Aaron Judge is a great hitter. He also strikes out a lot. Even if he keeps striking out as much as he does, he's more than likely to keep performing like a shoo-in All-Star for the foreseeable future. If he could manage to lower his strikeout rate into the mid-20s, however, there might be even more in store for him. This is, of course, as greedy as wishful thinking gets
Some notable examples of high-strikeout sluggers cutting down on their whiffs and upping production have emerged in the past season. Foremost among them are George Springer and new Yankees teammate Giancarlo Stanton. Can Judge do the same?
First, a note on strikeouts and how they are perceived. Over the years, baseball has gone back and forth over its evaluation of strikeouts. For much of baseball history, being strikeout-prone was considered to be one of the worst attributes that a hitter could have. Recent years, however, have seen the game shift from a contact-oriented environment to a three true outcome-heavy one. Teams have been less reluctant to employ high-strikeout players as long as they produce.
To say that strikeouts don't matter for hitters anymore would be a gross oversimplification of today's game, though. That much is evident just by looking at the way teams evaluate pitchers nowadays. Defense Independent Pitching Statistics, which is the paramount philosophy that guides pitcher evaluation today, seeks to isolate pitchers' individual contributions by stripping away the effect of one's defense on run prevention.
The FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) statistic aims to accomplish that by judging pitchers on what they do have complete control over — namely, strikeouts, walks and homers. According to FIP, the perfect pitcher would strike out batters by the dozen and hardly ever give up walks and homers. If getting strikeouts are deemed that important for pitchers, then it's hard to say that limiting strikeouts doesn't matter for hitters.
All of this is to say that, while relentlessly criticizing Judge for his high-strikeout tendencies is unfair considering how good he is as is, it's also unfair to say that his strikeouts aren't a concern at all. Judge could certainly succeed with his current rate - heck, he could even succeed with a 40% strikeout rate - but he'd be even better with fewer strikeouts. It's kind of like improving on the Mona Lisa, but when the offseason is this slow, the mind starts to wander.
Is it possible for Judge to cut down on his strikeouts? Two recent examples are encouraging in this regard. Astros slugger Springer, owner of a 33.0 K% in his 2014 debut, has steadily reduced his strikeout rate ever since. Last year he took it to an unprecedented low of 17.6%, almost 3% below the AL average. He accomplished this while posting career highs in ISO (.239) and wRC+ (140), proving that you don't always need to sacrifice power or production to reduce strikeouts.
Another hitter who achieved a similar feat was Stanton, who paired a career-low 23.6 K% with a career-high .350 ISO and 59 homers. Both are similar to Judge in that they are beefy outfielders and strong batted-ball performers, suggesting that Judge too could undergo similar changes without sacrificing his power.
A closer look at Springer's season, however, reveals that cutting down on strikeouts might not always be a good idea. Mike Petriello recently noted that while Springer cut his strikeout rate (from 22% to 11%) in the second half of 2017, he also suffered a sharp drop in production; his wRC+ cratered from 166 to 101. Matt Musico further elaborated on this issue, noting that as Springer's strikeout rate fell, his contact quality suffered, as his Hard% decreased by over 6%.
Musico speculates that this may be tied to the deterioration of Springer's plate discipline, as the increase in his contact rate was driven by contact on balls outside of the strike zone, which usually lead to weak batted balls. This suggests that Springer was trying too hard to avoid strikeouts, so much so that he was trying to make contact on pitches with which he couldn't do anything. This serves as a cautionary tale for Judge - the goal is to improve production, not reduce strikeouts just for the sake of it. One should never trade in plate discipline for fewer strikeouts.
So, can Judge reduce his strikeouts while maintaining his production? In my opinion, the possibility is there, and the best case scenario can be seen in Stanton's 2017. If Judge is aiming to address his strikeouts, however, he would be wise to not take Springer’s path. Plate discipline is one of Judge's hallmarks - his willingness to work the count does get him into a bunch of two-strike counts, but it also allows him to wait for mistakes and punish accordingly.
Perhaps a bit more aggression might serve Judge well, as he's strong enough to do damage without perfect contact. He doesn't need to wait for the perfect pitch to hit. He shouldn't make weak contact on bad pitches just for the sake of avoiding strikeouts, though. If a high strikeout total is the price for Judge to maintain his plate discipline, then I say so be it.