Shoutout to Aaron Judge
Shoutout to Aaron Judge
By Chris O’Connor
June 10, 2021
It is no secret that this has been a relatively disastrous start to the season for the Yankees with the team sitting at just 32-29 through 61 games. In a surprise, it is the bats that have let down the pitching staff: the Yankees are 26th in the majors in runs per game and 14th in the American League, just ahead of the woeful, rebuilding Tigers. While the lineup has seen more than their fair share of disappointments and regression (D.J. Lemahieu and Clint Frazier are the first to come to mind), Aaron Judge has really shined in his fifth full season. I wanted to highlight some of the progress that he has made this year.
When it comes to Aaron Judge, the talent has never been in question. From 2017 to 2020, Judge ranks 3rd among all qualified players in fWAR/162 games with 7.7. His 156 WRC+ in that span is second only to Mike Trout. For Judge, the only question has been health. He played in just 28 out of 60 games in 2020 and missed 50 or more games in both 2018 and 2019 due to various ailments (to be fair, he missed time in 2018 primarily due to a fluky hit by pitch on his wrist). This is all the more concerning considering he is the largest position player in MLB history. Thus far in 2021, he has answered the bell. He leads the team in games played with 58 and though he is DH-ing more than ever, I will take that as long as it keeps him in the lineup.
On the surface, Judge’s 2021 stats are excellent. He is slashing .289/.394/.529 and his 157 WRC+ is tied for tenth among all regulars. His 14 home runs put him on pace for 37 which I believe is even more impressive when considering that he has not yet gone on a torrid home run streak that he so often has in the past. Despite these top-tier statistics, it can be argued that Judge has been one of the unluckiest hitters in the sport. If you get the chance, take a look at his Baseball Savant page. Judge leads the league in average exit velocity and wxOBA (expected weighted on-base average- one of the better statistics for overall offensive impact), and ranks in the 98th percentile or above in hard-hit rate, percentage of balls barreled, and expected batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. Per Statcast, based on the quality of his contact, Judge should be batting .338 as opposed to .289 and slugging .639 as opposed to .540. Now, expected stats should always be taken with a grain of salt. All that matters is what one actually does as opposed to what they were expected to do. Having said this, I do believe that certain hitters are capable of consistently overperforming (Gleyber Torres) or underperforming (Gary Sanchez) their expected stats based on what kind of hitter they are and what their approach is at the plate. Unlike Gary Sanchez, who has failed to live up to his strong peripherals for years, Judge has never deviated far from his expected stats. In 2018, for example, his expected batting average was .273 and his expected slugging percentage was .526. In reality, he batted .278 and slugged .528. This tells me that Judge can and will eventually lessen the gap between his actual output and his expected output. So, when Judge’s missiles stop being hit directly at fielders or he stops falling victim to outstanding defensive plays, he will be on his way to an MVP season if he is not already.
Judge has made small improvements to his plate discipline in 2021. For starters, he is striking out at about a league average rate (24.5% compared to the league average of 24.1%). This is something that seems far-fetched due to both his reputation as one of the more strikeout-prone hitters in the sport and the fact that he settled in at around 30% from 2017-2020, but here we are. The impressive thing about less strikeouts for Judge is that he is not compensating with less walks; his 14.5% walk rate ranks 11th in the league and is in line with his career average. The interesting thing here is that there has not been a significant change in his approach at the plate as his swing rate and chase rate are right in line with his career averages. The big thing, however, is that he is making more contact than ever when he swings at pitches outside of the strike zone. His contact rate on those pitches is nearly 58%, well ahead of his previous career high of 44.8%. There is good news and bad news here. The bad news is that these pitches are not the kinds of pitches you want to make contact on; it is much easier to barrel up and drive good pitches that are in the strike zone. The good news is that this has not stopped Judge from consistently driving the ball (as his hard hit rate and average exit velocity would tell you) and can be interpreted as evidence of Judge’s improved contact skills as he matures as a hitter. This also explains the drop in his strikeouts, as does the fact that he is swinging at the first pitch a career high 37.3% of the time. With Judge proving capable of adopting a more aggressive approach at the plate to limit his strikeouts without sacrificing his walks and power, the rest of the league better watch out when he stops getting so unlucky.
With regards to the balls that he is actually hitting, there are some differences from past seasons as well. Aside from an outlier 2020 season where he played only 28 games, his average launch angle has moved downward every year since his it was at 15.6 degrees in 2017. It is at 11.1 degrees thus far in 2021. For Judge, I do not think this is a bad thing. It allows him to make more contact and he is strong enough to drive the ball over the fence even if he is not getting the ball in the air as much. Judge really struggled in the 2017 playoffs (particularly the Cleveland series) because of how easy it was for good pitchers to exploit the holes in his swing despite his stellar regular season. I believe that a big reason that he has been much better in the playoffs since 2017 is his maturation as a hitter, and that means less of an all-or-nothing approach (while still getting the “all” very frequently). His not selling out for power is also reflected in the fact that he is pulling the ball at the lowest rate of his career; it is no coincidence that he is also seeing a defensive shift at the lowest rate of his career.
I wrote before the season how this was more of a make-or-break year for Aaron Judge’s Yankee career than many thought. He is a free agent after the 2022 season, and will be in his age-31 season in 2023. Buster Olney of ESPN even reported in April that the Yankees had brief discussions with the Angels about a possible Judge trade in the offseason. Can the Yankees commit big dollars to a player who, as great as Judge has been, has not proven that he can be counted on to consistently stay on the field? Not to mention one that is exiting his physical prime. The Yankees have been down that road with the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury and are seeing the downside of a massive extension for Judge with Giancarlo Stanton. It is still early, but Judge is proving that he may be worthy of that contract if he can continue to produce and stay healthy both this season and next. Aaron Judge is looked at as a potential next captain for the Yankees, and rightfully so. A guy with his production, character, and team-first attitude would be a great choice for such an honorable position. He would make both the extension and captain decision a lot easier for the Yankees if he can stay healthy and maintain his current level of production.