If you’ve been following the Yankees at all for the past several years, you’re likely quite familiar with the name Aaron Judge. At 6ft 7in and 275 lbs (not a typo) he’s kind of a hard guy to miss. He profiles more as an NFL tight end than he does as an MLB outfielder. Regardless, when the Yankees snagged Judge back in the 2013 amateur draft, you could tell they were getting something special. He’s made Keith Law, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com’s top 100 prospect lists in both 2015 and 2016, and this year Law ranked him #44 while MLB.com had him at #45.
Per MLB.com: “Judge generates massive raw power from the right side of the plate thanks to his impressive leverage and strength … While he could deliver 25 or more homers per season, he won’t hit for average unless he closes some holes in his swing and approach.”
That’s the Judge we saw last year during his late season call-up. The one in that second sentence. He made his (historic) debut on August 13 batting alongside fellow rookie Tyler Austin in a game in which the two players hit back to back home runs in their first big league at bats. That’s the only times that has ever happened in baseball history. Pretty cool, and it gave us a lot of reason to be optimistic about Judge.
But then the rest of August and September happened. In 27 games, Judge slashed .179/.263/.345 with a 9.5 BB% and a staggering 44.2 K%. He was striking out almost half the time. Now, strike outs are something that Judge has had to and will have to deal with his whole career. There’s just way to much space in that strike zone for pitchers to attack him. But 44.2% is insane. In his time in the minors, he typically ran a strikeout rate in the mid-20’s, topping out around 28%. I’ll add the disclaimer here that strikeouts aren’t necessarily BAD. Yes, obviously they’re bad, but they aren’t BAD. They produce outs, but those outs aren’t always as costly as outs that are created by a ball that is put in play. Take double plays for example. Even a guy like Mike Trout has a career K% in the low 20’s. What matters more is what the player is doing when he’s not striking out.
So what was Judge doing when he wasn’t striking out? Well you already know the answer because I just gave it to you. Not much. That’s primarily due to two factors: 1. His strikeout rate wasn’t just high, it was, I reiterate, insanely high, and 2. When he was making contact, he wasn’t generating hits. So what exactly is contributing to these two factors?
A lot of the strikeouts are coming from the fact that Judge is swinging (and missing) at way too many pitches up in the zone. It’s natural for power hitters to be looking for high pitches as those are pitches they can get more leverage on, but Judge was taking hacks at far too many of these pitches in his first 30 games. In that span, he saw 30 pitches that were over the plate but above the strike zone. On those 30 pitches, he swung at 21 (70%) of them. That’s way too high. More than double league average. It would be alright if he was doing something with those pitches though, right? Well he wasn’t. Of those 21 pitches that he swung at, he missed 9 (43%) of them, and 7 of those were on two strike counts. I know that seems like a small number, but we’re working with a small sample size, so those 7 K’s accounted for 17% of Judge’s strikeouts last season. And they were all on pitches that he shouldn’t have even been swinging at.
The other spot that seemed to hurt Judge quite a bit was pitches over the plate but below the zone. Of the 22 pitches he saw in this area with two strikes, he swung at 10 of them, missing all 10 of those pitches. That’s 10 more strikeouts on pitches outside the zone, bring the running total of his percentage of strikeouts on non-strikes to 40%. Factoring in all of the other otherwise balls that Judge swung and missed at on two strikes, the percentage jumps up to 53%. Ouch. In other words, with more plate discipline, Judge could have cut his strikeout rate in half, which would place him back in the mid-20% range that we’re used to seeing from him. Okay, maybe eliminating all those strike outs is a lot to ask for. Of course, a good amount of those pitches started out as strikes and just dropped out of the zone. But those high pitches, which were never strikes to begin with, are the ones that Judge needs to stay away from. If he does that, the K% will come down.
But strikeouts weren’t the whole story. In fact, when Judge was putting the ball into play, the fact is he still wasn’t producing as much as he could have been. His BABIP last season was .282, which is a little below average for most players (most hitters sit around .300), but for a guy who hits the ball as hard as Judge can, it’s fairly below average. Let’s take a look at average exit velocities for hitters last season:
- Aaron Judge 96.8 MPH
- Nelson Cruz 96.2 MPH
- Giancarlo Stanton 95.9 MPH
- Matt Holliday 95.3 MPH
- Mark Trumbo 95 MPH
- Miguel Cabrera 95 MPH
- Keon Broxton 94.9 MPH
- Pedro Alverez 94.8 MPH
- Gary Sanchez 94.6
- David Ortiz 94.5
These are the guys who were hitting the ball the hardest. Now let’s take a look at their career BABIP’s:
- Aaron Judge .282
- Nelson Cruz .308
- Giancarlo Stanton .322
- Matt Holliday .333
- Mark Trumbo .288
- Miguel Cabrera .347
- Keon Broxton .369
- Pedro Alverez .291
- Gary Sanchez .315
- David Ortiz .300
We’ll pull out Broxton and Sanchez because they each have less than a season under their belts at this point. Then to round it out, we’ll add in Tyler Flowers (94.4 MPH and .322 BABIP) and Ryan Zimmerman (94.1 MPH and .309 BABIP), as they’re the next two players on this exit velocity list with at least three season’s worth of games plated, which lends more credibility to their career BABIPs. That leaves us with every player on the list having a higher BABIP than Judge, and 7 of the 9 players with BABIPS that are at least 26 points higher. These types of hitters who hit the ball hard are the types of hitters that Judge projects to be most similar to, and yet in his first 30 or so MLB games, he wasn’t hitting very much like them at all, even if he was actually hitting the ball harder than they were.
It’s difficult to say exactly why this was the case. Sometimes you just have to chalk these things up to bad luck, although with only about a month of games played we can’t really know what Judge’s BABIP ought to look like. We can just speculate based on players who’s profiles he shares. Interestingly enough, he did have a fairly low GB% at 34.9 and that, coupled with a pretty above average FB% at 51.2, would support the idea that he’s swinging at far too many pitches up in the zone and popping out as a result.
But take all of this with a huge grain of salt, as they’re more a commentary on what Judge was doing during his call-up last season as opposed to what he’ll do this season. Not only is this an extremely small sample size we’re working with here, but all of the major issues I brought up are fairly fixable. Judge can’t change the size of his massive strike zone, but he can work on his plate discipline, and as long as he keeps hitting the ball hard, the hits will come. One of the reasons he’s made it to the bigs is because of his ability to make adjustments at every level, so we’ll just have to wait and see how he does that this season.