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What to expect from Aaron Judge going forward

The Yankees’ best player was experimenting with a different approach, to unusual results, before getting hurt.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

It took a lot of discipline to not just make this post 800 words yelling about how tall Aaron Judge is, how fun he is to watch play, how happy we should all be to see him in the Yankee linuep, and so on. I’m not going to do that, and instead, we’re going to talk about what Judge was doing before going down with that oblique injury.

He had a 136 wRC+ before the injury, which is terrific, but slightly below his career line. His walk rate and strikeout rate were in line with what we’ve seen him do before, so why was he hitting about 15% worse than we know he can?

Judge is hitting for less power than any time other than his 2016 debut. His PA/HR rate is at its worst in three years, and that’s in a juiced ball season! His underlying Statcast data - exit velocity, barrel rate and hard hit rate - are all better than last year, and his launch angle has increased half a degree, yet his fly ball rate has dropped!

This shows the problem with just looking at averages, though. His average launch angle is virtually unchanged, but the standard deviations HAVE changed. The standard deviation on the launch angle of all Judge’s batted balls this year is 21.2, while on batted balls from 2017 and 2018 combined, it’s 25.6. In 2019, Judge is hitting at roughly the same launch angle overall, but the batted balls fit in a much tighter band around the average than the previous two years.

Above are his 2019 batted balls, and below are the previous two years:

You can see that in 2019, there’s a much narrower band of results, especially avoiding those batted balls in excess of about 35 degrees. This is why his line drive rate is up, his flyball rate is down, and his power has decreased proportionally.

This all stems from a goal Judge made very clear in spring training; he wanted to shorten up his swing, especially with two strikes. Part of that was reducing his leg kick, and the other part was getting his hands into the zone quicker, cutting down on what can be a very long swing at times.

Here’s what I mean when I say Judge’s swing can get long. These are two two-strike offerings from last season - two pitches in the same zone, and Judge has a full leg kick and his hands get fully extended. He swings and misses at the first, and hits an easy groundout in the second. Overall, Judge had a .655 OPS with two strikes.

Now let’s look at two similar scenarios from this year - similar pitch locations, two strikes:

The differences should be pretty obvious; his leg kick is gone and his hands are much tighter to the body, allowing him to get to the ball much quicker. This is exactly what “shortening up your swing” means, and with two strikes this year Judge has a .726 OPS, a significant improvement over last year.

It’s important to always make as few outs as possible, and Judge is making fewer outs with two strikes, although that does seem to be coming at a cost. His OBP and batting average are lower than they’ve been the last two years, and his BABIP is effectively identical - .356 to .357 - to the rate he ran during his Rookie of the Year season. Judge IS making more contact, but it’s less productive contact and more likely to lead to an out. I can’t help but wonder if that conscious focus on more contact with two strikes has led to an unconscious drive to make more contact overall, sacrificing power along the way.

Now the question is, does Judge stick with this approach in his return, or does he shake off the rust by reverting to Classic Judge? I’d imagine the Yankees would be very up front with him about the realities of this adjustment, but he still has less than 100 plate appearances on the season, and both he and the team may want more time and more opportunities before making any kind of final decision on what the optimal Aaron Judge approach is.

With a juiced ball and Judge’s laughable power, he doesn’t need to sell out for fly balls completely, but it’s going to be hard for him to replicate 50-HR production by hitting line drives all year. The jury’s out on whether that conscious focus has led to an unconscious result, but for one reason or another Judge has been merely very very good, not MVP-level, and we’ll have to see how that changes going forward.