By Chris O’Connor
Heading into 2017, the Yankees were not projected to do much. Coming off of a 2016 season that saw the team not only miss the playoffs for the third time in four years, but also act as sellers at the trade deadline for the first time in a generation, the Yankees finally committed themselves to a youth movement. 2017 was supposed to be a transition year to the next great Yankees dynasty. The Baby Bombers were headed by a trio of young stars who had already made a big impact in the big leagues in Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, and Greg Bird. They also had a consensus top farm system headlined by names like Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and Blake Rutherford. Note, one big name was missing...
Though by no means an afterthought, Aaron Judge was not considered at the top: Baseball America had him 6th in the system, Fangraphs 5th, and MLB.com 4th. Despite memorably homering in his first at bat of his big-league career, he was coming off a brutal debut in the second half of 2016: in 27 games, he slashed .179/.263/.345 and struck out in 44.2% of his plate appearances. He beat out Aaron Hicks for the starting right field job in 2017 with a strong spring training after slashing .333/.391/.540. As it turned out, that was a harbinger of things to come.
That year, Aaron Judge shocked the baseball world by not only smashing a rookie-record 52 home runs (since broken by Pete Alonso), but also hitting for a solid batting average at .284, showing an outstanding eye at the plate by walking an AL-leading 127 times, and playing outstanding defense in right field. He had a legitimate argument for MVP over Jose Altuve. Judge led in virtually every offensive category except for batting average, including more home runs (52 to 24), a higher OBP (.422 to .410) and higher WRC+ (174 to 160). He also had 8 defensive runs saved in right field compared to -1 for Altuve at second base. (A personal note: shenanigans aside, I do not think that it is crazy that Altuve won. Altuve was 9th in Win Probability Added while Judge, despite his prodigious production, ranked just 38th due to being the least-clutch hitter in the league. Judge was clearly awesome overall, but he consistently failed to come through when it counted the most). Either way, Judge’s breakout was clearly real and sustainable: despite missing significant time with injuries, he ranks 5th among all position players in fWAR from 2017-2021. While Judge continues to perform at an MVP level, he is not the same player that he was in 2017. I wanted to take a look at how Judge has evolved as a hitter since then.
While Aaron Judge has a reputation in the mainstream media as a strikeout-prone slugger, he is actually striking out far less these days relative to the beginning of his career. After having a cumulative strikeout rate of 30.9% from 2017-2019, he is down to 25.5% from the start of 2021 through 29 games in 2022. And, because the league wide strikeout rate continues to rise year after year, Judge’s improvement relative to the rest of the league looks even better: after finishing in the bottom 5 percentile in strikeout rate in each of his first 3 full seasons, he has been in the 25th and 21st percentile in 2021 and 2022. Hovering around the 20-25th percentile is still not great in a vacuum, but I would say that even that has far surpassed expectations at the beginning of his career. Unsurprisingly, this has been driven by Judge becoming significantly better at his bat-to-ball contact skills over the last two years. His overall contact rate on swings is up from ~66% from 2017-2019 to ~74% in 2021-2022. While he is indeed making more contact on his swings at pitches inside the strike zone, this large improvement in overall contact rate is driven by pitches outside of the strike zone, from ~43% from 2017-2019 to ~56.5% in 2021-2022. But is this really a good thing?
Making more contact and striking out less is obviously good. The essential philosophy of hitting, however, is to wait for a good pitch and hit it hard. Making more contact at bad pitches is not always a good thing because they are harder to drive. For a normal hitter, that is. Judge has managed to sustain his top-tier hard hit rate and exit velocity over the past two years despite making more contact than ever before. And, in a similar way to how his decreasing strikeout rate is running contrary to the rest of the league, his breakout 2017 looks like an outlier in how he launched the ball more than he ever has in his career. That season, he had the highest launch angle and lowest ground ball rate of his career. It is not a coincidence that the 52 home runs that he hit that year still represent a career high as well. Even accounting for injuries, he has been more of a 40 home run player from 2018 onward. That is still an excellent number, so while it appears that he has sacrificed some power for contact in his approach, he is still strong enough to get the ball over the fence no matter how high he hits it.
Judge’s deviation from the three true outcomes is not limited to less strikeouts and home runs: he is also walking far less than he used to. His walk rate has fallen from 16.5% from 2017-2019 to 11.4% in 2021-2022. The interesting thing about this is that he is not swinging appreciably more, and he is still seeing a very high number of pitches per plate appearance: he ranked tied for 9th in the league in this statistics in 2021 with 4.21, and he currently ranks 11th in the league at 4.31. It seems that he is walking less because he is just making more contact and putting the ball in play more. Is that a good thing? Probably not. His OBP was .401 from 2017-2019 and .371 from 2021-2022. But that does not mean that this is a worse version of Aaron Judge.
The Judge of 2017 (and, to a lesser extent, 2018-2019) was far more exploitable and volatile as a hitter than he is today, and I think that this serves him better in big situations. As previously noted, Judge was the least-clutch hitter in the league in 2017. Good teams could figure out a way to get him out: he struck out 16 times in the 5 game Division Series against the then-Indians that year. He could certainly turn on mistakes, but it was not crazy to think that he could be another Chris Davis: an incredibly volatile three true outcomes guy who had breathtaking highs but also unbelievable lows. In 2013, the 27 year-old Davis hit .286/.370/.634 with 53 homers and 138 RBI’s. He would hit above .221 just one more time in his career. Judge has become a far more complete hitter without sacrificing too much of what made him great in 2017: he still hits plenty of home runs, walks at an above average rate, and wears out the pitcher by seeing a ton of pitches. But he has married that approach with an improvement in his bat-to-ball ability. I absolutely think that this represents an overall improvement in Judge as a player, particularly when looking at another guy who went the other way who is more familiar with Yankee fans.
Gary Sanchez hit .284 with 53 home runs and a strikeout rate of just 23.5% in 178 games between 2016-2017. Despite maintaining his excellent power, he has just one season since with a batting average above .204. He developed maddening inconsistencies and it was hard to ever know what Sanchez would be available on a given day.
With Judge, I think his inconsistency and volatility was a big reason that he finished second to Jose Altuve for MVP in 2017. If he can maintain his current output and stay healthy, I see no reason why, with his improved consistency, he can’t come out on top in 2022.