Hours before setting the Brewers franchise record for wins by a manager, Craig Counsell recounted how Christian Yelich hit the ball hard on the ground again, much like he did in the first half of 2018.
Nobody knew it then, but Yelich, in his first season after being traded from the Marlins to the Brewers, was poised to burst into the player who would win the 2018 National League MVP award and finish second the following year.
It haunts Yelich that he was little more than a league average hitter in the three seasons since. He haunts a franchise that awarded him the richest contract in team history. Still, Counsell, who played 16 major league seasons, said hitters make a mistake when they pursue their past.
The players change. Circumstances change. People change.
“You have to chase a new version of greatness,” Counsell said.
The new version of Yelich might be similar to the previous version. It could be something completely different. This could elude him the rest of his career. But as difficult as it may be for fans to accept a player with a $215 million contract who is struggling to regain his past glory, the reality of the game is that it is constantly evolving and always full of possibilities.
What’s tempting about 30-year-old Yelich is that he could indeed get closer to the hitter he once was. Before fracturing his right kneecap in September 2019. Before coming under pressure from the nine-year deal he signed in March 2020. Before the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Before back issues and the fight with COVID-19 that plagued him in 2021.
Looking back, former Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines said Yelich faced a tremendous amount of stress and interruptions in a relatively short period of time.
“Do I think he can get back to his 18 and 19 levels? Absolutely, I do,” said Haines, who was Yelich’s manager with the Marlins’ Class A Jupiter affiliate in 2012 and his batting coach from 18-21 before losing his job with the Brewers and moving to the same position with the Pirates.
Ozzie Timmons, the Brewers’ new co-hitter coach, expressed similar confidence Tuesday at Citi Field, before the Brewers began their three-game series against the Mets. The brewers were in a miserable state at the time. That night, after a 32-18 start, they would lose for the 11th time in 13 games. When asked which of his hitters was about to burst, Timmons smiled and said, “Yelich. But he won’t tell you.
Yelich can be forgiven for showing restraint. He looked close when he hit for the cycle against the Reds on May 11, then hit .165 with a .453 OPS in his next 22 games. Its recent trends, however, are indeed promising.
He has a nine-game hitting streak (14 for 39, two home runs). His average exit speed is in the 92nd percentile. His hard-hit rate is in the 96th. And despite his rushing ball rate being the sixth-highest in the majors, he went deep to left center Thursday night on a 96.8 mph fastball from Tylor Megill of the Mets. He entered the night batting .176 on pitches of 95 mph or more.
For Counsell, Yelich’s recent string of hard hits – “the original thing people complained about with him, before the flyball generation started,” the manager recalled – is the basis of his latest push. Others with the Brewers believe Yelich is also enjoying some sort of release as he moves to No. 1, his position in the lineup for all but Game 1 of his current streak.
First hitter, Yelich is arguably under less pressure than he hits third. He can focus on base and steal bases, take on pitchers before they settle into a rhythm, see more fastballs, get more at-bats. Yelich isn’t sure the role benefits him mentally. Through all his difficulties, he retained an excellent perspective. His thoughts on the headlock reflect his grounded view.
“I love this role, for some reason,” said Yelich, who overall is batting .242 with seven homers, nine stolen bases on nine attempts and a .710 OPS. ” I do not know how to explain it. But it’s cool, man. On the road, it’s super cool. You start a major league baseball game. It’s sick.
“In 2019, I led the All-Star Game. I remember coming up to the plate: ‘We’re starting the All-Star Game. Justin Verlander. Gary Sanchez. It’s the All-Star Game of the Leagues. major. Not many people can say they’ve done that. I can do that. There’s one person every year who can do that.
“Sometimes you need a reminder that it’s the big leagues. S— it’s hard sometimes. You face some adversity. For me, I like to look around before I get up there, look at the stadium, look at the pitch. It’s the fucking big league, man. It’s cool.
Counsell was coy Thursday night when asked if Kolten Wong would return to No. 1 when he exits IL, which could be as early as Saturday. “Christian is in a pretty good streak swinging the bat. If he hits a different place, does that change that? Counsell asked with a laugh. “It’s always an interesting question.”
Yelich said he didn’t care where he hit. He understands that he set a benchmark in his first two seasons with the Brewers, and that “anything that isn’t there is failure in a lot of people’s minds.” But according to him, all he can do is give his best every day, help the team however he can. “Do you want me to take the first step? I will take the lead. You want me to do the DH? I’m going DH,” Yelich said. “Whatever we have to do to put the best version of our team out there and give ourselves the best chance to win, I’m all-in.
So how does he hunt for a new version of greatness? Yelich offered no particular thoughts, saying that for every baseball player, every year is a new year. Counsell, however, told him about the concept in the batting cage before Wednesday’s game. One of the things Yelich and the other Brewers appreciate the most about Counsell is how he relates to them as a former player.
“Sometimes when they’re not feeling well, players think they’re a long way from how they feel,” Counsell said. “So you hear something. You feel something. And something magical happens. I think it happens to players, big players. You think you know how it happened. But I don’t think you always do.
“It’s about believing that you’re close all the time. It makes you think it’s there. It’s hard. Christian has a lot of weight on him. You cannot deny it. That’s part of it. He carries the offense, he carries the fr-…” Counsell trailed off before finishing the word, as if trying not to personally add to Yelich’s burden. “He wears it.
“I believe he will take it back. How, when, we don’t always know. And you probably won’t find it the same way. Maybe it’s something a little different that’s triggering it.
All it will take, Counsell said, is some kind of small adjustment that will allow Yelich to catch the ball a bit more in front and elevate it like he did in the second half of 18 and all 19. When a hitter is boxed in, Haines explained, he’s more confident taking risks up front. Yelich, with his knee bent, needs consistent beats over a long period of time to gain that confidence, Haines said, to get in sync.
A new version of greatness is within reach. He just needs to find it.
“It’s in there,” Haines said. “There is no doubt.”
(Top photo: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)