Aaron Judge may have just broken out of an incredible slump in incredible fashion. Even if you were on the east coast when Judge unleashed that 467-foot laser against the Athletics, you still probably heard it, or at least felt it somewhere deep in your soul, when Judge made vicious contact with that Joakim Soria pitch and sent it screaming into an Oakland night.
With any luck, that blast will mark the unofficial end of perhaps the worst stretch of Judge’s career. Before coming alive over the past few games, Judge looked lost, recording a .148/.266/.235 slash line over a 21-game span from July 25th to August 15th. Judge hit just one home run during that period, managed only one multi-hit game, struck out in a third of his plate appearances, and saw his season OPS drop a stunning 157 points, from .984 to .827.
The Yankees’ success prevented that slump from causing any real panic, but it did highlight the biggest holes in Judge’s game. If his downturn made one thing clear, it was that when Judge was coming off an injury, expanding the zone, and seeing his zone expanded for him by umpires flustered by his height, he was more than vulnerable.
More than ever, Judge’s flaws showed over the past month. In fact, as Judge has dealt with an oblique injury and tinkered with his swing and approach at the plate, this entire season has more plainly elucidated the holes in his game than any season before, save his brief cameo at the end of the 2016 campaign. Yet that Judge has still managed to produce at the level he has despite adversity just as plainly demonstrates the quality of player that he is and the value he brings to the Yankees.
Detractors of Judge are quick to point out his hefty strikeout rate, borne out of an enormous strike zone for pitchers to target and a clear weakness on soft stuff down and away. Judge has made efforts to close those holes in his swing this year, to cut back on whiffs, to perform better with two strikes, and to use all fields.
Those efforts have mostly failed, as Judge has continued to whiff, and hasn’t managed to produce better with two strikes. His overall strikeout rate on the season is 30.6%, snugly between his 2017 rate (30.7%) and his 2018 rate (30.5%). His swinging strike rate, which spiked to near career-high levels during his slump, is 13.7%, exactly his career average. He owns a .608 OPS in two-strike counts, which, while better than the league’s OPS, is worse than his career .664 figure. He’s struck out in 48% of counts that reach two strikes, barely lower than his career rate of 50%.
Where Judge has succeeded is in reducing his pull rate:
Of course, that ability to use all fields isn’t necessarily a positive. Per Baseball Reference, Judge has a 1.442 OPS in his career when pulling the ball, compared to a 1.269 OPS on all other batted balls. In some ways, it’s hard to fault for Judge for trying to make use of the whole field, put the ball in play more, and whiff less. Those aren’t bad things on their face! When Judge makes contact, great things happen. It’s only reasonable that he would want to make contact more consistently.
At age-27, though, it’s becoming more and more apparent that consistent contact won’t be a part of Judge’s game. He’s made over 1500 plate appearances in the majors, made adjustments to try to smooth over that imperfection in his game, and hasn’t made notable improvements. What’s more, research into hitter aging curves by Jeff Zimmerman indicates that contact rate peaks at age-28. It’s probably now-or-never for Judge to improve in terms of contact, and the evidence suggests he’s leaning towards never.
What we’re left with is a player with clear flaws that is nevertheless tremendous. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Judge has gone wrong in 2019, ranging from injury to ineffective adjustments to batted ball luck. Even with all that, he might nearly be the Yankees’ best player.
No, he won’t lead the Yankees in WAR this year; that honor will go to DJ LeMahieu. Even so, Baseball Reference’s calculations suggest Judge has been worth 2.9 wins to the Yankees this year in just 309 plate appearances. That’s about a 6.5-WAR pace over a full season, a figure that merits down-ballot MVP votes. Even at his worst, Judge has still been about as valuable on a per-game basis as LeMahieu has been at his best.
That’s because, even in spite of his flaws, Judge still has a formidable and diverse skillset. Much of that quality WAR figure comes from Judge’s exemplary defensive metrics, which peg him as one of the best fielding corner outfielders in the game. Perhaps DRS, which estimates Judge has been 11 runs better than average in the field, overstates Judge’s defensive contributions this year. But Judge rates at plus-33 for his career by DRS, and plus-25 by UZR. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric has ranked him better than average every year of his career. All statistical data we have paints Judge as a top-flight defender, which matches the eye test:
Moreover, even Judge’s struggles this year have served to illustrate how high his floor is as a hitter. His slump has only managed to knock his wRC+ to 124 in a down year, as good as the career marks of Sammy Sosa, Jorge Posada. and Don Mattingly. Judge’s mediocre batting average can at times obscure how valuable he is overall on offense given his on-base ability and hard contact. That hard contact, in fact, has been harder than ever in 2019. His average exit velocity clocks in at 97 mph per Statcast, putting him in the 100th percentile, and probably hinting at better things to come down the stretch should he keep it up.
However you splice it, Judge has had a difficult year, and has still been pretty great. The Yankees can both be concerned about the slump he struggled through, and encouraged that the floor for their franchise player is so high. Judge has obvious flaws, ones that are often exasperated by circumstances out of his control. Even as he’s failed to curtail those flaws, though, he remains a terrific player.