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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Aaron Judge

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Can Judge stay healthy and increase his launch angle in 2020?

2019 ALCS Game 4 - Houston Astros v. New York Yankees Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s hard to find a Yankee that means more to the team than Aaron Judge. He’s not just the face of the franchise, but also changes the entire landscape of the lineup when he’s healthy. Judge has suffered two injuries in as many years that required lengthy recovery times — though one had nothing to do with his durability, since he can’t control getting hit by a pitch on the wrist. It goes without saying that a full, healthy year from Judge would be exciting to see, especially given what he did with his last full season, cruising to the Rookie of the Year award in 2017. Can he return to that ridiculous level of production in 2020?

2019 Stats: 442 PA, .272/.381/.540, 27 HR, 75 RBI, 31.5 K%, 14.3 BB%, 141 wRC+, 4.6 WAR

2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 658 PA, .254/.373/.525, 40 HR, 99 RBI, 30.8 K%, 15.2 BB%, 134 wRC+, 5.2 WAR

Taking a look at Judge’s projections, it would be fantastic news for the Yanks if he were to log a full season (FanGraphs Depth Charts projects him to play in 157 games, which would be a career-high). His remaining numbers are still incredibly valuable, but 5.2 projected fWAR is not too far from the 4.6 he posted last year, which was in 200 fewer plate appearances than his 2020 projections. Judge is clearly a consistent and productive player with an elite bat, but can he do anything to return to the 8-win player he was as a rookie?

Judge has arguably the most raw power in all of baseball, and his contact numbers certainly back that up. He was in the 100th percentile in exit velocity and hard hit percentage last season, 97th in xSLG and 96th in xwOBA, per Statcast. When Judge makes contact, it’s flying off the bat. But the trajectory off the bat has been the difference between 2017 Judge and 2018-2019 Judge, as we can see from his ground ball rates over the past three seasons:

Data courtesy of Statcast

Judge’s ground balls obviously have an easier time finding holes for hits because they’re hit so hard, but Judge is most valuable when he’s hitting it in the air, as his 35.1 HR/FB rate illustrates. His HR/FB mark in 2017 was 35.6, so Judge is still in line with that mark, but needs to get it in the air more often. The past two seasons have seen Judge being more mindful of using the whole field (his pull rate dropped below 40 percent in 2019), but could we see a return to his 2017 campaign?

If the second half of last season was any indication, it’s a possibility. Judge’s pull rate jumped 11 percent in the second half of last season compared to the first half, and not surprisingly, his power went up, increasing his slugging percentage from .525 to .546. Also, take a look at the trend of his ground ball rate after he came back from the IL:

It’s incredible to think about the fact that Judge put up a 143 OPS+ last year, and that was easily the lowest of his three seasons in the big leagues. He’s one of the best in baseball at the plate, but he could be even better, as he showed in his breakout, MVP-caliber season. Perhaps he’s on his way back to becoming that type of player.

Judge’s adjustments this season will be fascinating to watch, but how about umpire adjustments? The low strike calls on the 6-foot-7 Judge were a consistent storyline of frustration last season, with many clamoring for Judge to start speaking up to umpires. To be honest, it’s amazing he’s been able to keep his cool at times given some of the calls that have not gone his way.

Will Judge see a more consistent and accurate strike zone in 2020? Will he continue his trend from the end of last season and cut back on the grounders? If those answers are ‘yes,’ then Judge’s 2020 projections will be on the extremely modest side, and he could be in for a special season.