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Aaron Judge’s season is off to a better start than you might think

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So far, Aaron Judge hasn’t torched opponents to the degree he did in his torrid 2017 rookie campaign, but he’s hitting the ball well enough to do it again in 2021.

Atlanta Braves v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

17 games into the 2021 season, Aaron Judge has been one of the few relatively bright spots in the otherwise anemic Yankees offense. He’s triple-slashing a strong .268/.359/.500 with four homers, but has yet to go on the kind of unstoppable tear only he and a few other big leaguers are capable of. His .859 OPS is far better than major league average, but would be the worst of his five seasons since his full-time call-up, and pales in comparison to his .944 career mark.

However, Judge has hit the ball even better than his current tallies reflect. While his average launch angle is down a couple of degrees from his career average, the ball has left his bat at an average of 98.2 mph, the best of his career, tops in the majors by more than two mph, and better than any player’s average over a full season since the start of the Statcast era. Judge’s bevy of frozen ropes have nestled less often than projected, as his 2021 expected stats dwarf his actual numbers from this young season. His .440 xwOBA ranks inside the league’s 92nd percentile, despite a real wOBA of just .374. Also, Judge’s xAVG and xSLG have outpaced his real slugging percentage and batting average by a combined .227.

While expected stats can’t augment past performance, they’re often more predictive of future play than the result-oriented stats, especially when there is such a wide disparity between them. Most likely, this disparity has more to do with some bad luck in a small sample size than any discernible issue with Judge’s swing or approach.

For example, Judge perfectly barrels this meatball to dead-center, hitting it plenty hard enough (105.7 mph) to clear the fence, but catching a tad too much of the middle of the ball to send it skyward and into Monument Park:

In the box score, this reads as an L8, but if Judge’s bat had been a smidgen lower, left, or right at contact, it would have been at least a double, if not a home run. While this lineout added an 0-for-1 to Judge’s batting average, the same ball had an .850 xBA per Statcast. Though Judge isn’t necessarily owed a future knock for this loud out, if 85% of balls struck like this are hits, by the law of averages, these are the 15%.

To date, Judge’s had a statistically anomalous number of hard-hit balls in the air find leather before grass. Of 298 qualified hitters, Judge has had the 38th-least fortunate season so far in terms of his negative wOBA to xwOBA differential. Just this year, Judge has either lined out or flied out five times on balls hit harder than 95 mph. Last season, in almost double the number of plate appearances, Judge recorded exactly five outs on the same kind of batted balls. While this may be partially due to the fact that he’s hit the ball with authority more consistently in ’21 than in ’20, Judge did finish last season with nine homers compared to his current tally of just four despite the equal number of seismic outs.

Over the course of a season’s 600-plus plate appearances, the disparity between real and expected stats tends to winnow. Since Judge’s career at the plate doesn’t stray far from his current expected statistics, it’s reasonable to assume he’ll be able to maintain this qualitative pace, eventually getting rewarded in the box scores for his slugging.

Further, the fact that Judge is finally healthy should lend further credence to the notion that he could be on the brink of his best offensive season since he finished second in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting. In each of the precious three seasons, Judge missed significant time due to injuries which also hampered his performance even when he was able to suit up. With that in mind, it’s not terribly surprising that he’s hitting the ball as well as he did when he was last healthy. If the results start to line up, the Yankees’ best hitter could start looking even better.