When analyzing prospects, a particularly popular exercise is to try and find a ‘comp.’ Finding an established big leaguer who matches the body type and skill set of the prospect in question can help to set a tangible expected outcome for a relatively unknown quantity. “Adam Dunn” is certainly easier to digest than “plus-plus raw power with a 45 bat, plus plate discipline, and below-average defense,” at least for the average fan.
Unfortunately, some players are simply incomparable. There are speedy short-statured players like Jose Altuve who leave evaluators scratching their heads from their minor-league debut to their fourth All-Star Game, or uninspiring and low-strikeout arms like Dallas Keuchel who miraculously develop into Cy Young pitchers when they get the chance to showcase their elite command. You can probably guess where I’m going with this: another one of those unprecedented players is Aaron Judge, a six-foot-seven hitter with a strike zone the size of Texas and raw power that could make even the best of pitchers flinch.
No matter how hard one searches, it’s nearly impossible to find a player who looks and plays like Judge. The behemoth is tied for the fourth tallest position player ever to make it to the major leagues, with only Nate Freiman, Richie Sexson, and Tony Clark being taller. While some may be inclined to compare Judge to one of those two players, or some of the other handful of six-foot-six big leaguers out there, none will be a very good fit, as batters of that size are abnormal in baseball and vary on case-by-case basis.
With that in mind, there’s no point to try and find a player with Judge’s stature who performed like he may. Instead, it may be more worthwhile to look at players who best match his offensive tools: a fringe-average bat with lots of swing-and-miss and at least plus power. A great result for Judge would be a player who hits up to 30 home runs, strikes out at around a 25% rate, and bats a bit under .260 with a decent number of walks. It’s hard to be unsatisfied with that production, even if it’s a complete guess on my part. Strictly from an offensive perspective, this could look like Jake Lamb’s 2016: a .249/.332/509 line with 29 home runs and a 25.9% strikeout rate, 10.8% walk rate, and 114 wRC+.
Outside of having a convenient way to view Judge’s possible production at the plate, this approximation serves as a good way to look at his confusing debut. How much should we worry when a high-strikeout power bat strikes out far too much in his first taste of the big leagues? We’re going to be left with an inaccurate result because this won’t consider Judge’s rare size (and strike zone), but it can at least let us know if his first taste of the big leagues was overly unusual.
With that goal in mind, I found 39 big leaguers (including Clark and Sexon, interestingly enough) since 2010 that had production around what we could expect from Judge, and found that their average rookie year production was as follows: a .241/.313/.423 slash line with a 28% strikeout rate, 8% walk rate, and 92 wRC+. This is significantly better than Judge’s .179/.263/.345 line with his 44.2% strikeout rate, 9.5% walk rate, and 63 wRC+, but shows that those 39 players (who averaged a 119 wRC+ in their collective big league careers) all easily underperformed in their debuts.
The slugging, high-strikeout type of players are at the highest risk of being exploited by big league pitching upon their first taste of the highest level, and the averages shown above demonstrate this. Still, it confirms that Judge’s debut was on the extreme end of the spectrum and he struggled far more than normal. While these abnormal problems do come from an abnormal player, they certainly warrant more concern than the normal below-average debut. We should have expected trouble early on from Judge, but the degree of his issues—especially the strikeouts—are worrisome.
That said, his wRC+ wasn’t the worst on that list (Mike Cameron, Justin Upton, Preston Wilson, and Wilson Betemit were lower…they turned out just fine) and Judge has often been a player that needs some time to adjust to the next level before settling in. All of this essentially confirms what we already suspected—Judge’s debut was poor enough that we should have legitimate doubts about his hitting ability, but struggles come with this type of hitter (especially one that is six-foot-seven) and are far from a death sentence for the top prospect’s future with the Yankees.