For all our collective knowledge of human health and medicine, injury recovery remains an imprecise science. With so many different ways the human body can fail, the best medical minds in the world can only give a rough estimate of healing time. When Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees best player, fractured his wrist on July 26, doctors expected him to return in three weeks. It ended up taking more than twice that long, and even then he might’ve come back too early.
Judge returned to the lineup on September 18 (he played defense in a game on September 14 but did not bat.) In his first ten games after his return, he failed to hit a home run. He finally went deep on September 28, but by then the regular season was wrapping up. The Yankees had plenty of reason to worry if their biggest slugger (literally and figuratively) couldn’t drive the ball consistently entering October.
But, baseball being baseball, he’s back to his normal menacing self in the playoffs, having homered in each of three games. Let’s examine the difference between September and October for Judge to see what’s different.
Vintage Aaron Judge hits the ball harder than anyone else in baseball. In both 2017 and 2018, he led MLB in hard hit rate (53.8 percent this year), which is the percentage of balls in play with an exit velocity of 95 miles per hour or greater. He also led MLB in average exit velocity with 94.8 miles per hour— nearly a full mile per hour harder than second place.
However, after coming off the DL, Judge wasn’t generating his usual level of hard contact. Only ten of his 28 balls in play in September left the bat faster than 95 miles per hour. That’s a hard-hit rate of just 35.7 percent, which is nearly 20 percent lower than normal. Two players finished the season with a 35.7 percent hard hit rate: Tim Beckham and Eduardo Nunez, who tied for 178th best in MLB. Judge was basically reduced to a mediocre infielder.
His average exit velocity also declined significantly from normal levels. Those 28 balls in play averaged just 86.0 miles per hour off the bat, which is 8.8 miles per hour lower than his season average. Harrison Bader and Brian McCann tied for 271st in MLB with 86.0 miles per hour average exit velocity. In other words, Judge hit the ball no harder than a 34-year-old catcher and a speed-and-defense center fielder.
As the colloquialism goes, “everything in life is timing.” No one really knows why baseball players turn from cold to hot or vice versa. Given Judge’s wrist injury, we can infer that he wasn’t fully healed. That’s just a guess though, and even Judge himself might not be able to tell us if he feels any different in October than he did in September.
Whatever the cause may be, one thing is crystal clear: Judge is raking again in the playoffs. It’s only been three games, so take this with a “small sample size” grain of salt, but since the playoffs are all about overreacting to small sample size, let’s dig in!
In the Wild Card game against Oakland and the first two ALDS games in Boston, Judge has ten batted ball events in 14 plate appearances. On it’s own that’s a little strange for Judge; he usually walks and strikes out much more often, but so far has just two of each in the postseason. Here are the results of those ten batted balls:
Judge in the postseason
|90.3||Eduardo Rodriguez||SIngle to first base|
|109.3||Ryan Brasier||Reach on error to third base|
|109.8||Joe Kelly||Line out to right field|
|113.3||David Price||Home run to center field|
|108.8||Craig Kimbrel||Home run to right center field|
|86.9||Brandon Workman||Single to center field|
|110.4||Chris Sale||Single to center field|
|68.1||Chris Sale||Ground into force out to second base|
|89.2||Fernando Rodney||Double to right field|
|116.1||Liam Hendriks||Home run to left field|
That’s an outstanding six out of ten balls in play that qualify as a hard hit. His average exit velocity on those ten balls is 100.2 miles per hour. All six of the hard hits exceeded 100 miles per hour off the bat, and their average exit velocity was 111.3 miles per hour! About 60 percent of all major leaguers didn’t hit a single ball that hard all season (minimum 150 balls in play).
Again, small sample size yada yada, but Aaron Judge looks like himself again in the batter’s box. That’s great for the Yankees and terrifying for everyone else remaining in the playoffs.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983