Making contact at the professional level of the MLB is not an easy thing to do, and that has been proven over the course of the history of the sport. Thousands of hitters have stepped up to a major league diamond, and many have failed. It’s the old cliche; “baseball is a game of failure.”
In 2016, Aaron Judge was no different to this tale of success and failure. On the fourth pitch he ever saw in the majors, Judge hit a ball above Monument Park off of Rays pitcher Matt Andriese. He would add to his HR total with one more in the next game against Tampa Bay, and finished his first week in pinstripes with a tidy .308 batting average, .956 OPS, 2 HRs, and 6 RBIs.
Unfortunately, this was not a sign of things to come. After an excellent first seven games into his 2016 debut season, Judge went just 7/58 the rest of the way, which resulted in a .120 batting average and .587 OPS, before his season was cut short with an oblique injury on September 13th.
Judge was unable to improve upon his struggles and held the Yankees down during the last stretch of the season. Over his total of 93 plate appearances in 2016, pitchers exposed holes in his long swing, pounding Judge with a mixture of fastballs and off-speed pitches. After an explosive initial week in the bigs, Judge never gained any rhythm for himself at the plate.
Looking back at his at-bats now is almost unsightly. He would rock his shoulders back and forth slightly as the pitcher came forward, then gather his leg kick as the pitch was delivered. Rather than simply placing his leg down, Judge would extend and flinch his leg outwards, as he put it back down and completed his swing.
At 6’ 7”, Judge complicated that movement even more with a lengthy leg kick, and by standing up tall without any noticeable bend in his legs. His straight stance cost him leverage in the batters box, and often left him off-balance for off-speed pitches on the outside corner, and too slow to catch up on the fastballs inside.
Judge finished his cup of coffee in 2016 with an underwhelming .179 batting average, and a sky-high strikeout rate of 44.4%. It became obvious that adjustments to his swing and approach had to be made. Without them, Judge would be just another individual on the long list of 6’6”+ players that failed in the majors.
Adjusting is just what he did. Pictured below are his side-by-side comparisons of both his stance and leg kick from 2016 to 2017:
Judge spent the 2016-17 offseason trying to “quiet his mechanics”. Working with Yankees coaches throughout the winter, he realized that his height, strength, and stature could still generate a ton of power without a big leg kick to go with it.
Anyone that viewed Judge’s at bats in 2016 must have realized that his power was going to end up becoming meaningless if he struggled to make contact. Simply making more contact became the focal point of his offseason. He, along with the Yankees staff, spent an endless amount of time studying the swing planes of the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Matt Holliday, two similarly sized hitters who adjusted and turned into excellent power hitters with high batting averages, despite their bigger strike zones.
The biggest adjustment Judge made individually was simply bending his knees more, and dropping his hands down in a ready position to swing. In addition, he nearly negated his excessive leg kick from 2016, and replaced it with a simple lift of six inches off the ground as he swings.
Watching film of great hitters with similar height and strength like Cabrera and Holliday clearly benefited Judge, as he was able to learn and adjust his mechanics to suit himself, while making the proper adjustments. As his .337 BA and league-leading 13 home runs may indicate, it certainly seems that the mechanical adjustments have paid off so far.
Of course, a player doesn’t double his OPS and triple his number of homers over the same number of at-bats by only changing their swing. Indeed, it has been his plate discipline that has truly let Judge take the next step to being a better hitter, and not just a slugger.
A year after striking out in nearly half of his plate appearances, Aaron Judge has been one of the more selective hitters in the entire league this season. He has forced pitchers to throw balls over the plate, and has thrived from it.
Judge, over a sample size of 104 plate appearances in 2017 (relative to 2016), is swinging at less pitches out of the zone, more pitches in the zone, is making 10% more contact, and is swinging and missing at just the league average of 11%. In every major advanced plate discipline metric, Judge has shown marked improvement.
His improved eye at the plate is no minor thing either. After swinging at 33% of the pitches outside of the zone in 2016, his current rate of 20.3% places him tenth in all of baseball. Judge is forcing pitchers to throw the ball over the plate where he makes contact with the ball at an 86% clip, roughly at the league average.
This may not sound impressive, but for a prototypical slugger to be making contact with the ball at the league average is very rare. For example, Judge’s most obvious comparison, Giancarlo Stanton, has a career zone contact percentage of 81.5%. Judge is well above that with a rate of 85.7%, within a sample size of 300 pitches in 2017.
His heatmap transformation from 2016 to 2017 puts it into perspective. The first image displays his 122 swings from 2016. The second image shows his 107 swings from 2017. This season, Aaron Judge has simplified and tightened his strike zone, whereas in 2016, he was all over the place, and taking high volumes of swings outside the zone.
In 2017, Judge has locked into the strike zone in stunning fashion. His high OBP and 14% walk rate is no fluke. Aaron Judge has simply exemplified an advanced knowledge of the strike zone so far this season.
On top of the plate discipline and better contact rate, Judge has hit nine of the twenty hardest hit balls in MLB a month into 2017, including the top two (both 119+ MPH). The average velocity off his bat of 95.2 MPH is third in the the league, only to Twin’s slugger Miguel Sano and Oakland’s Khris Davis.
In 2017, Judge has hit nine balls over 115 MPH. The entire National League has a combined total of 5. In essence, the 2017 version of Aaron Judge has been a hitter that has combined Stanton-esque power, yet with better plate discipline and a better contact rate. The advanced analytics show that what he’s doing is real, and that’s a scary thought for opposing teams.
If you’re a Yankee fan, you’re probably drooling over this set of data, which pegs Judge as a top caliber hitter right now. This all leaves one question: how long will it last?
60 plate appearances is a solid barometer for where a player’s contact and zone rates settle into over the course of a season. Judge is at 104 PAs right now. The chances are excellent that he maintains a close-to league average contact rate on pitches in the zone, and continues to refuse pitches out of the zone.
Still, Judge has benefitted from a .360 BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which, while not completely unsustainable, is more of what you would expect from a speedy leadoff hitter, rather than a power hitter like Judge. He’s not going to hit .330 all year, but if his BABIP regresses to his originally projected .315, he could stick around .285-.290.
Projecting Judge the Rest of the Year
Based on the idea that his trends and plate discipline remains fairly consistent all year, it’s possible that New York could have an elite bat in Aaron Judge at the ripe age of 25. A final season line of .290/.405/.620 with 42 HRs and 118 RBIs is not out of the question.
Judge has already broken a multitude of records a month into 2017, as he was the first rookie in MLB history to hit 13 homers in his first 26 games, and tied a MLB record for the most home runs in April with 10 among rookies. If the Yankees keep winning, not only is that superstar quality, but it may garner him MVP votes as a rookie.
Aaron Judge’s rise from a strikeout machine to a possible MVP candidate has been a glorious ride so far, and if he can keep his plate discipline in line with what he has done so far, New York may truly have a player of superstar worthiness on their roster.