In a strictly literal, temporal sense, 2019 wasn't that long ago. For some baseball players, however, it might as well have been a lifetime ago. That's the case for Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger, the top two finishes in NL MVP voting in 2019. They've seen their respective Fantasy values collapse in the years since, with Bellinger sporting a 98.6 ADP in NFBC drafts right now while Yelich checks in at 100.6.
Of course, after that hotly contested MVP race, we thought those two would be drafted right next to each other for years – in the first round. Instead, injuries and poor performance have tanked their values in very similar ways. Seeing as they've got similar track records, similar price tags, and play the same position, you may reach the point in your draft where you have to pick between the two.
And it's a decision that could prove to be pivotal to your team. If either of them bounces back to something like their prior level of play, you could get one of the bargains of the draft. So, which one should you draft? Let's take a look at where both are at in their respective career and then compare them to see who is the better buy:
Bellinger is 26 years old and coming off an absolutely miserable 2021 season. He hit .165/.240/.302 in 95 games while missing time with a fractured fibula, a hamstring injury, and a fractured rib – and that was after having shoulder surgery in the offseason. Bellinger had that surgery after injuring the shoulder during the 2020 playoffs, which was also coming off a down season – he hit just .239/.333/.455 coming off his MVP season.
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Pretty much everything that could go wrong did so for Bellinger. The thing about his 2020 was, the underlying numbers actually weren't bad – he couldn't sustain all of the gains he made from his MVP season, but his strikeout rate was still very good at 17.3%, and his expected wOBA of .376 was well ahead of his actual .337 mark. 2020 just looked like a down season; 2021 was a disaster.
He got worse in pretty much every way possible. Here's where he ranked in 2020 and 2021 across a number of different metrics, from BaseballSavant.com:
- Expected wOBA: 86th percentile - 5th percentile
- xBA: 85th - 3rd
- xSLG: 82nd - 14th
- Barrel rate: 59th - 37th
- Average exit velocity: 60th - 48th
- Max exit velocity: 76th - 48th
- Hard-hit rate: 63rd - 20th
- K%: 77th - 17th
- Sprint speed: 91st - 75th
The injuries are a good excuse for why he struggled so much, obviously, but it's also worth noting that he spent the offseason before 2020 tweaking his swing, and it's fair to wonder if he might not ever get that back. Based on what we saw in 2021, he's got a lot of work to do.
Yelich's 2021 wasn't nearly as bad as Bellinger's. He hit .248/.362/.373, and while that's a long way away from 2019's .329/.429/.671 mark, it's also about .200 points of OPS clear of what Bellinger managed. He had nine homers and nine steals in 117 games, after hitting .205/.356/.430 in 2020.
2020 looked mostly like bad luck for Yelich. It would be an overstatement to chalk it up entirely to that – his strikeout rate ballooned to a career-worst 30.8% in the shortened season – but he still rated among the best in the league in terms of quality of contact, with a .494 expected wOBA on contact that was within spitting distance of 2020 (.514) and 2019 (.498). He mostly looked like the guy he'd always been.
That wasn't quite the case for 2021:
- Expected wOBA: 87th percentile - 61st percentile
- xBA: 50th - 52nd
- xSLG: 72nd - 30th
- Barrel rate: 75th - 35th
- Average exit velocity: 99th - 80th
- Max exit velocity: 94th - 86th
- Hard-hit rate: 98rd - 87th
- K%: 11th - 32nd
- Sprint speed: 81st - 81st
However, it's clearly not as bad as what Bellinger went through. The thing that stands out here is that he was still hitting the ball with authority consistently in a way that Bellinger didn't really manage. The problem was, he was hitting it on the ground too often – his average launch angle dipped from 11.3 degrees in 2019 to 7.1 degrees in 2020 to 2.8 degrees in 2021. That was his lowest mark since 2016, a few years before his emergence as one of the best players in Fantasy.
And, of course, it's hard to disentangle that from the possible (probable) cause of those changes: A lingering back injury. Bellinger missed about three weeks in April as a result of the injury, came back for one game, and then went back on the IL for two more weeks with the injury. He was mostly okay from that point on, playing 107 of the final 121 games for the Brewers, but back injuries for players in their 30s are always going to be a concern because they have a tendency to turn into chronic problems.
We don't know if that will be the case for Yelich, but even more than the down performance, Yelich's back is probably driving his cost down.
So ... Yelich or Bellinger?
The question comes down to which form of risk avoidance you prefer. Bellinger didn't look exactly like himself in 2021, but there were still a lot of positive signs. He still hit the ball with authority and didn't show much loss of foot speed, and we've seen him correct launch angle limitations before. However, if that back is going to be a chronic issue, none of that may matter.
On Bellinger's side, he's got the injuries, sure, but none seem all that likely to be of the chronic kind. However, the collapse in his underlying skill set was much more severe than it was for Yelich. Yelich looked like he was just a few tweaks away from being a high-level contributor again; Bellinger needs to completely re-tool his game from where it was in 2021.
Injuries tend to scare a lot of Fantasy players off, and I'll grant that I think Yelich's injury risk is probably a bigger concern than Bellinger's litany of unrelated issues moving forward, especially since he's three-and-a-half years older. If you asked me who was more likely to play 150 games in 2022, I'd go with Bellinger.
However, if you asked me who was more likely to be a must-start Fantasy player, I'm going with Yelich. I think he basically just has to stay healthy to do it – the underlying skill set is still very, very good. Bellinger not only has to stay healthy, but he needs to fix whatever's gone wrong with his swing over the past two seasons. And since I don't have much faith in my own ability to predict injuries very well, I'll bet on the guy who seemingly needs less to go right.