At first glance, Aaron Judge’s 2018 season pales in comparison to his 2017 campaign. The past year was nothing to sneeze at, sure, but juxtaposed with his 52-homer, 8.2 WAR, 173 wRC+ mammoth of a rookie season, well, it didn’t quite live up to that standard. Few ever do, after all.
Judge’s 2018 season, however, was plenty impressive when placed it in its proper context. Despite missing significant time with a wrist injury sustained from an errant Jakob Junis fastball, Judge clubbed 27 bombs for a 149 wRC+. He also led the team with 5.0 WAR.
Injury isn’t the only thing that makes the above numbers so impressive. Judge’s strikeout rate, which so many people were worried about in 2017, actually rose slightly in 2018. Meanwhile, his walk rate, while still high, decreased by two percentage points. For any other hitter, that would have meant big trouble. For Judge, they were footnotes to another successful year.
The reason why Judge is able to succeed despite his strikeouts is that he has one of the best contact profiles in baseball. The man-mountain generates top-tier exit velocity (94.7 mph in 2018, best in the majors) and owns an excellent barrel percentage (16.2% barrels per batted ball). This allows him to maintain high production while making somewhat less contact than the average hitter. Combined with his uber-patient approach, Judge’s power makes for a ridiculously high floor.
To illustrate this point, let’s compare Judge with Bryce Harper. As right fielders known for their power and patience, the two have much in common. However, Harper’s wRC+ has bounced around quite a bit over his career, while Judge avoided such fluctuation in his sophomore year.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that Harper’s performance should be more stable year-to-year, due to his lower strikeout rate which puts him less at the mercy of batted ball luck than Judge. However, Judge hits the ball so hard and so consistently that the BABIP gods cannot tamper with his results. Above all else, Judge’s ridiculous power is what has allowed him to outperform Harper over the past two years.
What does this say about Judge’s performance level going forward? The bad news is that power — in terms of both ISO and exit velocity — tends not to age very well. For most players the decline starts just around where Judge is now. The good news is that Judge is starting off from such a high point that a gradual decline would still leave him among the batted ball elite for years to come. Plus, walk rates tend to age very well, and Judge is no stranger to the leaderboards in that statistic as well. He isn’t going to turn into a pumpkin anytime soon.
Aaron Judge’s size, strikeouts, patience, and mammoth power make him somewhat of a unicorn. Unicorns are usually hard to gauge in terms of their long-term success, because it’s hard to ascertain what makes them work. In Judge’s case, though, it’s easy to see how he does it; he simply hits the ball harder than anyone else, period. As long as he does that, the Yankees — and us fans — can continue to enjoy him work his magic for years to come. Unless, you know, the front office lets him walk, but that’s a story for another post.