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Aaron Judge is still struggling with pitch recognition

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The promising outfielder made his debut for the big league club this year, but was underwhelming at the plate.

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Judge made his long-awaited major league debut on August 13, giving fans what they wanted to see right away. In his first at-bat, he hit a towering home run to center field, which was measured at 446 feet. After that game? Well, we try not to talk about it. But for the season, Judge played 27 games at the big league level, with a .179/.263/.345 slash line, and a highly concerning 44.2% strikeout rate. For more reasons than one, he did not make a very favorable impression during his first stint in the big leagues.

His astronomical strikeout rate was likely due to his long-documented vulnerability to breaking balls. In March, Brendan Kuty at NJ.com published a story about what Judge had been working on, highlighting pitch recognition:

While Judge lived up to the hype as a homer-hitting, yet nimble athlete at Double-A Trenton last year, he scuffled a little at Triple-A. At the highest level of the minors, Judge faced pitchers for the first time who had been to the majors and know how to pitch backward. In other words, they threw curveballs in fastball counts and stayed away from Judge's strengths, leading him to hit just .224 in 61 games.

Judge started the season with Triple-A Scranton, and promptly fell into a nasty slump at the plate. By the end of May, he had a .680 OPS and a 25.9% strikeout rate. But after June 1, he improved dramatically:

Dates PA BB% K% OPS
April/May 212 7.5% 25.9% .680
June-August 198 15.7% 21.7% 1.053

In addition to his batting average and power output, his walk rate jumped dramatically, suggesting that his pitch recognition had taken a step forward. Joe Girardi himself commented on Judge's progress in late June, according to Ryan Hatch at NJ.com:

"It's been impressive," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Sunday. "We've been paying attention. I tell you, all our minor league kids, it's one of my favorite things to do ... What Judge has done is impressive, and it's not just fastballs. It's been on breaking balls as well."

But in the big leagues, Judge's pitch recognition might have taken a step back. Unlike the minors, Pitch F/X data is readily available for his stint in the Bronx. Some of his plate discipline numbers were especially alarming:

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
Aaron Judge 34.9% 59.7% 40.7% 74.3%
MLB Average 30.6% 63.9% 62.1% 86.5%

A high strikeout rate is to be expected of someone his size. Giancarlo Stanton, who has been a constant and unfair comparison point for Judge, has a career strikeout rate of 28.5%. But the numbers shown above suggest that the issue was not with his approach, but rather his ability to pick up the ball out of pitchers' hands.

In addition to chasing pitches outside the zone at an above average rate, he also swung at a below average percentage of pitches in the strike zone. For reference, notorious free-swingers like Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro have above average swing rates on pitches both in and out of the strike zone, whereas someone like Brett Gardner is more likely to take a pitch regardless of its location. Judge was on the wrong side of the league average for both metrics, suggesting a serious problem with pitch recognition.

The interpretation of this trend depends on whether we look at it from a glass half full or glass half empty perspective. On a positive note, Judge has shown the ability to improve his pitch recognition before at Triple-A level. But a pessimist might point out that hitters like Ryan Howard have had chronic problems with breaking balls and just never made the necessary adjustments.

For all of his struggles, Judge still clobbered the ball when he did make contact. His hard hit rate of 48.8% and average exit velocity of 95.5 mph would both be in line with MVP caliber hitters if he could somehow keep it up for an entire season. So while he might still be pretty far away from his ceiling, it is worth sticking with him as he tries to overcome this roadblock.

Data is courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.