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  • Christian Yelich hit his second cycle in three weeks on Monday night. Does that make him the favorite in a crowded NL MVP race?
By Jon Tayler
September 18, 2018

For Christian Yelich, it was déjà vu all over again. On Monday night against the Reds, the Brewers’ outfielder hit for the cycle for the second time this season, replicating a feat he’d pulled off just three weeks prior against … the Reds. In doing so, he not only helped Milwaukee to an 8–0 win over Cincinnati, but also further burnished a scorching second-half case for National League MVP honors.

The last time Yelich hit for the cycle, on Aug. 29 in Cincinnati, he did so as part of a six-hit, three-RBI night in a 10-inning Brewers win. Monday’s effort was less dramatic, as Milwaukee easily cruised to victory, but still plenty historic for Yelich, who became just the third player since 1900 to collect two cycles in a single season. His night began with a single up the middle against Reds starter Anthony DeSclafani, followed by a double down the first-base line past a diving Joey Votto in the third. In the fifth, Yelich checked the home run off the list by taking DeSclafani deep to right for a two-run shot, his 31st of the season. All that was left was the toughest hit to collect: the triple. One inning later, he had it, driving a ball to the right-center gap against reliever Jesus Reyes to bring home a pair and finish the job, proving that even cycles can come in cycles.

As noted, Yelich is only the third man in the last century to hit for the cycle twice in a season, joining the Diamondbacks’ Aaron Hill (June 18 and 29, 2012) and the Dodgers’ Babe Herman (May 18 and July 24, 1931). Two other players also pulled the trick back before the existence of Major League Baseball: Long John Reilly (1883) and Tip O’Neill (’87) did so as members of the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Brown Stockings, respectively, of the long gone American Association. Yelich does get one piece of history to call his own, though: He’s the first player ever to pick up two cycles against the same team in the same season. (For the season, he’s now hitting an absurd .500/.556/1.104 with seven homers in 12 games against the Reds, who will presumably resort to drowning him in a vat of Skyline Chili before this series is over.)

The cycle redux is just the latest piece of brilliance from Yelich in a second half that’s been full of them. Since the All-Star break, the 26-year-old has been unstoppable, hitting .355/.417/.733 with 20 homers, a .477 wOBA, a 202 wRC+, and 3.9 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs version). The slugging percentage and WAR are tops among all hitters in the second half; the average and wRC+ figures are second to the Dodgers’ Justin Turner (.394 and 216, respectively, albeit in 55 fewer plate appearances); and the home runs rank behind only Oakland’s Khris Davis (22).

All of that has added up to a career year for Yelich in his first season with the Brewers. His .570 slugging percentage, .955 OPS and 152 OPS+ all lead the NL, and he’s already blown past his previous highs in home runs (21, set in 2016) and both versions of WAR. On top of that, he’s posting the best full-season walk, strikeout and hard-hit rates of his career; the last of those, at 47.8%, ranks sixth in the majors among qualified hitters.

While the scale of Yelich’s success may be a surprise, the fact that he’s taken a leap after being freed from the constraints of the moribund Marlins shouldn’t be. Per ESPN’s MLB Park Factors, spacious Marlins Park has, since its inception in 2012, been one of the least homer-friendly parks in the majors. By contrast, Milwaukee’s Miller Park routinely ranks in the top 10. That’s especially the case for lefthanders in each park: Miami’s right-center gap is a daunting 392 feet away from home plate, as opposed to 374 in Milwaukee. Marlins Park also went as deep as 418 feet in centerfield before a 2016 adjustment brought the walls back in, though only by 11 feet. The more symmetrical Miller Park, meanwhile, goes back no more than 400 feet in center.

For the lefty-swinging Yelich, that change of scenery has proven beneficial. Last year, he slugged a mere .401 at home and went deep just seven times, compared to a .472 slugging percentage and 11 homers on the road. The season prior was even starker: only eight homers and a .415 slugging percentage in Miami versus 13 round-trippers and a .542 mark away from south Florida. But in Miller Park, he’s a whole new hitter. Nineteen of his 31 homers have come at home, where he’s posted a gaudy .631 slugging percentage in 295 trips to the plate. Of all hitters with 250 or more plate appearances at home, only four have posted better slugging percentages: J.D. Martinez, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story and Mookie Betts.

Always a hyper-talented hitter, there were plenty of reasons to expect a big year from Yelich in Milwaukee; for proof, consult our preseason awards predictions, where three SI writers (including yours truly) tabbed him as a darkhorse MVP contender. (Just please ignore my actual NL MVP pick, and also my AL and NL Cy Young picks.) But amid a crowded field devoid of a superstar season, Yelich may actually pick up a trophy for his work. His second-half surge has launched him into the top 10 in the NL in both versions of WAR: Per Baseball-Reference’s numbers, he’s eighth at 5.7 (fourth among position players), and over on Fangraphs, he checks in at fourth overall with 6.0 (and tops in the hitter category).

That slight difference has to do with each site’s conflicting grades on his defense, which range from mediocre to below-average. Either way, though, his offense has carried him into the MVP conversation, alongside teammate Lorenzo Cain, NL Central contenders Javy Baez and Matt Carpenter, and sluggers Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman and Arenado. Of that group, no one has had a bigger or better second half than Yelich, whose Brewers have the third-best record in the NL since the All-Star break at 31–22, behind Carpenter’s Cardinals (35–22) and Baez’s Cubs (33–24).

The question is whether that narrative is enough to lift Yelich above not only his fellow hitters, but also past the trio of aces who’ve dominated the Senior Circuit: Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Aaron Nola. (You can include Patrick Corbin and Kyle Freeland as hurlers who also have arguable MVP cases.) It helps Yelich that no one hitter in the NL is having a truly standout season. Cain is the only one likely to finish with 7.0 bWAR or more on the year, and that’s thanks mostly to his superlative defense, which is usually something voters overlook. Everyone else seems likely to be bunched between 5.0 and 6.5 WAR—great seasons, all, but shy of the 8.0-plus mark that usually delineates an MVP-caliber campaign.

Regardless of whether this season is enough to put Yelich at the top, he’s been instrumental in the Brewers’ playoff push. Languishing as many as six games back in the NL Central near the end of August, Milwaukee has gone 13–5 over its last three weeks (a run kickstarted by Yelich’s first cycle) to cut Chicago’s lead in the division to 2 ½ games. Just as importantly, the Brewers are solidly in control of the NL’s first wild card, which they hold by three games over the Cardinals. Per Fangraphs, their odds of making the postseason sit at 98.7% with 11 games to go. There are plenty of players who have helped that happen, but perhaps none more than Yelich.

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