The 2021 season has been the season of Yu Chang for Cleveland — for better or worse.
After 28 and 10 games in 2019 and ‘20, respectively, Chang has logged 66 games (out of 130 thus far) for the Guardians this season. Despite playing in just half the team’s games, he feels omnipresent. He’s played every infield position so far this season and racked up 173 plate appearances so far as a starter or pinch hitter.
Despite his presence in and on the periphery of the lineup, Chang’s overall line is not as nice as his smile. Overall in 2021, he’s slashing .220/.254/.439 with a wRC+ of 82 and xwOBA of .284. Despite this light-hitting profile, Chang is hard to let go of. Perhaps because he still has minor league options available, Cleveland has just not been able to say goodbye for long.
When he was first sent back to Columbus on July 2, he had a major-league slash line of .176/.211/.287; however, he hit at Triple-A as well as he ever has, slashing .310/.396/.524 in 42 at-bats. That cameo got him back with the big league club for 22 at-bats between July 21 and 31, but even though he hit the ball with more authority he slashed just .227/.261/.364 and was returned to Columbus after the trade deadline.
That point might have been the best opportunity for the Guardians to move on from Chang. As FanGraphs noted of him after he graduated from their top prospects list, “once projected as an everyday shortstop with some power and on-base ability, [Chang’s] hit tool has become more problematic, limiting him to a bench role.” Lord knows Cleveland has enough bench players to go around, so casting one more off would not have affected most fans.
Maybe it’s that smile, but Cleveland just can’t quit Chang and he was recalled on Aug. 13. Since then, however, he has hardly been the same player. In a tiny sample of just 11 games and 36 plate appearances, Chang is hitting .353/.389/.971 with 5 home runs, 4 doubles, and a triple. His wRC+ over that span is 255. That’s not a typo. Two-fifty-five. The outburst is not easily credited to luck, either, as Chang has a BABIP of just .318 during those 36 plate appearances.
It’s hard to say anything definitively about 36 plate appearances, but considering they make up 13% of Chang’s appearances at the MLB level makes you wonder: Did he figure something out? Baseball Savant ranks Chang’s max exit velocity in the 75th percentile and shows him long trending toward a major-league average xwOBA.
With some tough decisions looming over the roster, Yu Chang is doing his best in the last third of the season to make things even more difficult for the Cleveland front office. Much like Bradley Zimmer, whose season of peaks and valleys has raised questions about his fit with the club going forward, Chang might be playing his way into more time in Cleveland. He’ll have to keep up his hitting, because any trend back toward the Mendoza line would open up a chance for someone behind him — and likely close the book on Chang with the Guardians.
But if he can tap into his raw power and hit like he has the last half-month ... who knows what the future holds for Yu Chang?