Christian Yelich could determine the fate of the NL Central this season

In the bottom of the third inning of the Milwaukee Brewers' 7-4 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, Christian Yelich hit a three-run home run.

It wasn't really all that special of a home run, struck at 107.9 mph with a launch angle of 20 degrees. The pitch from Diamondbacks right-hander Jon Duplantier was an 84 mph changeup in the middle of the plate, about as bad a pitch as you can make. With a lot of topspin, the ball barely cleared the right-field fence.

But don't underestimate what this home run meant in Brewers land: It was very big indeed. It was vintage Yelich of 2018 and 2019 -- if we can refer to the recent past as vintage -- and that's the Yelich the Brewers have desperately been looking for the past two seasons. It was just his second home run of 2021, his first at home, and while he has missed a lot of time with his back problems, he has just two home runs and and four extra-base hits in 75 at-bats. This from a slugger who averaged a home run every 13.3 at-bats over those two monster seasons and an extra-base hit every 6.9 at-bats.

Given Yelich's struggles in 2020 when he hit .205 with a strikeout rate that skyrocketed from 20.3% to 30.8% and his health issues and lack of power in 2021, it's reasonable to ask: Will we see MVP-caliber Yelich the rest of the season?

Maybe Yelich just needs to stick to the blond bat he used on Thursday instead of his usual black bat. Yelich said it had nothing to do with needing to turn things around.

"We just had them," Yelich said. "They've been here a week or two. I've been messing around with them, broke one the other night and [Travis] Shaw talked me into using them today. I'm not really superstitious about what bat I use -- just chugged that one up there and it paid off."

He'd be the first baseball player who isn't at least a little superstitious. We'll find out if we see that blond bat again on Friday.

The Brewers can win the National League Central, but they need Yelich to hit. With the big three of Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and a breakout Freddy Peralta, the Brewers have one of the best rotations going, ranking sixth in the majors with a 3.24 ERA and beginning the day fourth in FanGraphs WAR. The bullpen is solid, with one of the best closers in the game in Josh Hader, who locked down his 13th on Thursday. The defense up the middle ranks among the game's best after the acquisition of shortstop Willy Adames from the Rays, giving the Brewers the slick double-play combo of Adames and Gold Glover Kolten Wong, with either Jackie Bradley Jr. or Lorenzo Cain manning center field.

What the Brewers need if they're going to make their fourth straight postseason is offense and that's where they need Yelich. That makes him perhaps the most important player in the sport over the final two-thirds of the season, as the NL Central looks like a three-team fight with the better-than-expected Cubs and the always-tough Cardinals.

The Brewers offense' has been slipping. In 2018, when they won the division with 96 wins, Yelich took home MVP honors when he hit .326/.402/.598 with 36 home runs. Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw also combined for 67 home runs and the Brewers finished seventh in the NL in runs. In 2019, Yelich was MVP runner-up after hitting .329/.429/.671 with 44 home runs, but Aguilar and Shaw struggled, and despite the additions of Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal, the Brewers dropped to ninth in runs. The Brewers fell to 12th in runs in 2020, and they currently sit 11th at 3.88 runs per game, which would be their lowest total since 2002, the worst season in Brewers history.

Despite the home run Thursday, there remain concerns about Yelich. His strikeout rate is even higher than 2020 at 33.7%. He's hitting .253 thanks to a .405 BABIP -- much higher than his .373 mark in 2018 or 2019's .355. The positive is he has remained effective against fastballs (although with a higher strikeout rate):

2018: .997 OPS
2019: 1.107 OPS
2020: .999 OPS
2021: .945 OPS

He absolutely destroyed them in 2019, but his 2020 and 2021 fastball numbers remain in line with what he did in 2018, so his issues have been against off-speed pitches. The weird thing is that Yelich's chase rates the past two seasons have actually been much better than those in 2018-19: 24.7%, 27.4%, 17.0%, 16.4%. Usually, that's a good sign. But he's certainly not hitting the ball as hard so far in 2021, and his average launch angle is exactly minus-0.5. That explains the lack of extra-base hits, as he has been pounding the ball into the ground. What we don't know yet is if this is all just a timing or mechanical issue or all tied to the health of his back.

He was asked about his timing after Thursday's game and gave a one-word answer that starts with "horse." He certainly isn't using health as an excuse.

For now, Yelich is just hoping everything will start going his way.

"Just keeping grinding and maybe it will turn one day," he said after the game. "That's kind of how baseball is. You can suck for a while and you never know when you're going to turn, so you just have to keep plugging."

That's what the Brewers will continue to do as well, at least until general manager David Stearns can find a way to improve the offense at the trade deadline. He has made deadline moves before -- Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop at the trade deadline in 2018, pitcher Drew Pomeranz in 2019. The obvious upgrade area for 2021 would be first base, where Daniel Vogelbach and Keston Hiura have struggled, although perhaps it's too early to give up on what could still end up as a decent platoon. Bradley at least provides good defense, but he's hitting just .160 after going 2-for-3 with his fifth home run on Thursday. Maybe they look at third base, currently shared by Shaw and Luis Urias, But in a year when a lot of teams might be looking to add a bat, there may not be many available -- especially if the Cubs hold on to the hot-hitting Kris Bryant (which seems likely) or the Rockies keep Trevor Story (a possibility).

So that turns it back to Yelich and a reminder that back in 2018, he exploded in the second half, hitting .367 with 25 home runs after the All-Star break.