It’s been fascinating to watch Aaron Judge move seamlessly back and forth between center field and right field in 2022. A player of his frame at a premium defensive position is something we have never seen in the game of baseball, unless you include Oneil Cruz at shortstop.
Judge doesn’t have plus speed. While he may have been a plus runner earlier in his career, he isn’t as fleet footed as he once was. Typically, outfielders move off of center field when they lose some speed and turn 30. Yet, Judge has done it very well! There hasn’t been a moment where you’ve thought that this was a failed experiment.
Josh discussed the fact that Yankee Stadium’s small-ish outfield influences some players more than others, offensively speaking. However, I’ve been thinking about how that might affect a player defensively, specifically Aaron Judge. I’ll start off by pointing out a couple things. For the longest time, the Yankees kept Brett Gardner in left field in Yankee Stadium despite him being the clear best defensive outfielder on the roster. It was easy for them to do so because left fielders have more ground to cover in Yankee Stadium than center and right fielders. That left center gap is the biggest part of the park.
In other words, it doesn’t take as much speed and pure range to cover center field in Yankee Stadium like it does in others, according to Josh’s insights. If you have great reads and routes like Judge does, you can probably get away with not having elite speed, right?
In theory, you can position yourself deeper because you know you’re cutting off how far you need to go back to control for your lack of blazing speed. Left-center goes a little deeper than right center in Yankee Stadium. It’s something you can keep in the back of your mind. If a ball is hit into right center, you know you can go a little harder on it since there isn’t much room to cover. Going to left center, you’ll want to control for the ball potentially ricocheting. It’s smart to read these balls off the wall or off a hop. Let’s put that theorizing into practice.
The above charts details all of the outs Judge has caught in both right and center field. The target looking circle in center field is his sprint speed range. As the red color gets darker, the closer to his peak sprint speed he needs to be to catch it. If you can’t already tell, most of Judge’s dots appear in the right center gap. Of course, it can’t be known for sure without asking him, but the intuition makes sense.
It also adds up that Judge’s OAA isn’t off the charts in center field. Right now, it stands at +1. That is slightly above average for the position, but not anything crazy. Let’s put this back into context of our previous discussion. When we watch him at home, it feels like he hasn’t let anything drop. Knowing what we know from Josh’s research about the lack of square footage in the stadium, it makes sense that he would make most of the plays, especially in right center, but not too many spectacular ones. That is essentially what a +1 OAA tells us.
It’s not a drastic split, but Judge has played center field at home in 34 of his 60 total games at the position. Some of that is by design, then of course some of it is due to the fact that the team doesn’t have a true center fielder. Either way, I think the team has gotten away it with it because there just is purely not too much ground to cover out there. Imagine a player like Harrison Bader, who has maximum range in the largest of parks? Nothing is going to fall in the Bronx when he is out there, but I digress.
The majority of this piece was mostly a thought exercise, but I think it’s a valid one. It takes a lot of hand-wringing to decide whether to play your franchise centerpiece at a new position, and having as much information, trivial or not, is necessary to convince yourself you’re making the right choice. Playing Judge in center field has been an easy decision for the Yankees when they’re in the Bronx. The acquisition of Harrison Bader tells us they want somebody with more range to save some outs in stadiums like Houston, Tampa, or Cleveland.