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Aaron Judge’s forgotten defensive ability

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The home runs are obviously notable, but his defense is still a big part of his game.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

During last year’s postseason, Aaron Judge revealed a skill we hadn’t seen from him yet, a season where he set the rookie single season home run record no less. He could steal home runs. Because of his height, especially somewhere like Yankee Stadium with a short porch in right field, Judge has the ability to merely pluck the ball from over the shallow part of the park. We saw that on display against Francisco Lindor in the ALDS, and that time he pulled the ball right out of the hands of Zack Hample.

Luckily, and I suppose unluckily given the outcome, we saw that again from Judge, this time against the Orioles in extra innings on Friday night. The ending was... lackluster, to put it lightly, but watching Judge rob a home run from Caleb Joseph was still satisfying:

It was a marvelous play, and it got me thinking. If a player has the ability to steal, in theory, a couple of home runs per season, that’s worth about 1.65 runs on average by FanGraphs’ linear weights. The popular wisdom, though, was that Judge’s defense wasn’t currently good since he has been considered a largely offensive outfielder with a future of part-time designated hitter responsibilities.

His defense has been better than expected, though. I took a look at Statcast’s defensive leaderboards for 2017, which rank plays made by probability, so a five star catch would be one where there was a 0-25% chance of being made. Not only was Judge excellent in that particular category, at 3 of 24 plays, but he ranked 15th in the league in Outs Above Average at nine.

That places him at the level of the likes of Manuel Margot, Keon Broxton, and Michael A. Taylor, and sure, a tier below players like Mookie Betts, Adam Engel, and Ender Inciarte. I doubt anyone would have expected that anyway.

Of course, it makes sense why an out-based metric could have flaws, and that’s largely because outs aren’t all made equal. But if one thing’s for sure, if all it takes is three or four fantastic plays to give you a boost in run value, then a couple of stolen home runs is basically that. That’s where this hidden skill comes into play in an area of the sport with such high variance.

Even by the very, very flawed public defensive metrics, he still rates pretty well. By Defensive Runs Saved he had 9 runs saved in 2017, which was 13th among all outfielders. By UZR/150, he rated at 7.1, which was .8 runs better than Kevin Pillar. Take whatever stock in that you want. It still makes intuitive sense that he would be a good defensive outfielder because of his arm, average range, and ability to grab a home run or two.

This is definitely a team in flux. Brandon Drury and CC Sabathia are heading to the disabled list, and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Hicks, and Clint Frazier all remain out of the field of play. Yet Aaron Judge has, luckily, been a constant, and even though we have come to anticipate the home runs as the primary currency in how we determine his value, his defense may very well be the part of his game most underappreciated in proportion to his overall value.