Brewers' quest for NL Central title: Yelich playing vital role

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JULY 24: Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers participates in warmups prior to a game against the Cincinnati Reds at American Family Field on July 24, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Christian Yelich heard all the talk about whether he ever could recapture the MVP form he showed early in his Milwaukee Brewers tenure. Eventually, he realized he needed to stop listening to it.

That attitude has him playing as well as he has since those peak seasons.

"If you’re always trying to please people or care what people think, it’s going to beat you up mentally," Yelich said. "As soon as you don’t (care) anymore about what people think, and you’re just like, ‘You know what, I’m going to help this team win. I’m going to be the best version of myself for the guys in this clubhouse and just try and help everybody win today,’ it’s just a good mentality to have."

Yelich, 31, is one of five major leaguers with at least 20 homers and 15 steals this season. He ranks among the top 10 National League players in steals (6th, 22), runs (6th, 73), batting average (8th, .290) and on-base percentage (10th, .376).

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The left fielder has sparked the Brewers to a 1 ½-game lead in the NL Central by providing the production that had been missing the last few years.

"He’s been keeping our offense afloat, keeping us in games and coming up big time for us like we know he can," pitcher Adrian Houser said.

Milwaukee acquired Yelich from the Miami Marlins in January 2018, and he earned MVP honors that year as the Brewers finished a game shy of their first World Series appearance since 1982. He was second in the MVP voting in 2019, even though a fractured right kneecap ended his season a few weeks early.

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Yelich noted that once a player has won an MVP award, "you’re always going to be measured to that standard in most people’s eyes, especially once you sign a deal like I have." Instead, his numbers fell after the Brewers signed him to a nine-year, $215 million contract in the spring of 2020, quite an investment for a small-market franchise.

"Everyone just thinks it’s normal to have a Cy Young-caliber season or an MVP-caliber season and you can just pencil that in every year and that’s what the standard should be," Yelich said. "That’s not how baseball works. That’s not how the game works. It’s a really hard game. You’ve got to treat every year as its own thing."

After winning consecutive NL batting titles in 2018 (.326) and 2019 (.329), Yelich saw his average plunge to .205 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He hit . 248 in 2021 and .252 in 2022. His 35 homers from 2020-22 were nine less than his 2019 total.

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His OPS — which led the NL in 2018 (1.000) and topped the majors in 2019 (1.100) — was in the .700s each season from 2020-22. He's at .855 this season, including .993 since June 1.

Brewers manager Craig Counsell said the expectations started to wear on Yelich.

"Everybody wants to be great, for sure," Counsell said. "And when you’ve done it and you know it’s in there, you know it’s in there. So that makes you (think), ‘I’ve got to find it. I’ve got to find it. I’ve got to find it.’ "

Brewers co-hitting coach Ozzie Timmons noted there also were physical challenges. Yelich played just 117 games in 2021 due to a lower back strain, though he appeared in 154 games last season. Timmons cites improved health as a chief reason for Yelich’s resurgence.

"He played through some stuff last year a little bit," Timmons said. "He’s a tough guy. He goes out there every day and he’s going to post. He’s going to be ready to go regardless of if there’s a little ache or pain here. But this year, I think there’s a little less aches and pains."

The changes weren’t apparent at first. At the end of April, Yelich was batting .223. But he's batted .319 since.

Yelich already has matched his RBI total and exceeded his homer and stolen-base total from 2022. Over his last 42 games, Yelich is hitting .347 (58 of 167) with 17 doubles, eight homers, 33 RBIs and eight steals.

The Brewers desperately needed Yelich’s resurgence in a year when they rank 25th in scoring with many notable players slumping.

Willy Adames’ OPS is at .690, down from .756 in 2022 and .818 in 2021. Rowdy Tellez, currently on the injured list, has just 12 homers after going deep 35 times last year. The Brewers acquired Jesse Winker in hopes he could provide a middle-of-the-order presence, but he’s hitting .199 with just six extra-base hits.

In a series with the second-place Cincinnati Reds, Yelich hit a walk-off single in the ninth inning of a 3-2 victory Monday. The next night, he went 3 for 5 and hit a three-run homer with two outs in the ninth before the Brewers fell 4-3.

"He’s been wonderful," president of baseball operations Matt Arnold said. "Right now he’s been carrying the offense and just a huge catalyst at the top of our lineup."

Yelich isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s encountered enough peaks and valleys to know fortunes can change in a hurry.

"I’m always going to be measured by ’18 and ’19 by fans, by media," Yelich said. "The only thing I can really say to that is it’s a different year. You kind of just see how this one ends. You never really know. Sometimes they end special. Sometimes they don’t. Just kind of see how it plays out."