I’m not one to believe in curses, but I truly don’t know how else to summarize this season. From dealing with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks and the usual rash of injuries to heartbreaking, late-inning losses and players failing to live up to expectations, it’s been a long journey to 108 games, to say the least.
The disappointment of this season has infiltrated its way into the minds of seemingly every Yankee fan out there, and I’m certainly no exception. In fact, my first two articles as a Pinstripe Alley contributor were about how disappointing certain players have been this season. With the Yankees just four games away from catching the Red Sox, 5.5 behind the division-leading Rays, a game and a half back of the Wild Card, and playing with a renewed vigor as of late, I want to change that script by doing a deep dive into the numbers to show just how excellent Aaron Judge has been this season.
Okay, technically I’m not starting with numbers here, but can we just take a second to appreciate how ridiculous this throw on Wednesday was to get Cedric Mullins at second? Although I rail against anecdotal evidence passed off as analysis whenever I get the chance, I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever seen another player make such accurate and strong throws look so effortless. Also, if you need some numbers to prove just how awesome that throw was, Mullins’ average sprint speed is 28.7 feet per second, putting him in the 88th percentile across the entire league. In simpler teams, he can fly.
Now it’s time for the actual numbers. To start, here’s a running list of all the major statistics that Judge currently leads the team in (amongst qualified players, of course): batting average (.280), on-base percentage (.369), slugging percentage (.509), homeruns (22), runs (54), wOBA (.376), xwOBA (.415), wRC+ (141), and fWAR (3.0).
Oh, and Judge is second in runs driven in, trailing Giancarlo Stanton by only three. Whether you’re a fan of traditional statistics or advanced metrics, it’s hard to argue that Aaron Judge has been anything short of excellent for the Yankees this year.
The Statcast numbers paint an even better picture of his season. After a down year across the board in an injury-shortened 2020 campaign, Judge has come roaring back in nearly every single Statcast category. Of importance here is all of the red, which indicates that Judge is in the top one, two, or three percent of the league in Barrel %, Average Exit Velocity, Max Exit Velocity, xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, and Hard Hit %.
While I can talk up these numbers all day, I really just want to draw your attention to two in particular: xwOBA and K%.
For those who might not be familiar with it, xwOBA is a metric used to determine a player’s quality of contact by removing defence from the equation. In short, xwOBA analyzes the variables that players are able to control themselves — things like launch angle and exit velocity — to determine how successful a player was at doing what they’re supposed to, regardless of the defensive outcome.
According to this metric, Judge is expected to have his best season in terms of offensive production since his bonkers 2017 rookie (and stolen MVP) campaign. I think we all remember just how ridiculous he was that season, so we can leave the xwOBA discussion there.
As is well-known, the one thing that has plagued Judge throughout his career is his tendency to strike out more than some fans would like. Although this criticism is drastically overvalued and ignores his ability to work a walk, it is, nonetheless, nice to see Judge making significant strides in the strikeout department.
In fact, through 93 games played, Judge’s 25.6 percent strikeout rate is the lowest number he’s posted and is also five percentage points below his career average. That is a huge difference.
Working hand-in-hand with Judge’s lowered strikeout rate is this absolute nosedive in Swing-and-Miss % on off-speed and breaking balls. Death, taxes, and Judge striking out on breaking balls down and away were the three guarantees in life just last year, but the numbers show that he is adapting and re-creating his approach at the plate to address that weakness in his game.
Despite Judge seeing more breaking balls and off-speed pitches than he has throughout his entire career (breaking balls +3.8% and off-speed +2.6% over last year), his increased ability to recognize the pitch and not swing and miss has led to an invaluable improvement from him at the plate.
The last set of numbers worth exploring is Judge’s plate discipline profile. In my first post about Giancarlo Stanton’s recent struggles at the plate, I not-so-subtly alluded to the fact that a number of Yankee hitters seem to be trading aggression in the zone for an overabundance of patience. That’s not the case with Judge, however, as his Zone Swing and Zone Contact Percentages are right in line with his career numbers and his First Pitch Swing Percentage is actually the highest it’s been in a few years. I wanted to point this out because despite Judge being as aggressive as he’s ever been at the plate, he is still managing to whiff less than he ever has and cut down on his strikeouts in a significant way. The impact of that approach at the plate cannot be overstated.
To end anecdotally, at the end of the day, as a fan of both the game of baseball itself and the numbers side of things, I just really, really like seeing baseballs hit unbelievably hard and ridiculously far. And, in my opinion, no one does it like Aaron Judge.
This is not to say that this is a perfect season for Aaron Judge by any means — his power numbers are down a bit and he’s walking less than usual — but, in a season that has been so frustrating on so many different levels, it’s a massive relief to be able to look to your franchise star and see him in the midst of another great season.
The traditionalists might criticize Judge because he hasn’t driven in as many runs as we’ve come to expect from him, but, by any metric you choose to use, we are witnessing another truly great season from the current face of the franchise. Now let’s just hope the rest of the team around him gets going and puts on a show over the last 54 games of the season.