On June 1 of last season, Christian Yelich faced Travis Wood with two outs in the ninth inning of a game the Marlins were trailing by four runs. There's no such thing as a meaningless at-bat in a game without a clock, but that scenario is pretty close. Yelich worked the count full and took a walk, laying off a tough fastball that just missed the outside corner of the strike zone. It was his 11th walk of the season.
On April 18 of this season, Yelich already has 11 walks. He got there in 10 games, 23 fewer than it took him last year. He leads the league in on-base percentage early in the year.
It is, of course, an impossibly small sample. One might say a useless sample, at least according to Voros' Law, which reminds us that "any major league hitter can hit just about anything in 60 at-bats." But as long as we're introducing universal truths, let's all remember Bonds' Law:
Barry Bonds is the smartest living hitter, and you could learn so much from him. Also, if you eat just one of his used Kleenex, your on-base percentage jumps up by 10 points.
It's been a very quiet start for the Marlins, which means it's been a quiet start for the Barry Bonds hitting coach experiment. Quiet isn't a synonym for poor, as there was always a chance for some delightful Bonds/Jeffrey Loria shenanigans to overshadow everything, but we haven't seen the Marlins explode into an offensive behemoth. Giancarlo Stanton isn't hitting .400 and Dee Gordon isn't hitting moonshots into the spinning fish. If you want to pretend Bonds is having a positive impact, you'll have to cherry pick some stats.
And I'm really good at that! But if you were going to pick the likeliest success story for the Bonds experiment before the season started, Yelich was at the top of the list. Stanton is almost fully formed and his eye was already sound. Gordon has already improved dramatically over the last two seasons and has a much different approach than just about anyone in baseball. It's hard to see what kind of light switch a new hitting coach could flip for either one.
Yelich, though, is young, malleable and laden with all sorts of raw tools. He was never impatient, never a hacker. He just wasn't a walking fool, not in the majors or at any level in the minors. It's also worthwhile to point out that Yelich had far less minor league seasoning than your typical young player, skipping straight over Triple-A after just 49 games at Double-A. If you had to create the template of the perfect player for Bonds to tweak and point in the right direction, this is pretty close.
The results so far, with help from StatCorner:
|% of pitches seen ahead in count||Swing %||BB%|
Smaaaaall sample size, small sample size, sing it with me, every April, smaaaaall sample siiiiiize. But remember that Bonds' walks weren't about trying to get on base. They were about controlling the strike zone and swinging only at the best pitches to hit. A hitter uses his patience to become a good hitter; a good hitter doesn't excel just because of his patience. And that's why this start is my favorite Yelich tidbit of this young season:
Percentage of swings taken on pitches outside of the strike zone
2013 - 21%
2014 - 21%
2015 - 25%
2016 - 15%
Take this sequence from Yelich against Hunter Cervenka in the seventh inning -- down by two, no one on and Stanton on deck. A baserunner would bring Stanton up as the tying run.
That's not a little leaguer taking pitches because he knows the pitcher can't throw strikes. It's not a major leaguer taking pitches right down the middle because he's desperate to work a walk. It's a hitter looking for a fastball on a 2-0 count and knowing better than to swing at a left-handed slider on the corner of the zone, even if it's going to be a strike. It's a hitter getting into a 3-1 count and using that leverage to wait for his pitch, not expect a strike, any old strike, and help a pitcher out. It's the Bonds way, rationing the swings and using them only on balls worth hitting.
No, the improvement doesn't have to be sustainable or real. And if it is, it doesn't have to do with Bonds at all. Yelich is just 24, an age when exceptional talents start to figure it all out, and this might all be a product of whatever offseason preparation he was doing on his own. We might be a little too eager to make a connection here.
But when a 24-year-old left-handed hitter with tremendous raw tools and talent starts to walk more than he ever has in his career, shortly after working with Barry freaking Bonds, it's probably a good idea to pay attention. The Marlins haven't been anything special this year, but keep an eye out for Yelich. The early returns on his patience are encouraging, and it's worth pointing out that he has the most patient player in the history of baseball whispering in his ear.