The straw that stirs the drink: Christian Yelich is the heart of the 2018 Brewers

Despite playing only nine games, the eye test and the numbers show that the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers belong to a 26-year-old only three months into his tenure.

When David Stearns made the moves to acquire Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich–in turn heating up a cool stove and turning the Milwaukee Brewers into the center of Baseball Internet for days–it was thought that Yelich provided tremendous value for an outstanding young player entering his prime, while also bringing home a pennant-winning, World Series champion who would provide experience and leadership for a club that shifted hard from rebuilding to contending aspirations.

While Cain is a feel-good story and has been a rock in the outfield, it is clear that Yelich isn’t just an outstanding player, but is indeed the soul of this iteration of the Brew Crew. All it took was a trip to the DL to prove it.

Those who have watched the Brewers over their first 21 games, particularly in the opening half-dozen games, no doubt have noticed that this roster more closely resembles those pennant-winning Royals teams albeit with more pop: putting the ball in play, working counts, sharing in the similar hideous projections entering the season (looking directly at you, Fangraphs), being willing to kill the opposition with a thousand paper cuts. One could well chalk that up to a new generation of front office types looking at ways for small-market organizations to make an outsized impact on games. One could chalk that up to Cain’s presence in the clubhouse, who matured with the Dayton Moore-led Royals and shared a second stint with a wiser Ned Yost.

Once Yelich went down with oblique tightness, everything changed. People might have thought the competition was stronger, playing division rivals in the Cardinals and Cubs, the two who will again stand in the way of the Brewers’ October aspirations, and a very good New York Mets team in bad weather. Of course a young team that overachieved in 2017 would regress and start pressing at the plate!

When Yelich returned to the lineup April 18th, it could no longer be doubted. Yelich is this team’s centrifuge, and those Brewers we saw take it to an improved San Diego Padres club are (barring catastrophic injury) the Brewers we should expect for the duration.

Lest the eye test be inadequate (and, to be sure, it is):

Brewers without Yelich (12 gms): .223/.290/.358/.648, 91 H, 29 XBH, 13 HR, 35 BB, 114 K

Brewers w/ Yelich (9 gms): .258/.311/.386/.697, 89 H, 20 XBH, 12 HR, 34 BB, 82 K

Yelich has enjoyed a monster opening to his 2018, further underscoring the general template the club is employing: .382/.488/.588/1.076, 6 BB, 7 K through Friday. Where Eric Thames shouldered the load during the back end of Yelich’s convalescence, now he is better-protected with not only Yelich coming back, but Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw warming up along with the rest of the state of Wisconsin after this bitter, prolonged winter. Even swing-happy Domingo Santana is taking his walks and a better player for it. Cain, too, is bouncing back after struggling mightily over the fortnight generally coinciding with Yelich’s stint on the DL.

Then there’s the most important statistic of all: the Brewers are 7-2 when Yelich plays. They are 5-6 when he doesn’t. The Brewers don’t merely look better with him in the lineup, they are better.

Less than a month into the regular season, we have enough context and data to reasonably suggest that Yelich’s production and presence can make him the leader the franchise has been sorely lacking since Prince Fielder‘s exit in 2012. If that is the case, then Stearns’ jump into the Marlins’ fire sale will have been all the more worth the bevy of prospects moved to get someone previously thought untouchable.

Yelich, under team control until 2022, provides a level of cost-certainty that should give way to a mutually-beneficial long-term deal that would put Yelich in the company of beloved Brewers who came to Milwaukee in the middle of their careers: Ted Simmons, Pete Vuckovich, Cecil Cooper, Rollie Fingers. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Right now, this is Christian Yelich’s team, and he makes everyone else on the lineup card better. That should be good enough.

In the meantime, the rest of the National League is being put on notice: the Brewers are back and better than ever.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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