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Christian Yelich’s likely replacement is a rookie who has shown signs for encouragement for the Brewers

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Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a fractured kneecap during Tuesday’s game against the Miami Marlins. Yelich, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, suffered the injury in his first at-bat when he fouled off a pitch from Elieser Hernandez. It’s unknown at this point whether or not his fracture will require surgery, but he’ll return to Milwaukee on Wednesday to undergo further testing.

Yelich’s injury is heartbreaking for obvious reasons — it’s never great when anyone gets hurt, let alone one of the best players in the game — but the nature of baseball is that the show goes on. The Brewers still have a lot to play for over the next two and a half weeks, as they entered Wednesday just a game behind the Chicago Cubs for the NL’s second wild card position.

While there’s no replacing Yelich, the Brewers do have an interesting internal candidate to slot into right field: 22-year-old rookie Trent Grisham, who has a 98 OPS+ in 33 big-league games.

Grisham was originally drafted as the 15th pick in 2015, just ahead of Mike Soroka and Walker Buehler, among others. Prior to this year, he had mostly struggled as a professional, posting an OPS no higher than .708 in each of his first three full seasons. 

The Brewers had Grisham repeat Double-A to begin 2019. He responded, hitting .254/.371/.504 and earning a June promotion to Triple-A. When the Brewers brought him to the majors in August, he had a seasonal minor-league line of .300/.407/.603 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts and 26 homers — notable, given he entered the year with 19 for his pro career.

There are reasons beyond Grisham’s baseball-card numbers to be encouraged. One American League talent evaluator noted he had improved his approach this season, becoming more aggressive on pitches he could drive. In recent years, other players have shed the “passive” label en route to becoming productive hitters, including Aaron Hicks and George Springer.

Evidence of Grisham’s maturation extend beyond the eye test. According to FanGraphs, he pulled more than 47 percent of his batted balls in the minors this season — an increase of about four percentage points versus last year. He’s also lifting the ball more often, with a groundball percentage at Triple-A of 30 percent — in past years, he was always at 38 percent or higher. That combination explains his growth, at least as it pertains to his power output.

It’s to be seen if Grisham can maintain those gains for the long term, or against big-league pitching. In a small sample, he’s so far showcased a disciplined approach, with a chase rate similar to the ones posted by Matt Chapman and Anthony Rendon, and a higher exit velocity than the league-average mark. Those are both good signs, since Grisham’s bat — specifically his on-base and slugging percentages — will by and large dictate where he goes from here.

Considering Grisham looked like a bust entering the season, it’s fair to describe his year as a success regardless of what happens next. Still, his minor-league performance and marked improvements in key areas have to be encouraging for the Brewers — for the future yes, but also for the present, as they try to weather the stretch run without their best player.