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The evolution of Aaron Judge in the batter’s box

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Judge essentially traded walks for contact in 2021

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no doubting that the 2017 campaign is still the gold standard when it comes to Aaron Judge. He hit 52 homers during that breakout season, with a 1.049 OPS and an 18.7-percent walk rate. He slugged over .600, reached base more than 40 percent of the time, and his wRC+ hit 174 back then — by far the best mark of his career.

However, determining which season has been Judge’s second-best is actually an interesting debate. We can safely rule out his 2016 campaign because it was a 27-game cameo filled with strikeouts, so we are left with four choices: 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Here is every season’s finish by wRC+:

2018: 150

2019: 141

2020: 139

2021: 150

It’s pretty obvious at this point that this is who Judge is: a 140-150 wRC+ hitter, which is very, very good. The exercise, however, allows us to notice that while he was virtually the same hitter by this figure in 2018 and 2021, the way in which that wRC+ was achieved wasn’t exactly the same.

Let’s compare Judge’s 2018 and 2021 seasons:

Aaron Judge: 2018 vs. 2021

Stat 2018 2021
Stat 2018 2021
AVG 278 292
OBP 392 378
SLG 528 544
OPS 919 922
BB% 15.3 11.8
K% 30.5 25.3
wOBA 391 390
xwOBA 394 409
wRC+ 150 150
Avg. Exit Velo 94.7 95.9
Barrel% 15.4 16.9
Hard-Hit% 54.1 57.4
O-Swing% 25.1 26.6
O-Contact% 44.1 55.2
Contact% 65.9 73
SwStr% 13.7 11.4

After perusing these stats, it’s reasonable to conclude that Judge is not necessarily better in one year or another; he is simply a different hitter. He is not only striking out less frequently (around five percentage points fewer, which is significant), but he also seems less vulnerable as a whole. The decrease in swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) is also noticeable, as he was always around 13 or 14 percent.

The 2018 version holds the OBP advantage by virtue of an elevated walk rate. Yes, the average is lower, but the on-base percentage is higher because there is about a 3.5-point difference between his 2018 and 2021 BB%.

There is also another noticeable difference: contact. It appears that Judge has a slightly more contact-oriented approach this year, so he’s exchanging some walks and strikeouts for balls in play. That said, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Judge is currently boasting a career-high 55.2-percent chase contact rate, but not all contact is good contact. His previous high was 44.8-percent in 2017. That year, he made contact almost exclusively on pitches that he could pulverize. Perhaps Judge is trying too hard to defend parts of his “unique” strike zone from umpires’ judgment by adjusting and swinging at some pitches that may be outside of the zone.

Personally, I lean slightly towards the 2021 version of Judge. Don’t get me wrong: I love walks. But he seems less vulnerable this season, maintains a good walk rate, and his power is intact, evidenced by his homer tally (34 so far) and the increments in hard-hit rate and average exit velocity. Judge is also barreling the ball more in 2021 in comparison to 2018.

The most important difference between 2021 Judge and the 2018-20 editions is that he’s been able to stay on the field more, which is obviously great. You can’t produce if you are not on the field, and while it’s obvious that he can’t control injuries, it’s always good to see him play close to a full season.

Aaron Judge is a fantastic hitter. His approach may have changed somewhat in 2021, for better or for worse depending on which perspective you use to evaluate him, but he remains a top batter and the Yankees’ best position player. It’s not particularly close, either. Without him, they wouldn’t be sniffing the Wild Card race.

Thanks to Peter Brody for research assistance.