baseball

Scratching the Yel-itch!

At this point, everyone in Braves country is hearing rumors of the Braves going after Marlins outfielder, Christian Yelich, and perhaps even their catcher, J.T. Realmuto.  While I think Realmuto and Yelich are both terrific players, I’m left with an itch that’s begging to be scratched. Call it a “Yel-itch”.

I’ve always been a big fan of Christian Yelich, and I’ve frequently thought that he has been criminally underrated. His defense is solid, his offense is on the rise, he’s shown flashes of the potential to be a 5-tool player. I even think the future could be brighter for Yelich. He is likely to increase his home run rate, his production, and, away from the prairies of Marlin’s park, improve his defense.

And yet, I’m opposed to the Braves trading for him.

Why?

Good question. There is this interesting operating philosophy in baseball that simply acquiring great players will, in turn, make a great team. Certainly, there is a measure of truth to that idea. However, I also think there has to be more to your philosophy than simply collecting great players.

We could look back through history and find, time and again, where teams that were comprised of “great” players simply didn’t win. Revisionist history would tell us that it was because some of those players perhaps were not as “great” as we originally thought, but perhaps there is more to it than that. Perhaps, the team they were on and the role they were asked to play made them less great.

Unless your team is the Cleveland Browns, I don’t believe in bad luck or sacred goat curses. However, I do believe that team chemistry is important. And by team chemistry I don’t mean clubhouse personalities and how people get along (although there is some truth to that as well).  What I mean is that a team has to be comprised of players that fit a big picture purpose for the baseball team.

For me, it was the downfall of Fredi Gonzalez as a baseball coach. Fredi seemed convinced that he could massage and manipulate lineups that put players in different positions on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis, to maximize match-ups and play to the current ‘momentum’ of the team. But baseball is a job at the end of the day, and a player needs a clear picture of the job that he’s been hired to perform.

‘I mean why don’t he just hit baseballs and play gud defense, ain’t that what every gud baseball player does’

It’s true that hitting baseballs and playing defense is the core of the game, but those terms are broad and often misleading. The truth is – it’s more complex than that. Much more complex.

Do you want your leadoff man to get on base? Is that his primary role? If so, he needs to take more pitches, be more selective, work more counts, and shorten his swing and aim for more singles. Or maybe you want a leadoff man with a higher WRC+ who has more pop and power? Unless his name is Mike Trout, you pretty much need to understand he’s going to get on base a bit less, going to strike out more, and swing away at more first pitches.

Philosophically, do you want your best hitter hitting second? He’ll get about 60 more at-bats a year if you do. Or maybe you’re a traditionalist that likes him batting 3rd, do you want him to aim for power? Swing away? Do you need to protect him in the lineup? Oh, and if so, what do you protect him with? Power? Is that still the answer in today’s strikeout heavy world of power hitters?

At the end of the day, I think the Braves have some philosophical holes to fill. Is Ender your leadoff hitter or Ozzie? What are you looking for from your #2 hole hitter? Is Acuna going to bat 2nd? And if so, how long before you get him there? So far, the Braves have always used Freddie to bat 3rd, so where is Yelich? Is he really a 4th hole hitter?

Yelich has traditionally hit 3rd for Miami, yet last year he only hit .282 with 18 home runs. I mean that certainly isn’t bad, but let’s compare that to Freeman who batted .307 and hit 28 home runs (oh, and missed 6 weeks). Is a .282/18HR guy really what you want protecting Freeman?  (Protection matters.) Do we really need another 15-20 HR guy with good defense or would we be better served with a 30+ HR guy that might lack a little defensively, or not have the greatest OBP (ie. Martinez, Duvall, etc). 

Perhaps Yelich will make up for it on defense?

Well, just as on the offensive side of things and creating a lineup, you have a defensive philosophy as well. Yelich is a terrific defender, right? Well, that’s what people keep telling me, yet in 2017, he saw a significant decline in his defense, finishing the year with -6 DRS. I’ll be the first to stand up and scream that defense runs saved isn’t the best stat ever, but it is an indicator for sure.

Yelich’s potential value is primarily built upon the idea that he will continue to get better. And he certainly may, but the biggest part of the puzzle is always cost/value. To acquire Yelich is going to be an expensive overpay. I’m the kind of guy that’s sometimes guilty of over-valuing prospects, but I’m actually ok with overpaying for pieces I think fit the right holes in the philosophy and have future value in line with what you’re giving up. Any trade is risky. Yelich is young and on a mostly cost-friendly contract. There are reasons to think he will soar to his potential value. But many Braves fans (and now Cubs fans) are familiar with 26-year-olds with great stats and superstar potential don’t always pan out … sometimes they suddenly can’t remember how to hit baseballs and their entire 5 tool concept suddenly becomes 2 tools. Yes, I’m looking at you, Jason Heyward.

If we were talking about Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, even my personally-hated Bryce Harper, I think there is very little room to doubt the future ascent of their rise to franchise anchoring status. At one point, I thought Yelich was headed there. But while I think he was once undervalued, the perception of him may now have gone in the other direction, and his perceived value may actually be higher than reality. It’s not that he has significantly declined, or regressed. In fact, he may continue right on up, yet even at his best, I wonder if he is truly a top-tier player worth the cost that he inevitably will demand. His K% is league average, his DRS is slightly above average, his 18 HRs is a little above average, his slugging .463 is a little above average. I think Yelich is better than average, but is he really a superstar? And even if he is a superstar, is he the superstar the Braves need to empty their coffers for?

Is it really worth giving up four prospects from your top 15, and perhaps seven from your top 25, some of which project to be a good bit better than just above average? (I’ll be the first to admit prospects bust frequently, but from the richest farm in baseball that’s not chump change.) It’s easy to want splashy moves for names we like. It’s much harder to stay the course, stick to your philosophy, and find the answers to the holes you have on the team you are already fielding. When I look at the Braves I don’t see the hole begging for Yelich. I see a team missing power, missing defense, and missing quite a few other roles (3B, pitching, etc) that Yelich simply cannot fill.  Would he be another great player on the Braves team? Absolutely. Would it make the Braves a much better team? I’m not so certain.

The answer to Yelich’s value to the Braves is an itch I’m not sure I want to scratch.

Share this junk with your friends, you knuckleheads