of the field and often one stationed in short right field, will be illegal.

Because of this change, some sluggers with a lot of power could see a noticeable increase in their performance. Rowdy Tellez is an example.

At first glance, Christian Yelich may seem like another player who could benefit from the new rule. Yelich is a left-handed hitter who hits a lot of ground balls (58.6% ground ball rate in 2022).

However, anyone expecting a boost to Yelich’s slash line due to restrictions will be disappointed. Yelich hasn’t been a turnover casualty, so the removal of extreme defensive lineups won’t affect his performance.

On average, left-handed hitters saw a changeup (three fielders placed on one side of the field) in 54.9% of plate appearances in 2022. Yelich was switched in 30.6% of his appearances on the plate. Even in 2021, when defenses switched against Yelich 53.9% of the time (the highest full-season rate of his career), he barely faced turnovers at a league-average rate.

Yelich’s profile doesn’t warrant an extreme trade. Last season, he hit 34.4% of his batted balls to his pull side; the league average for lefties was 40.1%. He drew 45.5% of his ground balls; the league average was 54.2%.

Not only was Yelich an imperfect turn-around candidate, but he often benefited from hitting them. He has typically performed better on balls in play against changeups since opponents began deploying them semi-regularly against him in 2019. The split was more pronounced last season, as Yelich posted a BABIP of .373 against the changeup and a .307 BABIP without it.

The change of field hasn’t hurt Christian Yelich

season shift% BABIP (Torso) BABIP (no shift)
season shift% BABIP (Torso) BABIP (no shift)
2019 32.3% .365 .350
2020 54.3% .239 .289
2021 53.9% .336 .286
2022 30.6% .373 .307
2019-2022 39.6% .338 .316

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Yelich’s ground ball spray chart highlights why that was: He picked up a handful of singles that beat the changeup to left field.

Many of those at-bats became hits because of the empty areas the changeup creates on the left side of the infield. Here are nine of Yelich’s opposite-field singles that could have been routine outs had they been hit in standard positioning.

That doesn’t mean Yelich is missing exactly nine opposite field hits this year compared to last. Baseball is a game of inches and players are human who will not perfectly reproduce batted ball placement every season. However, hitters maintain more general trends from year to year. If Yelich maintains his usual spray profile, the added coverage on the left side of the infield represents a decrease in his success rate for hitting singles that way.

Meanwhile, the distribution of Yelich’s strikeouts against the changeup last season does not point to a hitter who will hit significantly more singles under the new restrictions. Most of his ground balls are hit in the general vicinity of a traditionally positioned second baseman.

Because opponents can no longer place three fielders on the right side of the field, Yelich can take the occasional single to center. That wouldn’t affect his slash line any more than the standard batted-ball variation from year to year. The opposite field singles he’s about to lose would offset the added hits to center anyway.

In other words, nothing will change for Yelich as a direct result of the shift restrictions. It may add a small number of strokes to certain parts of the field, but it may also lose a small number of strokes in other areas.

If Yelich’s offensive performance improves, it will be because of improved timing that allows him to make ideal contact more consistently. His line drive rate was a career-worst 18.4% last season, and his declining launch angles show he’s not getting the ball up enough to hit for power.

At this point, it’s best to think of Yelich as a solid support piece in the lineup, not a pivot that can hit in the heart of a batting order. The removal of displacement does not affect their prospects for the future.

Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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