We all know that spring training performances don’t matter, but that doesn’t mean this March is worthless when it comes to forecasting 2017. While, early on, it won’t necessarily manifest itself statistically, players can make subtle adjustments during the spring which can shed light on how their real season may turn out. A hitter who struggled with, say, breaking balls away the year before might come into the preseason showing an ability to layoff the pitch, and this key correction can allow us to reasonably raise expectations for said player.
On the Yankees, there is one batter whose spring adjustments, or lack thereof, could be the difference between him finding a place in the starting lineup in the majors or in Triple-A. The player in question is Aaron Judge, a top prospect whose success thus far has been thanks to key adjustments at every level.
Judge, standing at 6’7”, doesn’t have the profile or approach that will easily adapt to each new rung in the proverbial minor league ladder. When the long-armed right fielder reached Triple-A in 2015, he struggled in a 61-game sample size, hitting just .224 with a ton of whiffs and worryingly little power. Judge’s second look at the level came the following year, and by making the requisite adjustments, cut his strikeout rate by five percent while hitting for far more power, leading to a significantly improved .270/.366/.489 line and a trip to the big leagues.
Unfortunately, Judge had a hard time adapting to the big leagues in the same way he did Triple-A, and despite showcasing elite power in a month-long cup of coffee, he hit just .179 with an astronomical 44.2% strikeout rate. Although the favorite for the starting right field job, Judge will need to make large leaps in his plate approach and discipline if he wanted to be a productive big leaguer in his first full season with the Yankees. Considering his history of making the needed changes, it’s hard to bet against Judge, though he does have lots of work to do. In particular, there were three distinct areas where big league pitchers victimized Judge last season, and he’ll have to put in work to minimize those weaknesses this Spring.
Pitches below the strike zone
Evaluators expected Judge to struggle covering the inner and outer corners of his massive strike zone, a consequence of that huge frame, but laying off low pitches wasn’t as large of a red flag going into the top prospect’s big league debut. Surprisingly, though, he may have been most vulnerable to pitches beneath the strike zone in his stint with the Yankees. While it’s not hard to see why this was a point of weakness for Judge—when you’re 6’7”, the bottom of your strike zone is awfully far from the top—nobody thought it would be such a serious problem for him.
Judge had a nearly 75% whiff/swing rate on pitches thrown to him beneath the zone. That mark alone isn’t what led to his terrifying strikeout rate—instead, it was the fact that he swung at those balls over a quarter of the time. Judge is likely well aware that he doesn’t make a ton of contact with low pitches, and if he could lay off more often, it wouldn’t be a back-breaking weakness. His inability to hold back, though, is one of the main contributors to his many whiffs.
Soft Stuff Away
Just as detrimental, though far more predictable, was Judge’s inability to lay off non-fastballs away. Opposing pitchers went with the changeup, slider, and curveball often with Judge, and he was helpless against most of those offerings. Combined, he hit .139 against the three pitches, whiffing on 60% of his swings—an absurdly high rate. For comparison, a high-strikeout superstar he’s often (unfairly or not) compared to, Giancarlo Stanton, didn’t have a whiff/swing rate higher than 47% on any of those pitches last season.
Where pitchers really got Judge to bite on the three secondary pitches were on the outer third of the strike zone, and outside of the zone altogether. He struggled to lay off offerings located there, and things were, uh, not pretty when he did swing. I could explain exactly why, but I think this heat map does a much better job.
A large slugger, Judge’s specialty should be killing fastballs in the strike zone. But Judge is an abnormally large slugger, a fact I think everyone knows by now, so he has some unique weaknesses you wouldn’t necessarily expect. One of these problems is turning on the enticing inside heater, something Judge would like to be able to crush, but hasn’t been able because of his long arms.
Of the 22 fastballs thrown to the inner third of the zone last season, Judge swung at all but six of them, and managed to hit…three of them. I should probably repeat this for emphasis: 22 inside fastballs, 16 swings, 13 whiffs, and just a single hit. Unlike the other two weaknesses Judge had, this isn’t something he can cure by keeping the bat on his shoulder—Judge will have to learn to turn on these pitches and make quality contact. This hasn’t been such a big issue in the minors, but now that he’s facing off against pitchers with improved command and higher velocities, this has become an easy way for pitchers to exploit a hole in Judge’s swing.