The Case For Christian Yelich
One of the best ways to get ahead of the opposition is to identify breakouts before other competitors do. This can mean making a selection that considered a reach or overpaying (slightly) to get that one guy you really covet. The type of player a savvy fantasy owner will target is one who has a reasonable potential to become a star, yet is perceived to have not lived up to expectation.
Twenty-four-year old Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich fits the description of a player that should be on every owner’s “acquire” list. Three years of encouraging but not elite performance could leave this former top-10 prospect undervalued, despite his high-end prospect pedigree. Because Yelich does not excel in the loud fantasy statistics of home runs and steals, gaining his value instead from batting skill, he is not as highly valued as many players with lesser overall fantasy contribution. As predicted by most scouting reports, Yelich’s bat has driven most of his value, however, anticipation of him as a five-tool player have fallen a bit short. Rate statistics are the most difficult to evaluate, however, as they depend on volume as much as quality. Yelich offers plenty of both, and if he can tap into just a little more of the moderate power that has been projected on him since he was drafted, you may be looking at a late-first round value.
Regardless of your league settings, Yelich probably finished outside of the top-25 outfielders. In my dynasty league (12 team, 7×7) he was the 40th outfielder and 83rd-overall hitter. Most projection systems are based on a three-year average and Yelich’s Steamer numbers reflect just that. What the projection system might be missing is that an early-season injury obscured just how good Yelich truly was (and could be going forward). At the time of his injury—which he had attempted to play though—he carried a .200/.222/.265 slash line good for a .487 OPS. Starting with his May 8 return, Yelich slugged .310/.436/.373 with an OPS of .810. But wait, there’s more! From the time when he truly caught fire (June 9), he was even better, raking to the tune of a .340/.472/.404 slash line. While hitting at that pace is likely unsustainable, it shows what Peak Yelich is capable of. It’s worth noting that this offensive explosion occurred without Giancarlo Stanton batting behind Yelich. Although statistical studies have shown no measurable evidence of lineup protection, anecdotal accounts provided by pitchers indicate that the on-deck batter can have an effect on how they approach the batter. At the very least, having an elite slugger batting behind Yelich can’t hurt and will certainly increase the number of runs that he would be expected to score.
He has been able to maintain a BABIP in the .350-.380 range throughout the minors and early major league career. As you can see in the graph below, his early 2015 season was marred by an unusually low BABIP, possibly exacerbated by his nagging back injury. The higher levels of mid- to late-2015 are fully supported by his previous production.
At his current projected average of .288, he rates as a top-50 hitter. Increasing his projected batting average to .320, which he is capable of attaining with some BABIP regression, pushes him to a top-25 ranking among hitters, ahead of stalwarts such as Anthony Rendon, Freddie Freeman, Adam Jones, Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Heyward, Carlos Gonzalez, A.J. Pollock, and many more.
Calculating a player’s value and a replacement value per position varies by league with regard to scoring categories and roster size. In a league that scores the standard 5×5 categories, uses 5 starting outfielders, and has a 10-man bench, there should be approximately 100 outfielders rostered. Although outfield is considered to be a deep position, a positive adjustment is necessary for deep leagues. This would put the replacement value of an outfielder at approximately that of a second baseman. In short, the 100th outfielder is of equal value to the 30th second baseman: think Chris Colabello vs. Chris Owings. With an adjustment for positional scarcity, his value stands at 6.5 standard deviations above replacement in a standard 5×5 format. In a shallower league, or one with fewer bench players, the positive adjustment for outfielders would be slightly lower.
Yelich’s current value is largely driven by batting average and moderate stolen base ability. If he nears the 25 home-run ceiling anticipated by scouts and front office personnel, you could easily be looking at a 9.5-10 standard-deviation player taken yearly in the first round. Invest in him now and you may have a perennial first round player for a fraction of the cost.