By STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer
MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns says nobody has been able to figure out the cause of Christian Yelich’s hitting struggles over the past couple of seasons.
“I think if we did, if Christian knew exactly what happened, it’s easier to solve,” Stearns said Friday during a news conference wrapping up the Brewers’ season. “It’s certainly frustrating for Christian.”
Getting him back on track is a major offseason priority for the Brewers as they continue chasing their first World Series title. Yelich will make $26 million each of the next seven seasons, though $4 million of that will be deferred each year.
Yelich was the 2018 NL MVP and finished second in the 2019 MVP balloting his first two seasons in Milwaukee – leading the NL in batting average and OPS each of those years – but he hasn’t come close to approaching that production since.
He hit .248 with nine homers and 51 RBIs in 117 games this year and struck out looking with the tying run on first to end the Brewers’ NL Division Series loss to the Atlanta Braves.
“I have to be better,” Yelich said after Game 4. “I came up in a lot of big spots throughout the year and in the postseason as well and came up short. That’s how it goes. It’s part of the game. You just have to take it all in, pick yourself up afterwards and keep moving.”
Although Yelich spent over a month on the injured list with a lower back strain early in the season and later tested positive for COVID-19, Stearns said the 29-year-old outfielder wasn’t dealing with any physical limitations down the stretch.
This marked Yelich’s second straight disappointing year. He hit just .205 with 12 homers and 22 RBIs in 58 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, though many star players struggled that year.
“We have to do everything we can to help Christian get closer to where we were in 2018 and 2019,” Stearns said. “I don’t think it is realistic to hold that level of production up. Those were two MVP-caliber years. But clearly he wasn’t right this year and he wasn’t right last year either. There may be different reasons in each of those two years why we couldn’t quite get it going, but it should be a priority for the organization.”
Yelich had a career-low .373 slugging percentage this season as he hit ground balls more often than he has in the past. His slugging percentage was .430 last year, .671 in 2019 and .598 in 2018.
Yelich still has good plate discipline, as evidenced by his 70 walks that resulted in a .362 on-base percentage this season.
“There are still a lot of really positive underpinnings here,” Stearns said. “He’s hitting the ball plenty hard enough to hit for power. So I don’t think the power has necessarily disappeared. Clearly, getting the ball in the air on a consistent basis has diminished and I think that’s something that Christian is certainly aware of and is open to working on.”
The Brewers ranked 12th out of 30 major league teams in scoring this season without getting much from Yelich. That was good enough for Milwaukee to go 95-67 and win the NL Central title, thanks largely to a starting rotation featuring All-Star right-handers Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta.
Milwaukee has reached the playoffs a franchise-record four straight times but hasn’t reached the World Series since 1982.
“With some of Christian’s struggles this year, he still helped and contributed to a 95-win team,” Stearns said. “I think that’s important to note. The fate of the Milwaukee Brewers is not on Christian Yelich’s shoulders. It’s not exclusively on one person. We’re all involved in this, everyone in the organization is involved with this, and we all take our share of ownership.”
NOTES: Stearns said IF Keston Hiura will have a procedure to remove “loose bodies” from his throwing elbow. … Stearns acknowledged this playoff loss felt worse than others. “And that’s not a bad thing,” Stearns said. “It means we had really high expectations here this year. It means that we thought we had a really good team. We did have a really good team.”
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