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Christian Yelich’s injury is crushing, but there’s still hope for the Brewers

The reigning NL MVP is out for the season with a broken kneecap.

Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers is sitting in a bunch of pain because he injured his kneecap. You hate to see it! Getty Images / SB Nation illustration

Christian Yelich nearly won the triple crown in 2018 and won the National League MVP award going away, and this season was having a better year. He fouled a ball Tuesday night off his kneecap, a freak accident that dealt a crippling blow to the Brewers’ playoff chances.

But despite losing their best player, Milwaukee still has reason to hope.

“We have to move forward,” exasperated Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after Tuesday’s game. “We feel awful for Christian, that’s what really resonates with me right now.”

There’s no getting around that losing Yelich is terrible. He leads the National League in OPS (1.100), OPS+ (178), wOBA (.443), wRC+ (173), fWAR (7.7), on-base percentage (.429), slugging percentage (.671), and total bases (328), he’s tied for second in home runs (44) and bWAR (7.1), third in batting average (.329), and is even tied for third in stolen bases (30), putting up just the 12th 40-30 season in MLB history.

If Yelich wasn’t going to win a second straight MVP award, the worst he would have likely finished was second, to the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger. Now, that individual race is gone.

From a team standpoint, Milwaukee won its fifth straight game on Tuesday and now trails the Cubs by just one game for the second National League wild card spot. Projections aren’t too high on the Brewers’ chances, with Baseball Prospectus giving them a 30.6-percent chance to make the postseason and FanGraphs pegging Milwaukee at 25.0 percent.

Favorable schedule

The Brewers don’t play the Cubs again, so they can’t take leapfrogging matters into their own hands down the stretch. But Milwaukee does have a favorable schedule. Outside of this weekend’s road series against the division-leading Cardinals, the Brewers play only bad teams the rest of the way:

  • 2 more games against the Marlins (.354 winning percentage)
  • 4 at home against the Padres (.465)
  • 3 at home against the Pirates (.434)
  • 3 on the road against the Reds (.462)
  • 3 on the road against the Rockies (.421)

The Brewers’ final six series of the regular season is against the teams with the five worst records in the NL. If there is such a thing as a road map for success, this is it.

Pitching is improving

Milwaukee was within a game of reaching the World Series last year on the strength of Yelich, but also a strong pitching staff from top to bottom. In 2018 Brewers pitching ranked fourth in the NL in ERA (3.73), third in ERA- (92), and fifth in FIP- (97). This year Milwaukee is down to 11th in ERA (4.59), eighth in ERA- (102), and 10th in FIP- (101).

But in September the Brewers have a 3.18 ERA, and have won seven of nine games. If we look back even further they are 12-6 with a 3.26 ERA in their last 18 games, helping to shave 2½ games off their wild card deficit and leapfrog two teams. The only thing that stands in Milwaukee’s way for a return to the postseason is the Cubs.

This feels familiar

“First and foremost, we feel awful for Christian. This is a guy who has carried us in a number of ways over the last two years,” Brewers general manager David Stearns said Tuesday night. “Could have been two and a half weeks away from a repeat Most Valuable Player award, so that’s where our thoughts go first.

“From a team perspective, we have a lot of guys in that clubhouse who will hurt tonight. This is a gut punch for a night, and then we need to recover and play really strong baseball. We’ve been through this before as an organization. Two years ago almost to the day we lost Jimmy Nelson to a similarly freak injury and we competed at a very high level for the rest of the season.”

Nelson was the Brewers ace in 2017 before straining his rotator cuff and tearing his labrum in his shoulder on a slide in early September. That injury has cost the right-hander most of the last two seasons, but in the moment two years ago Milwaukee was able to regroup. The Brewers won the game Nelson got hurt, then won 13 of their final 21 games, but finished one game out of a wild card spot.

Milwaukee will need a similar finishing kick this year, without Yelich, and will have to hope that it’s enough to overtake the Cubs.