Let’s start this post off with an undisputed fact: Aaron Judge has never been the same hitter as he was in his excellent 2017 rookie season. And now, the kicker: He will probably never be that hitter again.
But, the saving grace: that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the Judge we’ve seen since 2018 is still an All-Star, and in some ways, he might even be a better hitter than the rookie version that first captivated fans all those years ago.
The early narrative around Judge this year was that he was off to a slow start. Through Judge’s first 19 games, he only hit .246 with four home runs. Since April 26 though, he’s hitting .400 with 10 RBI, including three long balls. It’s only a one-week sample size, but it’s that long-awaited “positive BABIP regression” that Cooper predicted for Judge on April 22. Judge’s underlying metrics were terrific during his “slow start,” and it was only a matter of time before they evened out.
Judge isn’t as dominant a pure power hitter as he was in 2017, but he has grown as an overall hitter. Opposing pitchers have also done some adjusting; Judge sees fewer fastballs and more pitches on the edges now than he did four years ago (to say nothing of that dreaded low strike that umpires seem to love calling against him). Judge has responded by improving his plate discipline – his whiff rate and strikeout rate have never been lower than they are this year. His whiff rate, in particular, is basically MLB average at 24.9%. The tired commentary that all Judge does is swing-and-miss or hit home runs couldn’t be further from the truth.
Judge is also squaring up baseballs better than ever before. His “sweet spot percentage” is a mammoth 47.6 percent, which is evident in his absurd 60.3% hard-hit rate and 97.4 mph average exit velocity.
One of my favorite Judge stats this season is his expected batting average. Based on his batted-ball data, Statcast says Judge could be hitting up to a whopping .354. To put this in perspective, even in Judge’s banner 2017 season, his xBA was only .286 (his actual average was .284). Since then, his xBA has hovered between .260 and .273, and his actual average has been within .257 and .278. Basically, Judge’s end-of-season average has always been in line with his expected batting average.
This is what makes Judge’s 2021 expected average so exciting. It will probably decline over time, but if Judge’s batted-ball data is suggesting he’s hitting at a .300+ level, he will probably finish the season near that total. Factor in his recent power production, and you’ve got one of the best all-around hitters in the American League.
Central to Judge’s performance this season has been his dominance against breaking balls. Although all seven of his home runs have come off of fastballs (the pitch he historically does the most damage against), he’s hitting .300 vs. breaking balls this year. Over a full season, Judge has never hit better than .289 against breaking pitches, and even sunk as low as .181 in 2019. He’s shown an ability to go with what the pitcher is throwing him this year, lining breaking balls for singles into right field, and pulling fastballs into the left field seats.
By any traditional or advanced measure, Judge is lighting it up for the Yankees this year. His recent burst is more than just a hot streak – it looks like an indication of Judge becoming the best pure hitter we’ve ever seen him be. No, he’s not the same hitter he was in 2017, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. Judge’s growth as a hitter in his age-29 season gives him a variety of ways to help the Yankees, and has asserted his position as the squad’s best offensive player.