Marlins’ Yelich never doubted ability through hitting slump

During spring training — when both expectations and morale were high — former Marlin Juan Pierre stopped by the clubhouse in Jupiter, Florida, telling everyone that outfielder Christian Yelich would one day win a batting title.

It wasn’t a farfetched statement considering Yelich’s resume.

Over parts of six minor-league seasons, he posted a .311 average. At the 2012 Arizona Fall League, Yelich batted .301 against baseball’s top prospects. During his rookie campaign in 2013, he hit .288 over 62 games. In his first full big-league season in 2014, Yelich compiled a .284 average with 30 doubles, nine homers and 54 RBI.

Not to mention that sweet swing.

Excited by his potential and pleased with his maturity, the Marlins signed him to a seven-year, $49.57 million extension in March. The 23rd overall selection in the 2010 Draft showed Miami had homegrown talent that could be part of its core for the foreseeable future alongside All-Star slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

But like most of his teammates, Yelich got out of the gates slow, hitting .200 in March/April and .231 in May. He also landed on the disabled list in late April with a lower back strain.

"I was frustrated, but that’s baseball," Yelich reflected during the last homestand. "You just got to realize (that). It was pretty much two whole months."

Still, it’s a tough lesson for a young player unaccustomed to that degree of failure in a sport known for its difficulty.

Yelich, who turns 24 in December, got words of advice and encouragement from the veteran players on the ballclub. He quickly discovered, however, it comes down to experience. He had played in just 206 big-leagues games entering 2015.

"I know that you’re going to struggle," Yelich said. "There’s only so much someone can tell you. People can tell you everything (like) what’s going to happen, but until you go through it yourself it doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t help you at the time. When you’re struggling, support and stuff is alright, but until you go through it…

"It’s the same stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s just like hype. Hype means nothing. Someone telling you it’s going to be alright when you’re hitting .160 at the end of May means nothing. It’s not. Until you go through it and come back from it then you don’t know what it’s like and you have to experience those things. You can tell them they’re right at the end, but as a young player going through it you have to go through it and experience is the most valuable."

When asked why the slump occurred, Yelich deflects the notion of health. Same goes for correcting his swing or timing. According to FanGraphs, his percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone in 2015 is 27.3 percent — far higher than the 24.2% and 22.0% from 2013-14. His line-drive rate (20.4%) decreased, while his ground-ball one increased to 65 percent. 

It was "just baseball," so he "put (his) head down and kept going." It happens to every ballplayer. If it were to take place again, Yelich could look back on that two-month stretch when things looked bleak and know it will come to an end.

On May 23, Yelich’s average was at .178. After going 2 for 4 in the series finale against the Washington Nationals, it has reached .291. Since June 26, Yelich has posted a .350 mark (78 for 223) over 59 games. It is the second-highest average in the majors behind San Francisco Giants All-Star Buster Posey (.364). 

Notorious for his plate discipline, Yelich’s pitches per plate appearance is 3.99, which ranks 17th in the National League. 

"That’s just the player I know I am and can be," Yelich said. "I never doubted that — not for one second. Even having to answer the questions about it of, ‘Why you weren’t playing good? How come you’re not good? Are you ever going to be good again?’ It’s tough when you get asked stuff like that, but in the end you know what kind of player you are and what you’re going to be. All that other stuff doesn’t mean anything. 

"You’re a young player and you’re going through it. I’ve got two-and-a-half years almost in the big leagues. I’m not going to use age as an excuse, but there’s a lot of people who are 23-year-old rookies or not even in the big leagues yet and you have to go through those growing pains whether it’s here, in the minor leagues, wherever. Not everybody’s going to come up and be a (Mike) Trout or a (Bryce) Harper or somebody like that. It is what it is, though. I’m not using age or anything as an excuse because I feel like I can compete at this level, and I know I can."  

Like Yelich, most of his teammates have rebounded. Sure, those postseason aspirations are gone. Miami has been relegated to the role of spoiler.

And yet, the nucleus of young talent — from Stanton to ace Jose Fernandez to rookie catcher JT Realmuto — excites the coaching staff and front office.

Until losing three straight to the Nationals, the Marlins had won 12 of 16 as well as five consecutive series to match a franchise high. There’s no getting by the disappointment of 2015, but they are doing their best to salvage what is left of the year hoping to carry momentum into the offseason and spring training by ending on a high note.

"You keep playing and it turns around eventually," Yelich said. "You hear all the stuff about how you suck, you can’t do this, you had a fluke season, you have a sophomore slump and that kind of motivates you. You understand it’s a long season and you have a lot of time to recover. I kind of did to an extent. It was a big hole to climb out of, but I was kind of able to do it."

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.