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Yankees 2021 Season Preview: Aaron Judge

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Big No. 99 is entering a crucial year for the Yankees.

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It was a season unlike any other last year around Major League Baseball, yet it was a familiar campaign for Aaron Judge. The hulking slugger again once again roared out of the gate to the tune of a .290/.343/.758 slash line and nine home runs in 17 games, but was undone by a nagging calf strain.

The Yankees, as they’ve been wont to do before, rushed Judge back. He only played one game before going back on the injured list, and endured a slump when he finally came back for good in September. Judge only produced seven hits (one for extra bases) in his 10 games after being activated off the IL and struck out 13 times.

Judge’s playoff performance was also a mixed bag. He had three home runs in his seven postseason games, but only mustered one more hit while striking out 10 times. He was their only source of offense in the do-or-die Game 5 versus the Rays, but could only put up a .662 OPS in the season’s biggest games.

2020 Stats: 114 PA, .257/.336/.554, 9 HR, 22 RBI, 28.1 K%, 8.8 BB%, 139 wRC+, 0.9 WAR

2021 ZiPS Projections: 499 PA, 255/.367/.536, 33 HR, 82 RBI, 31.1 K%, 14.4 BB%, 135 wRC+, 4.1 WAR

Entering his age-29 season and his fifth as the centerpiece of the Yankees’ offense, this is a crucial year for Judge’s future. He’ll be a free agent in two seasons, and it’s hard to project what a contract could look like for a 31-year-old Judge. When he plays, he’s one of the 10 best hitters in the American League and a plus defensive outfielder. However, Judge has been notoriously fragile for the Yankees, and a long-term commitment comes with some level of risk.

The one thing that the Yankees don’t have to worry about is Judge’s performance. Although he hasn’t consistently hit the soaring highs of his 2017 MVP runner-up season, he’s posted a 145 OPS+ and gone deep at a 43-home run pace the last three seasons. However, he has also only played 242 of a possible 384 games over that span (63 percent).

Judge’s approach has changed some over the years for the Yankees. In 2018 and 2019, he pulled the ball less and hit the ball all over the field, which also resulted in a higher ground ball rate. However, in his abbreviated 2020 season, Judge pulled the ball more than ever, and got back to hitting it predominantly in the air. His 15.7 degree launch angle was his highest since his elite 2017 season, which indicates Judge’s re-dedication to pulling the ball in the air, which is the best way to generate power.

Judge has talked this season about playing “smarter” than in past years. This included a workout routine more centered around yoga than weightlifting, and could mean a less aggressive approach in the field. One of Judge’s most serious injuries — his rib injury that became a collapsed lung — was caused by diving for a ball in a September game. If Judge’s defensive grades take a slight hit but he stays healthy and plays a full season, the Yankees will take that trade-off. If anything, he’d be making up for the slightly lost defensive value with a full season at the plate, which would likely mean MVP-caliber offensive numbers.

Aaron Judge is undeniably the biggest x-factor for the Yankees this season. If he’s finally healthy for a full season, it could easily be his strongest effort yet. But if he misses significant time again, the same tired narratives will start to ring true. For the Yankees to take the next step, their best offensive player will have to do the same.