CHICAGO — By winning the National League MVP Award last season, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich set expectations for what’s next for him on their collective head. After all, how could he possibly top a season with a career-best 36 home runs — 15 more than his previous single-season high — and .326 batting average to win his first batting title?
By just going out and doing it in his age-27 season, that’s how. Running neck-and-neck with the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ Cody Bellinger in power production in the early going, Yelich currently leads the majors with 16 home runs. He sat down before Saturday’s 15-inning marathon against the Chicago Cubs to discuss settling in as a Brewer ready to contend and win in Milwaukee, advanced metrics, what he has picked up along the way, and his friendship with Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
There has been a lot of stability in the Brewers’ lineup between this year and last. What has been the biggest benefit to you and to the team?
Yelich: It’s a pretty stable team. I think [the main benefit] is that you understand your role. You understand your identity as a team; how you win. When you’re in close games or high-pressure situations, you fully trust each other. You understand each other because you have been in these spots before. Nobody really panics; you expect to win.
That’s the biggest thing, you have been through tough situations, close games, high-stakes games together, and therefore, at that point it’s just another game where you have to go find a way to win. Whether it’s a tie game in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning, we’ve done it before. Somebody has to find a way to win, and we expect to.
You’ve had a huge start to your season, and your exit velocity and launch angle numbers are up. How much of that is by design?
Yelich: I haven’t looked at it. I couldn’t even tell you what any of those numbers are. I have no idea. I care about winning. I don’t care about the launch angle. All I want to do is hit the ball hardest. That’s your goal, to hit the ball hard. That’s what you can control.
“People want to label you as a particular player after your first two or three years in the big leagues. They think that is what you’re going to be, that you’re never going to be better. And if you do improve, that you got lucky … That stuff is what pisses me off.” Christian Yelich
Then how do you balance the use of analytics when it comes to your own performance?
Yelich: I mean, you use the information that is available. You can pick and choose what helps you and learn how to go about it. I don’t look at it and try to tailor my swing to it. I didn’t have a complete total swing break down, build up, and reconstruction. That’s never been my thing. My whole career has been about hitting the ball hard. That’s it. Nothing else. Just hit the ball.
Since your approach is that simple, how much is it about natural talent and how much of it is hard work?
Yelich: You work very, very hard. I didn’t just wake up one morning and was able to do it. There’s definitely a lot of work that goes into it. There are adjustments you want to continue making to improve as a player.
People want to label you as a particular player after your first two or three years in the big leagues. They think that is what you’re going to be, that you’re never going to be better. And if you do improve, that you got lucky and can’t do it again. They think that if you have a good year and you get better, you’re just going to go back to the player that you were before. Nobody thinks that you can be better, that you can improve, that you can make changes, that you can learn more about yourself; learn more about the game.
When you come into the big leagues at 21 years old, you’re learning on the fly. You’re learning what the big leagues are all about; you’re learning about your swing, about yourself, about the game, and also trying to get better. You’re working every single day, gradually making changes, and people just think that you’re going to go back to what you were when you were as a 21-year-old kid.
That stuff is what pisses me off. If you did something as a player, it’s that you got lucky or you had a good little stretch, and that’s going to be that. I use that as motivation.
Is that your motivation not to settle, particularly after winning an MVP award?
Yelich: I don’t really care about anything that I have done in the past. It really doesn’t matter to me. Of course, I appreciate it, but I don’t think just because I had a good year last year that I can be cool now, like I can just chill. No, you want to continue to play at that level and see just how far you can take it. That’s been my motivation.
Have we seen the best Christian Yelich yet?
Yelich: You always want to continue to improve as a player. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to your teammates; you owe it to the game. You want to get the most out of your career. When it’s all said and done, then you can look back on your career [and say], “All right, this is what I was; this is how it went.”
But when you’re in the middle of it, you just put your head down, grind and grind, and get the most out of it as you can. I can’t say this is the best I can be or this is the worst I can be. Let’s see how it plays it out. I don’t know. It’s up for you guys to decide. I care about what my teammates think, and about what my family thinks. That’s literally it. After that, judge me for whatever you want.
Miller Park is obviously a park you enjoy hitting in. What makes it a venue you’ve been able to exploit to your advantage?
Yelich: I think [Miller Park] allows me to stay within the approach that’s made me a good hitter, a successful hitter; you get rewarded for it there. Sometimes, even if you want to hit for power, damage, some people always think it’s the pull side; that you have to pull everything. [At Miller Park] if you just hit the ball hard, get a good swing at it, you get rewarded for it at all parts of the ballpark. I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s not in the back of your mind. You can stay within yourself and just play the game.
What’s the one skill another player has that you wish you had?
Yelich: To be like really fast, like Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton. I am pretty fast; I can run for sure, but not like that. They are like really, really fast. It’s Dee and Billy … and then everybody else.
Your MLB career just barely missed overlapping your manager’s playing days. What’s your strongest memory of Craig Counsell, the ballplayer?
Yelich: Everyone says it’s the stance. I am sure it’s the same exact thing for everybody.
Did he ever explain to you where that came from?
Yelich: I think he said he was struggling one time and just decided to do it. That’s a pretty common answer for a lot of guys of why they do specific things in baseball; they just want to switch it up, and then it works.
Have you done anything like that? Run into an adjustment that just worked?
Yelich: Yeah, my first time back from the All-Star break last year I decided to stand up taller and I started hitting better. I used to hit like that in high school and when I was younger, in the minor leagues. For some reason, during the first game back in the cage, I said I was going to stand a little bit taller with a little bit of an open stance like I did back in the day and see how it feels. And it felt good and I rolled with that all the second half of last season and into this year.
Who’s the bigger Cleveland Browns fan, you or Travis Shaw? What do you expect to see from Baker Mayfield and from the Browns?
Yelich: Travis. I’ve been a Browns fan for only two years now. I support my friends in what they do and that is why I am a Browns fan. That is why I root for the Browns, because you want your friends to do well. It’s the same reason why [Baker] probably roots for the Brewers, because you want your friends to do well. It’s an exciting time for Cleveland.
As Travis can attest, it has been a while since Browns fans have said they’re looking forward to an NFL season. Are you?
Yelich: A lot of people are. I think football in general is curious to see that’s going to happen this year with the Browns; it’s probably the first time they’re expected to play well and do well in a very long time. It’s a lot of credit to the guys they have on their team and the talent they have. I think Baker is a great leader, someone that people are drawn to; he makes everyone around him better. He’s probably a huge reason for their success and their turnaround.
I have gotten to know him pretty well. People doubted him, saying he is going to be this, he is going to be that. But he has what people call an “it” factor, or whatever you want to call it. That’s a leader. It’s somebody that is really confident. And you need to embrace that. To succeed in professional sports you have to have confidence; you have to believe in yourself.
Is that something that you two have in common?
Yelich: I definitely think I have some of that in me. It’s just … I am not as out in the open. I don’t do it where the world can see or the media can see. What you see with [Baker] is what you get. He doesn’t really care if you like it or not. He is going to compete, he wants to win and he cares about the right things.