If you have watched baseball since 2017, you know who Aaron Judge is: a top slugger and a good fielder who struggles to stay healthy. However, he changed the narrative this season, playing the vast majority of games and maintaining top-end performance in the process. He was pretty much everything the Yankees could have hoped for in 2021.
2021 Statistics: 148 games, 633 PA, .287/.373/.544, 39 HR, 98 RBI, 6 SB, 11.8 BB%, 25.0 K%, 149 OPS+, 148 wRC+, 5.5 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: Third-year arbitration eligible
From 2018 to 2020, Judge participated in just 63 percent of the Yankees’ contests. He was labeled as an injury-prone star. He completely changed his offseason workout regime, focusing on less lifting and more yoga. That helped him play 148 games, or 91.4 percent, his highest since the 155 times he was on the field in 2017.
Performance-wise, he didn’t miss a beat. Despite playing more games than he usually does, Judge was a force at the plate from start to finish, slashing .287/.373/.544 with a 148 wRC+. Based on his plate discipline profile and quality of contact, he could have been even better, as he underperformed his .413 expected wOBA with a .387 wOBA.
Judge’s ability to hit the ball hard consistently (a league-leading 58.4 percent hard-hit rate this year) allows him to run high BABIPs (batting average on balls in play), thus keeping his batting average high despite lots of strikeouts. That said, he even made some gains in the whiff department in 2021.
From 2017 to 2019, Judge’s strikeout rate ranged from 30.5 percent to 31.5 percent. During last year’s pandemic season, he cut it to 28.1, but this year, he achieved another sizable reduction, this time to 25 percent.
Judge made more contact – a career-high 73.4 percent contact rate and a career-low 11.3 swinging strike rate – but also incurred more sub-optimal contact (his 56.7 percent of contact on pitches outside of the zone was the highest in his six-year MLB tenure). The two trends basically offset, resulting in a wRC+ in line with what he has done since 2018.
A hitter, especially a slugger like Judge, is best served making swings – and contact – on pitches inside the zone and avoiding those outside of it. Overall, though, his season was excellent nonetheless, it’s just that he achieved his great batting line a bit differently than in previous years, with a higher average, a lower walk rate, and a similar ISO.
Judge was, with some difference, the Yankees’ best and most consistent position player. By fWAR, his 5.5 more than doubled the next-best hitter, Giancarlo Stanton, who finished with 2.6. His contributions were crucial for the team, and the offense would have been a disaster without him.
The Yankees’ offense was not great in 2021. Several players alternated hot spells with long slumps. Yet Judge was always producing and was extremely consistent. Look at his monthly splits when it comes to wRC+:
Aaron Judge monthly wRC+
Perception of his defense this year varies depending on which metric is used, but everything points towards a slight decline. He had a 3.5 UZR/150 compared to 16.4 in 2020 and 24.2 in 2019, and his 9 DRS weren’t as shiny as the 21 he had in 2019 and the 16 he had in 2018. He has also had better years in Outs Above Average (OAA), as he finished in the 61st percentile this campaign. He remains a very good defensive player, though, and won the Fielding Bible award.
Overall, it was a great season for a great player, the best on the Yankees. As he edges toward free agency with each passing day, the Yankees now have to look at extending the face of the franchise.