While it's dramatic to use what is most commonly known as the official label for Apollo 13, applying the "successful failure" tagline to Miami Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich helps to illustrate just how divided views are on him. Yelich might have developed into a steady presence in the Miami outfield for some, but there are others who refer back to his initial scouting and projections as a source of disappointment, rather than any sort of guidance.
With now two full Major League seasons under his belt, Yelich has a solid 4.4-WAR season to his credit in one of those seasons (2014). Injuries and some summer struggles, however, saw him fall to just a 2.3 figure in 2015, resulting in some already closing the book on what Christian Yelich could possibly be.
And to a certain extent, that's understandable, especially when you take into account what some have projected Yelich to be from the outset. An excerpt from Baseball Prospectus' scouting report (which includes some first-hand reporting from a Marlins front office source) reads:
Christian Yelich has one of the purest swings in the minors, a short and powerful stroke despite the arm length. Yelich creates well above average bat speed, and as he continues to mature and learns the nuances of power, his doubles will start to turn into home runs and he could be a true middle-of-the-lineup threat. He shows good pitch-recognition skills, and his bat-to-ball ability is on par with the best in the minors, so he should be able to hit for a high average.
And then that quote from the front office source, in the same BP scouting report, follows:
I think the hit tool is a 70 and I think the power shows up down the line in the 25-plus range with a ton of doubles. He’s a tough out and he’s just going to get better when he’s forced to face better.
That's obviously high praise for Yelich from a more than reputable source, in Baseball Prospectus. But the perhaps-too-ambitious scouting on Yelich doesn't necessarily end there. SB Nation's own Minor League Ball had their own bit on Yelich back in May of 2012, noting the following:
Although he isn't likely to develop into an overwhelming home run masher, Yelich should hit for average, get on base at a good clip, and produce above-average power. His strikeout rate has been creeping upward as he ascends the ladder, but his power output is increasing as well, and he's still drawing walks at a substantial clip.
While that's only a pair of scouting reports, and a lot of things can change significantly in the nearly five years that have passed since Yelich was drafted, they both note one significant aspect of Yelich's game to which naysayers refer when criticizing Yelich: the power aspect. He's hit just 16 combined home runs in his two seasons in Miami, so calling him a disappointment in that respect wouldn't be a stretch at all. He hasn't come close to living up to those expectations. It may also be important to note that his strikeout rate is likely higher than anticipated as well, with a 19.2 percent mark that ranked 16th among National League outfielders.
Therein lies the primary motive for those who refer to Christian Yelich as anything resembling a failure. His power has been nonexistent, and he strikes out more than expected. But should we think any less of Yelich because of this, or simply think of him in a different way? He's obviously not the player that he was expected to be, in some respects, but as we examine what he has become, is there a way to get him closer to what he was originally thought to be?
To call Yelich a disappointment, a failure, or any word with a similarly negative connotation would simply be unreasonable. In 2015, a year in which he dealt with injury and a May where he hit only .231 (his worth average in any month of the year), he still managed to post that 2.3 WAR, which ranked 17th among NL outfielders. His .366 on-base percentage placed sixth among that group, and his 117 wRC+ was a top-10 figure.
Going back to 2014, his first full season at the big league level, Yelich finished with a 4.4 WAR that made its way into the top 10, ranking ninth among NL OF, an identical-to-2015 117 wRC+, and a .362 OBP that ranked seventh. From a rough statistical standpoint, Yelich is certainly no slouch, let alone any sort of failure. But what exactly does he do specifically that makes him as successful in the respects that he is?
For one, he hits the ball hard. His 32.8 Hard% ranked 12th among NL OF last year, while his 22.5% line drive rate was seventh among the same group. He also hit opposite field with the best of 'em, with a 27.7% oppo rate that was seventh. He maintains a quality eye at the plate, with a 26.6% swing rate on pitches outside of the zone, and only a 43.3% swing rate overall. One area of concern, and one that is likely contributing to the lower power numbers, is that groundball rate that's up over 62%. Elevating his contact more could be a worthwhile change in order to help him change his fortunes in the ISO department.
One wonders, though, if he could continue to improve those numbers if he were to swing more at hard pitches than offspeed, which was not the case last year. Brooks Baseball has Yelich swinging at just over 46% of offspeed last year, against 44% of hard stuff. Better pitch recognition, something that Yelich has been praised for in the past, could lead to higher quality contact, more play in the gaps, and maybe even, somewhere in there, an uptick in his overall power numbers.
The goal for Christian Yelich, in order to stave off of some of that "failure" talk, misguided as it may be, should be to focus on improving that .116 ISO. Maybe it's a matter of being completely healthy, building up strength, and letting that power continue to develop. Or maybe it's a change within his swing that needs to be made in order to allow him to elevate more. Or maybe it's a matter of recognizing and targeting fastballs during at-bats.
Regardless of the adjustments that might need to be made, it's absurd and unreasonable to declare Christian Yelich a failure. While he hasn't developed in one or two respects, he continues to be a steady performer in many others. He's an excellent baserunner, as a near-lock for 20 swipes a season, and a better defender than expected (18 Defensive Runs Saved in two seasons). Mostly, he's a very solid contact hitter who maintains a strong approach and gets on base at a very pleasant rate. He may never develop into the middle-of-the-order guy that the Marlins thought they had initially, but as a table setter alongside Dee Gordon, he's doing just fine.
That's not a bad thing to have to settle for if the power never comes.