Last night’s three-strikeout game, extended Aaron Judge’s strikeout streak to 36 consecutive games, passing pitcher Bill Stoneman to claim the title of the longest such single-season streak in MLB history.
It’s no secret that Judge has struggled in the second half. His strikeout rates have prompted fans and commentators alike to ask what is wrong with him. Thankfully, people far smarter than me have an answer.
Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs suggests that Judge’s decline is a result of 1) pitchers attacking him with fastballs high and away, and 2) him having the largest strike zone in the business. It seems that, then, short of MLB going ahead with robot umps, Judge needs to make adjustments in his stance/swing in order to increase his strike zone coverage.
I will not attempt to identify those adjustments. I don’t know anything about hitting major league fastballs, much less teaching a six-foot-seven mountain of a man how to counter upstairs heat. What I will do is reassure Yankees fans with Judge’s future performance. Despite his struggles, it’s not like Judge’s performance has been as abysmal as his strikeouts would seem to suggest, and players have come back from slumps much worse than his. A closer look reveals that, heck, even his strikeouts haven’t been that historically bad. Let’s strap in and look at some big ol' graphs.
Before I try to reassure you, I need to make sure that you’re thoroughly worried. Behold, two worrying graphs:
Yeesh. It’s clear that Judge’s power output and overall production have taken quite the hit after game number 80. However, it’s important to remember how incredibly high a peak Judge is falling from. He cleared the 250 wRC+ mark on two separate 15-game stretches in the first half, going into the break with an overall wRC+ of 197. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that his ISO during a stretch in late April reached .600. He wasn’t going to keep hitting at that level, because no one can. A decline of some sort was always inevitable.
Looking at the y-axis of both graphs provides us with some additional relief. After bottoming out in the high 50s, Judge’s wRC+ has actually rebounded to above 100, which signifies league-average run production. Likewise, Judge’s ISO marks have recovered after a sharp dip, fluctuating between .200 and .300 for the past 20 games or so. Granted, those figures are still a far cry from Judge’s first half performance, but they show that Judge hasn’t been hot garbage. Indeed, if you look closely enough at both graphs, you might see the beginnings of a return to form.
Let’s further contextualize Judge’s decline by comparing his wRC+ fluctuations to other players. If Judge’s swoon were truly historic, it would follow that his lows wouldn’t look like anyone else’s. Conversely, if I can show that even the best of the best experience downs like Judge’s, I’d be able to dispel the notion that Judge’s recent slide is somehow unprecedented. So let’s start by looking at the best of the best of the best. Come on down, 2015 Mike Trout:
The mighty Mike Trout suffered a second half slump that looks just like Judge’s. After briefly hanging around league average, Trout’s wRC+ went on to climb like a salmon up a waterfall. That year, he finished with a mark of 172 and compiled 9.0 fWAR. It’s safe to say that his post-ASG decline was in no way a death knell for his season. This wasn’t a one-year thing, either: Trout has also experienced stretches of well below average performance in 2014 and 2016, albeit at different times.
If even a generational talent like Trout falters from time to time, we can hardly criticize Judge for doing so. But for good measure, I’ll juxtapose Judge’s performance to date this year with another player; a guy who profiles more similarly in size and skillset to our favorite large adult son:
In 2014, Giancarlo Stanton slumped, he adjusted, and he conquered.
Of course, none of this is to say that Judge will certainly rebound; that depends on him making the proper adjustments (although his recent wRC+ marks suggest he’s moving in the right direction). What these graphs do tell us is that performance levels fluctuate, and it’s quite normal for even the cream of the crop to experience both dizzying highs and soul-crushing lows.
If you’ve never seen a player go from MVP to scrub in such a short time, you probably weren’t paying enough attention to Trout or Stanton over the past few years (which is probably a crime in itself). Judge’s second-half slide is certainly cause for concern, but to call it unprecedented would be nothing short of hyperbole.
Now, to really drive the point home, let’s do a similar exercise with Judge’s strikeouts. First, a graph:
Again, yeesh. However, when you include his 2016 cup of coffee, it becomes clear that he’s not the same hitter as he was back then:
And when you compare his ups and downs to other three true outcome-type sluggers of note, his strikeouts don’t really stand out that much:
It’s not like I’m not picking down years to suit my narrative; all three guys had monster seasons those years, while striking out as often as Judge is now for similar periods of time. The fact that Judge is doing it in consecutive games doesn’t really mean anything. Guys have had comparable stretches in the past, and they did just fine.
It’s probably best to tone down the panic about Judge. Yes, it’s frustrating to watch him right now, and yes, he needs to make adjustments, but a) there’s nothing unprecedented about his slump or his performance, and b) he’s already cut his strikeouts down since last season, which suggests that he can do it again. And if you still maintain that Judge’s historic strikeout streak is a black mark on his future, I can only tell you that you’re missing out on something equally historic.