The NL East has been a whole lot more interesting than most people thought it would be going into the season.
Everyone figured the Braves would be terrible, and, well, they are. If the season ended today, they would be tied for the the third worst winning percentage (.250) since 1900. That’s bad, but it’s not really surprising.
The Phillies, who everyone also expected to get beat up on, are currently second in the division, thanks mainly to their rotation, perhaps the best bullpen in baseball and some serious luck, as their run differential currently sits at -28. Based on that, their Pythagorean Winning Percentage suggests that they look more like a team with a 17-24 record, rather than the other way around, but regardless of what the predictive stats say will happen going forward, they’re currently in the mix at the top of the division.
Contrary to preseason expectations, the Nationals and Mets aren’t just beating up on the Braves and Phillies and duking it out at the top of the division.
What about the team we haven’t even mentioned yet? Don’t forget about them, either. The Miami Marlins are only 3.5 games back out of first and one game back from a Wild Card spot despite being fourth in the division. When they lost last year's NL Batting Champ Dee Gordon to an 80-game suspension back in April, it certainly looked like it might be tougher for the Marlins to continue to contend. With Giancarlo Stanton looking like something approaching a mere mortal (.221/.335/.500) for the first time in his career, someone was going to have to ratchet it up a notch to keep the Marlins in the mix. That someone is Christian Yelich.
It’s not that Yelich has exactly been flying off the radar. He was always one of the Marlins' top prospects and was MLB.com’s 17th prospect overall in 2012 and his minor league numbers always showed promise. In his first two full seasons in the majors, he put up solid numbers: 115 OPS+, 3.7 bWAR and hit .284/.362/.402 (2013) and 116 OPS+, 3.5 bWAR and hit .300/.366/.416 (2014). His wRC+ was steady at 117 each year since he was called up in 2012. Yelich has been a solid contributor to date and one of the reasons that the Marlins outfield has been pegged as the best outfield in baseball by some evaluators, but when you’re playing in the same outfield as Giancarlo Stanton, you’re bound to get overlooked a bit.
Well, not anymore, Yelich is currently hitting .323/.424/.531 and leads the Marlins in bWAR (1.6). He’s currently all over the leaderboard (in 9th place wherever he appears, coincidentally) for several categories across MLB, including OBP and doubles. So what’s the story? He’s sporting a .373 BABIP which, in a vacuum, would make you scream “luck” and move along. The only problem is that he maintained a .370 BABIP over the whole last season and a .356 BABIP in 2014. His career BABIP is .366 and he’s past the stabilization point, so that’s not it. In fact, the biggest cause of Yelich’s abnormally high BABIP, his ridiculous ability to not pop the ball up, has been his biggest asset, but also what kept him from moving into top-ten overall prospect territory
Yelich has always seen the ball well and made lots of contact. The only knock on Yelich’s prospect pedigree that kept him from looking truly elite was his lack of power, since he was seen as groundball hitter with a great eye who was going to get on base a lot (all correct) but who was basically a singles hitter. This year, he’s already at five HR, while his previous high was nine in 2014. He’s already at 13 doubles through 40 games. Where was he at through 40 games in 2014? 6 doubles. In 2015? 3 doubles. As Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs pointed out the other day, Yelich is hitting fastballs better than ever (making contact on 96%) and finally figuring out how to get inside pitches up in the air.
Maybe it’s the fact that he’s got the greatest hitter of all time as his batting coach? Maybe not, but, regardless, Yelich is figuring things out in front of our very eyes and it’s making him one of the most exciting players to watch in the game (unless, of course, all you care about is scratching your dinger itch). Keep in mind that he’s only 24, so we might be progressing towards peak Yelich if the changes he’s been making stick and he’s able to drive the ball with more authority consistently. If that happens and Stanton can snap out of his relative slump (a likelihood), the Marlins could make things very interesting for the rest of the season in the NL East and Wild Card race.