It’s nearly impossible to go under the radar when you have a 6’7″, 275 pound frame. Aaron Judge has been turning heads since his draft day, being live on the set of MLB Network when taken by the Yankees with the 32nd overall pick back in 2013.
He was straight out of college, and while 20 pounds lighter then, it’s just impossible for a man that big to not turn heads in a sport like baseball. His calling card was power, and as we’ve seen this year it clearly still is, although his long arms and big body sprouted concern in many scouts and organizations about his contact ability.
With his debut last year, Judge appeared very raw, even for a 24-year-old. A strikeout rate of 44.2% with just four homers in 95 plate appearances. He struggled against fastballs, having a -2.5 runs production on the pitch, and didn’t fare much better on any other pitch. He had a high chase rate (33.6% compared to MLB average 29.9%) as well as poor zone contact rates (78.9% to average of 85.7%).
It’s not hard to see this just isn’t a recipe for success. You have a player that is supposed to hit for power with a weak hit tool, poor discipline, and a a tendency to get blown away by fastballs. At least around this same time period they had Gary Sanchez to be excited about.
It wasn’t surprising Judge got promoted to the Show when he did, as he was destroying Triple-A pitchers with a 147 wRC+. He had good discipline and power rates against the inferior league, but showed the ability was there. But to go back to the initial concerns with Judge, his height came into play in a large way with his struggles. Look at his zone profile with whiff rates overlayed:
Every hitter whiffs more as you move up in the zone. However, what’s striking about this zone profile is just how much he misses on pitches lower in the zone, where contact is generally high. To get a better visual, take a look here at him striking out on a lower pitch:
He’s forced to bring his body much lower than most players, and as we see he’s slow to adjust to this. His upper torso is very stiff, and his body only drops himself closer to a decent contact zone when the ball is already in the catcher’s glove.
With some mechanical issues and lack of results, Judge entered 2017 with a lot of doubt and concern. A strong Spring Training earned him a definite spot out of camp, and he’s done nothing but prove the Yankees’ front office correct about picking him and believing in him.
With 15 bombs already and slugging a ridiculous .692, Judge has been absolutely one of the most dangerous hitters in the game so far. While still high, he has slashed his strikeout rate down to 29.2%, and there’s some real change shown in the underlying numbers. His chase rate is just 26.0%, and his zone contact has risen up to 85.2%. Plus his walk rate has gone from around average to an elite 13.7%, further showing an improved batting eye.
And to compare to how he was struggling hard on lower pitches, he has done a much better job this season of making contact on those pitches, as well as making it quality contact. Below is his zone profile with a slugging percentage overlay:
While of course he’s going to have higher slugging numbers higher in the zone, the much more even distribution is a pleasant sight to see, both for fans and fantasy owners, as it is good at signaling more long-term success. We can look at his homers so far this season in the video below to see how he’s doing a better job on low pitches.
Pay special attention to the bomb starting at 1:32 against the White Sox. Judge drops almost to one knee to bring his power stroke to the ball. Not the most common move, but one almost necessary for someone with his stature. He is as strong as a bull, and to be able to adjust his swing to reach these pitches makes him one of the more dangerous hitters moving forward.
Judge had some discipline and reaction issues during his first taste of the majors, but at age 25 he has fixed those and turned into one of the best power hitters in baseball. Those in keeper and dynasty leagues have missed their buy-low window.
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