Here we are nearly in the middle of June, and Christian Yelich leads the National League in both home runs and stolen bases.
The Milwaukee Brewers outfielder hit his 24th dinger of the season on Sunday, giving him a three-homer lead over his next-closest competitor — rookie stud Pete Alonso of the Mets. Yelich has also swiped 14 bases, tied with Jarrod Dyson atop the NL.
Only one person has led his league in both home runs and steals in the same season: Chuck Klein, with 38 home runs and 20 — yes, just 20 — stolen bases in 1932 for the Phillies.
There is still a long time to go in 2019, but what Yelich is doing is nothing short of remarkable. He managed to follow up an MVP campaign with, so far, an even more impressive season.
Yelich finished 2018 just two home runs shy of winning the triple crown, something not done in the National League since Joe Medwick in 1937. But the key to his MVP surge was an absurdly hot stretch in the second half.
After the All-Star break last year Yelich hit a ridiculous .367/.449/.770 with 25 home runs in 65 games. So far in 2019, it’s more of the same. He’s hitting .340/.446/.745 with 24 home runs in 59 games. Think of it this way: Yelich’s best homer season with the Marlins was 21, in 2016. He’s topped that in each of the last two “half seasons” with Milwaukee, and in reality both periods were much shorter than that.
Yelich has 49 home runs and 120 RBI in his last 124 games. He’s putting together one of the best All-Star break to All-Star break runs in recent memory.
But I keep coming back to those stolen bases in combination with everything else.
I’ve been drawn to the power-speed players ever since growing up watching Eric Davis, Kirk Gibson, Howard Johnson and the like in the 1980s. I was in the left field pavilion at Dodger Stadium in 1991 when Ron Gant of the Braves hit his 30th home run, making him the first player with back-to-back 30-30 seasons since Willie Mays 34 years earlier.
My friend Tom had the Gant home run ball in his bare hands on the fly, but a push in the back and ensuing melee meant the souvenir ended up in someone else’s hands. I’ve been chasing the power-speed dragon ever since.
Jose Ramirez piqued my interest last season, when the wonderful Indians infielder was leading the American League in both home runs and steals in late August, but he fizzled out and didn’t finish with the lead in either category. Still, 39 home runs and 34 steals is nothing to sneeze at.
Modern baseball has seen a decline in the stolen base, with the possibility of a potential out seen as too large a risk in most cases. Steals these days are efficiency plays, and Yelich with his 82.4% career success rate a perfect example. This season Yelich has only been caught once trying to steal.
Twice in the previous four seasons the AL leader in steals has been in the 30s. In the senior circuit, Trea Turner’s 43 stolen bases last year were the fewest by a National League league leader in a full season since 1963. Now is as good a time as any for someone to lead the league in steals without a ridiculous volume.
25 HR / 25 SB seasons
Last year saw a resurgence of the 30-30 season, with Ramirez joined by AL MVP Mookie Betts, putting up the first 30-30 years since 2012.
If we lower the threshold to 25 homers and 25 steals, there have been 153 such seasons in MLB history. But the numbers are dwindling. We are in the final season of the 2010s, but the 18 such seasons this decade is roughly half of the previous decade, and way down from the power/speed peak of the 1990s, with 38 years of 25 homers and 25 steals.
But Yelich isn’t just on pace for a garden variety 25-25 or even 30-30 season. Through Sunday, he’s on pace for 59 home runs and 34 stolen bases, which would be unprecedented in big league history.
The most stolen bases by anyone in a 50-homer season is 24, by Willie Mays (1955) and Alex Rodriguez (2007). The most home runs hit by a player with 30 stolen bases is 49, by Larry Walker in 1997.
Yelich is in uncharted territory.
Just finishing in the top five in both categories would be quite a feat. Ramirez last year with Cleveland finished third in the AL in steals and tied for fourth in home runs. He was the first in the top five of both categories since Matt Kemp in 2011.
Even if he doesn’t keep up the steals pace, Yelich has been so good in just about every other category that a second straight NL MVP is becoming more and more possible every day.