Aaron Judge has been on the radar of Yankees fans ever since he was drafted at the end of the first round in the 2013 draft. At the time, he was seen as a low-floor, high-ceiling kind of player. His enormous power that we are all familiar with was apparent ever since he was in high school, but scouts were concerned about whether or not he would make enough contact to access that power.
There was also concern about what his defense in the outfield would be. He was certainly athletic enough for the outfield, to be sure. The thing is that he is one of the biggest position players of all time. Baseball Reference has him listed at 6’7”, 282 lbs. This tweet from FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris says it best:
Aaron Judge came to the plate and the clubhouse got quiet.— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) April 15, 2017
"He's a monster"
"An actual monster"
Judge’s massive size also led to holes in his swing, thanks to his long arms. High velocity on the inner third of the plate is a great way to attack a hitter with a wingspan of nearly seven feet. Furthermore, he was also susceptible to breaking balls away.
Judge made it to Triple-A in late June 2015, and it looked like his major league debut would not be far off. As it turned out, it would be over a year before Judge would appear in Yankee pinstripes.
The problem was that Judge struggled in Triple A that year, hitting .224/.308/.373 with a 28.5 percent strikeout rate over 260 PA. Pitchers at the new level were well aware of his weaknesses, and they exploited them.
Judge has always been good at making adjustments. He spent most of 2016 in Triple A, and he hit much better. Over 410 PA, he hit .270/.366/.489 with 19 HR. His strikeout rate also improved to about 24 percent. However, his weaknesses were still there, and despite how good Judge looked in the minors, it’s much harder to succeed with those sorts of weaknesses in the majors. Big league pitchers are always well-informed on a hitter’s weaknesses and, as you can imagine, are better than minor leaguers at exploiting them.
The Yankees finally called up Judge on August 13, 2016. They were a few games over .500, and a Wild Card slot was not unrealistic. Fans were clamoring for his call-up, but his weaknesses made it a risky move. I recall prospects analysts concerned that he was not ready. And they were right.
It was only 95 PA, but Judge hit only .179/.263/.345, and he struck out 44 percent of the time. His contact rates just stunk. In fact, his 18 percent swinging strike rate was nearly double the major league average. As Pinstripe Alley’s Ben Diamond described, the culprit was the same old thing: pitches soft away, and pitches at the bottom of the zone, which were troublesome given his height.
On the bright side, Judge was not bad on pitches hard and inside, where he had struggled in the past.
This spring, Judge displayed some of the adjustments he made this offseason, and an improved 2017 was projected by Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs. And so far, Judge is off to a tremendous start. He is hitting .281/.349/.667 with 6 HR, and those home runs have all been monster shots. He is one of only 18 position players who has already broken 1 bWAR.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that his 46.2 percent HR/FB ratio is not sustainable. The great news, though, is that Judge’s strikeout rate has plummeted to 25.4 percent, and that is not a meaningless stat after a few weeks of games. A hitter’s true talent strikeout rate comes out quickly, generally requiring only 60 PA to be more reliable than not. Judge is currently at 63 PA. A strikeout rate of 25.4 percent is still pretty bad, but not so bad that a player can’t succeed with that profile, especially if they hit for the kind of power that Judge has been.
That’s not to say that there aren’t still red flags. I did find something strange in Judge’s batted ball profile. He has a 49 percent ground ball rate against only a 31 percent fly ball rate. It is likely just a small sample size anomaly, but it is still strange, and certainly something he’d like to fix; a ground ball hit at 100 mph still turns into an out a lot of the time, while a fly ball hit at that speed will often result in a home run.
It’s still very early, but Judge does not seem to have made much progress on the low pitches yet.
But his struggles with stuff soft and away are not as serious as they were last year, as he’s laying off those pitches more often.
I absolutely do not believe that Judge is going to continue to have a 183 wRC+, but it does seem like he has made real, sustainable improvements. That is good news, because I am sure that I speak on behalf of all baseball fans when I say that I’ll never get tired of this:
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.