Written by: Justin Choi
Follow him on Twitter: @justinochoi
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It’s very easy to notice Aaron Judge – with 6 feet and 7 inches of muscle, he’s one of the tallest players in baseball. He hit over 50 home runs in his rookie season and has kept his fondness for the long ball. Amongst the analytics community, he’s renowned for his outfield defense. He does all this while playing for the Yankees; to say he’s noticeable is an understatement.
It’s also easy to characterize Judge as a player. In some ways, he defines the prototypical 21st-century power hitter: a free-swinger who strikes out a ton but makes up for them with walks and home runs. In 2017, his best season statistically, 57.2% of his plate appearances ended in either a strikeout, walk, or a home run. Modern baseball as a whole runs on what I call fielding independent hitting, and Judge is a famous practitioner.
Overall, although injuries have mitigated his on-field success, Aaron Judge has been the same player he proclaimed himself as during his rookie campaign. Or, at least that’s what we’ve been told to believe. By the media, I guess, but perhaps Judge and the Yankees have a different idea. Because my research suggests that there’s something about him – something different.
What first intrigued me was his increase in Sweet Spot%, which went up from 35.7% in 2018 to 39.9% in 2019. As a refresher, this metric simply shows what percentage of batted balls were hit at a launch angle between 8 and 32 degrees. It’s an alright descriptor of offensive prowess – after all, balls hit at extreme launch angles rarely end up as hits.
However, because it doesn’t take exit velocity into account – that’s what barrels are for – it’s also misleading. What other offensive leaderboard has both Mike Trout and Yadier Molina in its top ten? If you must use just launch angle as a metric, try narrowing your range down to 23 to 34 degrees, which many have discovered is the best for raising wOBA on contact. So I did for Aaron Judge’s three seasons:
Hmm, that’s not good. On a rate basis, Judge has been hitting less and less balls with potential to inflict the most damage. But we haven’t checked for exit velocity, so let’s add a requirement of 95 mph+. After all, Judge did have a career-high 57.1 Hard Hit% in 2019:
The difference isn’t as drastic as this time, but there’s still no improvements to be found. So where are those additional hard, sweetly-hit balls Judge mustered in 2019? Let’s now explore the lower end of the sweet-spot spectrum – balls hit at a launch angle between 8 and 22 degrees. I’m also keeping the exit velocity criterion:
Is there any advantage to hitting these sorts of balls? Emphatically: yes! The 8 to 22 launch angle criterion is the definition of line drives. They generate the highest wOBA on contact and BABIP of any batted ball type, so the more the merrier.
Not all line drives are created equal, though. Angels’ infielder David Fletcher has an excellent career line drive rate of 31.9%, but his power is seriously hampered by his holy-headache average exit velocity of 83.5 mph, one of the lowest in baseball. This caveat, of course, doesn’t apply to Aaron Judge. By consistently hitting the ball hard, he makes sure that his line drives don’t go to waste.
Let’s shift gears and look at balls hit outside of the sweet spot – launched too high or too low. The definition of these balls is a bit arbitrary, but to be consistent with our analysis thus far, let’s define them as being hit at a launch angle of 7 degrees or below and 35 degrees or higher. Without the 95+ mph requirement, here are Judge’s numbers:
Since his rookie season, Judge has been hitting more grounders but less ‘bad’ fly balls. His range of launch angles has shifted – from 20 ~ 40 to more like 5 ~ 25. If that doesn’t seem significant, consider this. According to Fangraphs, his FB% has dropped from 43.2% (2017) to 32.4% (2019). His LD% has risen from 21.9% to 27.3%. By the end of 2019, Aaron Judge was almost as likely to hit a line drive as he was to hit a fly ball.
Early in 2019, sports media began taking notice of a change in Aaron Judge’s swing. According to a New York Post article, Judge eliminated his leg kick, toe tap, and stride, especially on two strike counts to increase his rate of contact. And initially, it seemed like the new approach would stick. Here’s him hitting a ball back in March on a 2-2 count:
However, as the season progressed, Judge was much less consistent with his new approach – even during the span of one game. Take a look at these two screenshots:
Pitcher handedness didn’t seem to matter, as viewing more footage made it clear that Judge’s two-strike approach was more or less sporadic. An unintended consequence, however, was finding out that Aaron Judge had a wOBA of .464 against lefties this year, a career high. In fact, his left/right splits have completely flipped since 2017!
But while being interesting, it doesn’t explain why Judge’s output is different than before. Maybe there’s a tweak in mechanics I failed to notice. Maybe it isn’t deliberate, and he’s simply having a problem getting under the ball. That’s a moot point in my article, something readers can perhaps elaborate on.
So far, hitting the ball differently hasn’t affected his actual success. Judge hit 24 doubles in 678 PA in 2017; 18 doubles in 447 PA in 2019. If you apply his 2019 doubles per PA rate to his 2017 plate appearances, you get roughly 26 doubles; however, two extra doubles would hardly make a difference in a player’s offensive production. In fact, for a player like Judge, sacrificing power to hit line drives may be a disadvantage.
But think of it this way. In 2015, Joey Votto hit .314/.459/.541 en route to a 174 wRC+, still his best season yet. His batted ball profile back then: 25.0 LD%; 32.8 FB%. Look solely at these rates, and Aaron Judge and Joey Votto, two hitters who reside on opposite ends of the slugger spectrum, seem… reasonably similar.
Aaron Judge, whose whiff rate is one of the league’s lowest, has virtually no chance of transforming into Votto. So why did I introduce the comparison? I feel like there’s an ideal mid-point between the two. Judge will always have a strikeout problem – that’s part of his game, swinging at the ball until he connects and obliterates it. But last year, he tried something different. His contact rates didn’t increase as planned, but when he put the ball into play, he wasn’t just chasing home runs. Line drives are now a part of his game, and the number of un-optimal fly balls decreased.
He is missing out on the ideal 23 to 34 degree balls, which may prevent him from reaching monstrous home run totals even at full health. It is, however, a cost Judge can minimize, once he learns to combine the best of his 2017 and 2019 seasons. He’s doing that already, as seen in improvements to Z-Swing% and O-Swing%:
Judge is still a three-true-outcomes guy, but not as one-dimensional as you might think. The changes, albeit subtle, are clearly there. All he has to do is incorporate them without sacrificing too much of his signature power. That’s easier said than done, but Aaron Judge has the talent to do so. Batting .300 with 20 home runs in a shortened season? Maybe! The Judge we know today may not even be his final form – that is terrifying to consider.
All statistics are from Baseball Savant and Fangraphs.
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