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Diving into Aaron Judge’s “regression”

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Judge hasn’t been quite as dominant since his 2017 season, but has he actually taken a step back?

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like it’s been awhile since we’ve seen Aaron Judge at his best. He set an incredibly high bar after his incendiary 2017 rookie season, and has yet to match that production over the next two years as injuries have limited him to just 214 games out of a possible 324.

That said, Judge has still raked over that span, slashing .276./387/.534 and posting an OPS+ of 146, meaning he’s been 46 percent better than the average hitter. Factor in his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and you’ve still got yourself a top-10 player when healthy.

Despite this incredible production, Judge’s historic 2017 season might leave Yankees fans thinking that there’s more in the tank for number 99. However, it might be more accurate to say that the Judge we’ve seen from 2018-19 is more indicative of the excellent player he’ll be for the next few years, rather than the unicorn we thought he might become after his rookie campaign.

Take a look at Judge’s player card, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

His 2018 and 2019 seasons are really similar! Over an almost-equal sample size, Judge produced the same amount of home runs, and was close in almost every other major category. If you expand that to look at some of his rate stats (per FanGraphs), even more stands out. Just look at his walk rate, strikeout rate, wRC+ and ISO:

The numbers are very close from 2018-2019, but a clear dropoff from 2017. Is this a bad thing though? Just because Judge isn’t keeping up his first-ballot Hall of Fame pace doesn’t mean he’s a disappointment. In fact, Judge’s wRC+ over the past two seasons is still in the top 10 of the league. Even if this is the Judge the Yankees get moving forward, it’s still elite production.

The more interesting trends with Judge come with his batted-ball data over the last two years. Despite being a 6’7”, 280-pound Goliath, Judge uses his power in a different way than Giancarlo Stanton does. Whereas Stanton is more of a power hitter than a contact guy, Judge has become proficient at both aspects of hitting, even though it has led to a slight sacrifice of home-run power along the way.

Judge’s line-drive and hard-hit rates have climbed every year since he’s been in the league, which sounds good until you realize that means he’s driving fewer balls in the air for home runs. Over the past two years, 56.4% of Judge’s hits have been singles. In 2017, only 48.7% of his hits were singles. That’s a significant increase, which also indicates a decrease in extra-base hits. However, he’s still hitting doubles at almost the same rate (18% from 2018-19 versus 15% in 2017). Instead, the increase in Judge’s singles has come from a decline in home runs.

Is this an instance of Judge trying to cut down on his strikeouts and become a better contact hitter? It may seem like it at first, but his strikeout and whiff rates are almost the same as they’ve always been. In that respect, I don’t think Judge has changed his approach to combat swings-and-misses. Instead, I think it’s more so an example of injuries taking their toll and the league pitching Judge more carefully that has led to the decline in power.

However, all hope is not lost for a true return to 2017 form for Judge. Hopefully working with a clean bill of health for the first time in years might be all Judge needs to get back to his mashing ways of the past. If he doesn’t though, there’s nothing wrong with that.