In this moment, MLB fans are spoiled with the number of very young and monumentally gifted superstars in our game.
Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Yasiel Puig dazzle us with their on-field prowess. Each of them has also publicly stumbled in recent months, filling the headlines with words and actions on and off the diamond. Expectedly so, in fact; they are very young men.
In a world in which we justify the unsavory actions of our youngsters by appropriately and fairly pointing to a player’s age, it certainly feels like illuminating the inverse is the responsible move.
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What were you doing when you were 22? Christian Yelich is very quietly focusing his attention on baseball and raking.
When he wins his first batting title, we’ll have his physical genetics and advanced approach at the plate to thank. Playing in Miami with Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, Yelich has gotten a bit buried. Between 2013 and 2014, Yelich has notched 138 games, not yet a full season. In that time, he’s collected 12 home runs, 21 stolen bases and netted 3.8 fWAR.
At the end of his career, we will be looking beyond the stats and admiring the developed man.
Like Mike Trout and Troy Tulowitzki (see where I’m going with this?), Yelich idolized Derek Jeter as a child: “Pretty much as long as I’ve been alive, Derek Jeter has been playing shortstop for the New York Yankees. He was my favorite player growing up.”
There is no envy in Yelich’s words. He learned to emulate the Yankees captain’s calm demeanor. Dig into your memory and try uncovering a moment when Jeter became emotionally unglued. He rarely, if ever, gets too high or too low. We couldn’t even draw a choked-up moment out of him at the All-Star Game. Yelich’s teammates and men who have coached him along the way sing his praises for this very reason.
“Nothing bothers this kid,” Triple-A hitting coach Damon Minor said. “Fifth game of the World Series, he wouldn’t be flustered. He’s confident without being cocky.”
As discussed, countless young ballplayers today tell the same story of watching Jeter. He has been an exceptional role model and arguably the most universally recognizable face in baseball for nearly two decades. Fewer of them would cite journeyman catcher Jeff Mathis as their other source of inspiration, however.
Mathis, by all accounts, preaches competitiveness and togetherness. He’s always been categorized as a plus clubhouse man by his teammates. But he’s no superstar.
However, when I asked Yelich who was the unsung hero of the Marlins clubhouse, he replied immediately, “Jeff Mathis.”
These quiet, behind-the-scenes relationships have occurred on every team I’ve been associated with. Tony Clark and Damion Easley were the calm, powerful, positive influences on me when I came up as a Detroit Tiger. Dave Martinez served that role on the 2000 Texas Rangers. I witnessed Alex Cora step up for the young players in the 2005 Red Sox clubhouse. Everywhere you turn, men lead without the headlines.
Players pay attention to their teammates’ behavior first, and then notice their athletic skill, and Mathis has seen something he likes in Yelich.
“He’s the type of man you’re drawn to,” Mathis says. “He’s humble and genuinely cares for his teammates.”
Mathis is a pretty good judge of athletic skill as well, however, having seen several hard-hitting outfielders during his career. He came up with the Angels in the era of Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad, Vladimir Guerrero and Tim Salmon. When asked about Yelich, he has no doubts.
“I believe he will be one of the best hitters in baseball in the next few years.”
Yelich has a superior stroke to any of the aforementioned stars. He displays a consistent, short, powerful, fluid swing with lightning bat speed. Scouts have consistently slapped his hit tool, or the ability to hit for average, with a 70 on their 20-80 scale. For context, a 70 represents a .300 hitter. Robinson Cano, to spotlight one, might belong in this bucket.
The power has been showing up sporadically; this won’t be the case for long. Some savvy baseball minds believe Yelich’s power will more likely show up in the form of doubles. I disagree. We are seeing a young man who will grow into a slugger as he learns to maximize his body’s potential.
With Yelich at a wiry 6-4, his pop will develop as his body fills out. His frame distinctly conjures up images of my teammate with Team Israel for the WBC qualifiers, a man I played against and saw plenty of, Shawn Green.
“I was always lanky and strong, but I was never powerful,” Green shared with me in a text. “It took me a few years to develop a swing that utilized that natural leverage. I didn’t have the strength to muscle the balls over the fence. I worked hard to stay long through the zone. In BP, I used to practice hitting the ball as far as I could to center field, and that made a huge difference. That drill taught me to use my whole body to generate power.”
Yelich already does this quite well. Notice his back knee driving forward in unison with his back elbow.
The power will inevitably arrive with consistent timing.
Green toyed with us early on in his career, striking 15, 11 and 16 homers in consecutive years before blossoming, smashing 35 in 1998. He did his damage in one of the league’s friendliest ballparks for home run hitters in Toronto.
Yelich calls Miami home, a far cry from the cozy confines of Toronto’s Rogers Centre. If he’s going to put up gaudy home run totals, he’s going to earn it. Just ask his more famous teammate.
“Everyone says Petco Park is huge; come to Miami and see the difference,” Stanton told me when we discussed his homer to right-center field in San Diego from earlier this season.
He says this ball would have been a two-hopper off the fence at Marlins Park.
The combination of talent and humility seems to be increasingly difficult to find in young players. I think that narrative is misleading, and I believe it’s our fault. When our moppets act foolishly, we splash them across the headlines. I’m great with colorful characters and think we need a healthy dose of them in Major League Baseball to provide balance.
I simply believe we need to find a place in the lead more frequently for quiet, professional men like Christian Yelich.