After a couple of days without any baseball whatsoever, the league gets back into action tonight, and so does Aaron Judge. The rookie right fielder had an incredible first half, to say the least. He was far and away baseball's best hitter (197 wRC+) and best player (5.5 fWAR/5.3 rWAR). Though Judge has been a top prospect for a few years, nobody saw this level of production coming, especially after last season's cameo in the majors. As if all that wasn't enough, Judge put the icing on the cake with a relatively easy victory in the home run derby on Monday.
There's no question that the Yankees wouldn't be in the thick of the playoff race had Judge not broken out in grand fashion. After a rough few weeks leading up to the break, the team (obviously) needs Judge to keep raking in order to stay afloat. There are a myriad of other issues on the roster, but maintaining a Judge-led high power offense can keep them in the hunt. The question is, what can we expect from the hulking right fielder the rest of the way?
What everyone needs to accept is that it'll be extremely difficult for Judge to maintain this level of production over the next two and a half months. Full season offensive performances of Judge's first-half caliber have been done before, but it's exceedingly rare. Does that mean it could be done? Sure! I wouldn't bet on it, though. That doesn't mean Judge is incapable of having an excellent second half, however.
Both ZiPS and Steamer envision strong finishes to Judge's rookie campaign. ZiPS expects a 134 wRC+ while Steamer anticipates a slightly lower 128 mark. That's really good! Since the World Series began in 1903, only 71 rookies have ever had seasons with a 130 wRC+ or greater (minimum 500 PAs). For projection systems to see that as his baseline going forward is rather impressive. Somehow, though, I imagine it would only lead to widespread disappointment and criticism of his home run derby entry.
If Judge performs in line with his rest of season projections, some will inevitably be disappointed. The easy spin will be to claim that the derby fouled up his swing. That would be wrong, of course, as regression would almost certainly be the culprit. Using regression as the explanation isn't as sexy of a narrative as the derby curse, though, so brace yourselves. Unless Judge is one of the greatest hitters of all-time or in the midst of a legendary season (maybe!), maintaining his year to date performance will be next to impossible. Again, that doesn't mean he's going to be bad! In fact, even with regression, he's still expected to be one of the best hitters in the league. ZiPS thinks he'll be the majors' 11th-best hitter while Steamer believes he'll be 20th-best. But hey, be prepared for those horrible pieces about the derby messing up his swing.
Judge's first portion of the season has created unreasonable expectations, unfortunately. While it's been a blast to watch him rise to stardom, it's still important to keep our expectations in check. For one, he's a rookie. Though it's almost certain that Judge's 2017 will end up as one of the best offensive rookie seasons in history, we should be appreciative of its rarity. Further, no player is immune to regression. Home run derby or not, the odds of Judge matching his performance up to the break are not high.
Though Judge's future performance could be perceived in different ways, one thing is for sure: the right fielder has established himself as one of baseball's best hitters. He's undeniably been the league's top hitter to this point of the season, and it's reasonable to believe that he'll be a top-20 hitter going forward. It's funny (and perhaps sad?) that some could view Judge's second half as underwhelming if he lives up to the projections.