Brewers vs. Cubs: Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger look like their old selves and will help decide NL Central

The Cubs and Brewers are set to square off in a three-game series starting Monday in Wrigley Field. The first-place Brewers will remain in first through the series, as they enter with a four-game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central. It is a critical series for both teams in pursuit of the division title, though. The Brewers could stand to put some more distance between them and their neighbors to the south while the Cubs need to dig into that lead on their own, given that they haven’t been getting much help lately (the Brewers have won eight in a row). 

The star position players in the series are tied together from the 2019 MVP race and an ensuing commercial. That would be Cody Bellinger, now of the Cubs and then of the Dodgers against Brewers star Christian Yelich. Both are having resurgent seasons. 

Remember this? 

That came after the 2019 season. Yelich had won the 2018 MVP and then finished runner-up to Bellinger the following year. The 2019 stats? 

  • Bellinger: .305/.406/.629, 167 OPS+, 170 hits, 34 doubles, three triples, 47 homers, 115 RBI, 121 runs, 15 steals, 8.6 WAR
  • Yelich: .329/.429/.671, 179 OPS+, 187 hits, 34 doubles, seven triples, 44 homers, 97 RBI, 100 runs, 30 steals, 7.0 WAR

Bellinger rated out as one of the best defensively players in baseball (mostly right field) and won a Gold Glove and that seemed to be the big separation point along with the Dodgers being a better team, though the Brewers were a Wild Card team. Regardless, it was a raging debate and many Brewers fans are likely still angry over the vote. 

More to the point here, though, is what came next. Both players suffered hardships on the field. 

Yelich had fractured his kneecap late in the 2019 season. Then he hit just .205 in the abbreviated 2020 season. In 2021, he hit .248/.362/.373, nearly 300 points lower in slugging percentage alone from his 2019 season. He only hit nine homers in his 117 games. In 2022, he stayed on the field for 154 games, but hit only 14 home runs while slashing .252/.355/.383. He was worth just 2.7 WAR in a full season after posting back-to-back seven-plus WAR seasons in 2018 and 2019. 

Bellinger had shoulder issues stemming from a celebration during the 2020 playoffs and just stopped hitting. He bottomed out in 2021 with a paltry .165/.240/.302 line, good for a pitiful 44 OPS+. That would be bad for a backup catcher, but he’s supposed to be a middle-order run producer. He was better in 2022, but that didn’t mean he was good, finishing with an 81 OPS+ and a defense-and-baserunning heavy 1.2 WAR. 

For both, these down seasons were through prime years and pretty shocking. Bellinger, once thought in line to sign a mega-extension like Yelich did with the Brewers, had to take a one-year, “show-me” deal in free agency with the Cubs this past offseason. 

Yelich isn’t quite playing back to MVP form, but he’s been the best player for the Brewers and greatly resembles the player he was with the Marlins for the first five years of his career. He’s hitting . Keep in mind, he had a terrible first month and has hit .296/.389/.474 since the end of April. He’s been excellent at getting on base and scoring runs while the power has bounced back a bit. Overall, he’s got 30 doubles, 16 homers, 67 RBI, 91 runs and 27 stolen bases. He could well get some down-ballot MVP votes once the dust has settled. 

Bellinger is closer to MVP form. There’s a clear-cut top four in the NL MVP race, but Bellinger is in the mix for fifth place. After another huge game on Sunday, he’s slashing .321/.368/.546 with 23 doubles, 20 homers, 75 RBI, 76 runs and 17 stolen bases in 99 games. He only had 1.0 WAR combined in 2020-22 and he’s already over four this season. 

Both stars have been major catalysts to their offenses and it’s been fun to watch them have bounce-back seasons for contending clubs, especially with how their peaks and valleys coincided the last handful of seasons. They’ll be pitted against each other in head-to-head action Monday through Wednesday in Wrigley and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of the two come through with a few huge games while helping his team win the all-important series.

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