Reporters from Japan gathered around Christian Yelich when the National League had its media availability before the All-Star Game. His maternal grandfather is Japanese and that made him a popular subject.
Via a translator, one reporter asked Yelich about his approach to hitting and, in particular, the angle of his swing.
Going into the weekend, Yelich has hit 67 home runs in 230 games with the Brewers since being traded by the Miami Marlins. That’s one behind Mike Trout for the most in baseball.
Yelich explained that he’s not a launch-angled hitter seeking fly balls. He has stayed true to a hard-contact, line-drive approach. His fly ball rate is up this season, which led to him leading the majors with 31 home runs at the break. But he’s not selling out for power as so many hitters do.
His strikeout rate has actually dropped and his walk rate has climbed. In essence, Yelich has become a perfect hitter in that he makes consistent contact and hits for power.
The Japanese reporter then asked Yelich if he was trying to hit the ball in a certain spot to create backspin, something former Marlins teammate Ichiro Suzuki said he did.
Yelich laughed. “I think I’m pretty good, but I’m not that good,” he said.
That’s up for debate. Yelich has hit .327 with a 1.050 OPS in two seasons for Milwaukee. He also has 41 stolen bases in 47 attempts. Only Trout and Yelich have an OPS over 1.000 the last two seasons.
Yelich was named the National League MVP after the season and is now a two-time All-Star.
This has been building up. Yelich hit .290 with an .800 OPS in five seasons with the Marlins, breaking into the majors as a 21-year-old in 2013, three years after he was drafted out of high school in the first round.
Yelich won a Gold Glove in 2014 and received MVP votes in 2016 as part of an outfield that included Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna.
But while Yelich benefited from being part of that group, it was Suzuki who had the greatest influence.
“I’ve never been around a player who loved baseball more,” Yelich said. “His pregame routine was something I watched and tried to learn from. Ichiro was always prepared and always had his body ready.
“It was good to be around Ichiro for me just in terms of learning what it took to be a consistent player. He did a lot for me.”
The Marlins were 77-85 in 2017, finishing second in the National League East. They averaged 4.80 runs per game, fifth in the National League, and were an improved pitching staff away from being contenders.
But when Bruce Sherman purchased the team in a highly leveraged deal and installed Derek Jeter as CEO, the mandate was to sell and reduce payroll. Yelich went to the Brewers for four prospects just before spring training started in 2018. Stanton was shipped to the Yankees and Ozuna to the Cardinals six weeks earlier.
Yelich signed a six-year, $47.75 million extension with Miami in 2015 and Milwaukee is reaping the benefits.
He’s on the books for only $9.75 million this season. That goes up to $12.5 million in 2020, $14 million on 2021, and the Brewers hold a $15 million option for 2022. His production is coming at a bargain rate.
Yelich doesn’t believe the trade necessarily led to what he’s doing now as his numbers were steadily climbing with the Marlins. But he does acknowledge a new, more competitive environment helped.
Milwaukee won the National League Central last season, taking a tiebreaking game from the Cubs at Wrigley Field with Yelich going 3 for 4 with an RBI. The Brewers then swept the Rockies in the Division Series before losing a seven-game NLCS against the Dodgers. The Brewers were one win away from playing the Red Sox last fall.
“Playing for something, you hope that brings out your best,” Yelich said. “It’s been great in Milwaukee with the fans, being in the race. That has been good for all of us as players.
“It’s different when you go to the ballpark every day and you’re excited about what you can accomplish.
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Francona knows about the pitfalls
Indians manager Terry Francona won championships with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007. The Sox made the playoffs the following season both times but didn’t return to the World Series.
The Red Sox are going through similar struggles this season. So we asked Francona his theories on why it’s so tough to repeat.
“For me, the first thing you tell a team in spring training is, ‘Hey whatever we did last year, it’s a new year.’ But when you’ve won, you can say all that but it’s really not over,” Francona said. “There are constant reminders.”
Francona also feels it’s difficult for a team to experience the headiness of the World Series then go back to the daily grind of the season just a few months later.
“I think what’s hard for players is when you play in October and the deeper you go, you’re the only game in town. It’s almost glamorous,” he said. “Then the next games you play are in April. It’s 30 degrees; there are 8,000 people in the park sometimes. It’s not glamorous. It hits players.”
Francona feels a championship team has to fight through the early weeks of the following season before gaining its footing. That is generally what happened with the Red Sox, who were 14-18 on May 2 then 35-23 (.603) leading up the All-Star break.
“It’s hard to define, but it’s just harder a year later,” Francona said. “We talk about a lot and there are no easy answers.”
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
■ Alex Cora on managing the All-Star Game: “It was amazing. As a baseball fan, you just sit there and listen to them talk in the dugout and sharing thoughts and just talking the game. That’s what it’s all about. I never envisioned myself in an All-Star Game.
“Obviously we did what we did [winning the World Series] and we got the opportunity to be here. Overall, it was one of the best baseball experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
■ Cora used Francona’s office at Progressive Field for the All-Star Game. Francona found an old photograph of he and Cora during their shared time with the Red Sox and had it framed and left on his desk.
Francona was on the American League coaching staff and had a ball at the game. He even arrived at the red carpet pregame on the scooter he uses to get around downtown Cleveland.
“It was great,” Cora said. “I’ve known Tito for a while. Everybody knows about his career, what he’s done as a manager. To have him around it was not only great for me but for the whole staff and players.”
■ Wade Boggs, Dennis Eckersley, Carlton Fisk, Pedro Martinez, and Jim Rice are among the Hall of Famers who have committed to attend the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown starting Friday.
■ It’s unlikely to happen now that the Sox have acquired Andrew Cashner, but Noah Syndergaard of the Mets would have been interesting starter to chase.
The 6-foot-6-inch righthander went into the break 6-4 with a career-worst 4.68 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. He would surely benefit from working with the Sox pitching coaches compared with the situation he has with the Mets, who fired pitching coach Dave Eiland last month.
Most importantly for a player coming to Boston is that Syndergaard wants to be there. When the Mets played at Fenway Park last September, Syndergaard took to Twitter to write, “So Fenway was a surreal ballpark to pitch in from a childhood dream perspective.”
He also wrote that he loved the Mets and New York. But the message was hard to miss.
Syndergaard, 26, is not a free agent until after the 2021 season, so the price would be steep. But he would be worth looking into at some point. When considering trades to places such as Boston, it’s important to factor in how a player can handle the environment and Syndergaard would embrace it.
■ Nobody thought it was a bad idea when Dave Dombrowski traded Travis Shaw and three prospects to Milwaukee for Tyler Thornburg after the 2016 season. Thornburg was one of the best relievers in the National League that season, having averaged 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings with a WHIP of 0.94. He also arrived with three years of team control.
Shaw had a .726 OPS in ’16, struck out 133 times in 480 at-bats and lost his job to Yoan Moncada in September. His OBP that season was .306.
The trade blew up. Thornburg arrived with thoracic outlet syndrome — a condition no pre-trade exam would have revealed — and had surgery in 2017 while Shaw became a productive power hitter.
Thornburg was never the same again. His command vanished.
The real mistake Dombrowski made was believing right up until this April that Thornburg would recapture his 2016 form despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The Sox should have non-tendered Thornburg in December and moved on. Identifying him as one of the late-inning relief candidates when spring training opened was unrealistic.
That the Sox lost the trade was not an institutional failure; it was just bad luck. Keeping him around too long, that was the failure.
■ The Cubs released Junichi Tazawa from their Triple A team Thursday. He averaged 64 appearances for the Sox from 2013-16 and paid the price, posting a 6.16 ERA in 86 games after that. Now, at 33, he could be done.
But Taz did win a ring with the 2013 Red Sox and the Marlins paid him $12 million over two seasons.
History is made with robot umps
Baseball history was made on Wednesday in York, Pa., when Mitch Atkins threw a belt-high fastball down the middle to Justin Pacchioli to start the Atlantic League All-Star Game. Pacchioli took the pitch. The TrackMan radar installed at the stadium saw it was a strike and signaled that to home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere, who was wearing an Apple AirPod in his right ear tethered wirelessly to the iPhone in his back pocket.
“Strike one,” deBrauwere said with little delay.
With that, baseball changed. So much so that the ball was taken out of play and sent to the Hall of Fame.
There’s still an umpire, so it’s not quite robot umpires. But he called the pitches per what TrackMan decided.
There still some bumps. The system needed rebooting in the fourth inning but the game proceeded with no delay as deBrauwere called pitches. Only one pitch called by TrackMan was disputed.
MLB is using the Atlantic League as a testing ground for technology and rules. Commissioner Rob Manfred said the pitch-calling system has worked well in practice runs and officials are eager to see how it works in games over an extended period.
If the system does get to the majors, it probably won’t be for a few years and it’s a good bet the umpires union will oppose it. But it’ll happen eventually in some form.
There are some other rules changes being experimented with in the Atlantic League. Pitchers are required to step off the rubber for pickoff throws. A foul bunt is permitted with two strikes before a strikeout is called. Umpires also have been told to be more “batter friendly” on checked swings.
Then there’s this: On any pitch dropped by a catcher, not just a third strike, the batter may advance to first base.
The Atlantic League also uses larger bases and pitchers are required to face three batters. Obviously the rules are intended to generate more offense and cut down strikeouts. Some will end up in the majors, some will not. There’s sure to be howls of protests among the purists.
But every sport changes. The NBA didn’t always have a shot clock and a 3-pointer. Baseball used to only be played during the day. In the end, it’s a product being sold by a business and the product needs work. Games are too long and too often there’s a lack of action. That all said, a batter advancing on any dropped pitch is nonsensical. What hitter would want to give up his at-bat? I’m all for improving the game but let’s not get carried away.
The scoreboard operators at Progressive Field were not All-Stars on Tuesday. When Jeff McNeil batted in the eighth inning, the scoreboard showed a photo of Mets teammate Jacob deGrom. The board also identified Cubs catcher Willson Contreras as “Wilson” and Rockies outfielder David Dahl as “Davis.” . . . Here’s to Cody Decker, who was 0 for 11 for the Padres in 2015 in his only taste of the majors but went out a legend. Decker decided to retire July 5 and told his teammate with Triple A Reno before their game against Sacramento. In his last at-bat, Decker hit a two-run, walkoff homer. He hit 205 home runs in various levels of the minors over 11 seasons, including 14 for Portland in 2016 when the Red Sox signed him . . . The 26th annual Oldtime Baseball Game will be at 7 p.m. on Aug. 22 at St. Peter’s Field in North Cambridge. Steve Buckley of The Athletic, who runs the game, has Roger Clemens on the roster this season. The game will benefit Compassionate Care ALS in memory of longtime Fenway Park supervisor John Welch, who died last December of ALS. Welch’s son, Johnny, will play in this year’s game and will be one of the batters facing Clemens. Admission is free and fans are asked to bring a blanket or chair to sit down the foul lines . . . Happy 56th birthday, John Dopson. The Red Sox obtained the righthander from Montreal before the 1989 season and he went 12-8 with a 3.99 ERA his first season. But Dopson won only 14 games over the four seasons that followed. Dobson was called for a team-record four balks against Detroit on June 13, 1989. Former Red Sox Enrique Gonzalez (37), Mike Burns (41), Mark Brandenburg (49), and Chuck Rainey (65) also are celebrating, along with former assistant coach Victor Rodriguez, who is now working with the Indians. He is 58.