During the middle of the 2015 season, there was reason to believe that Aaron Judge could have been in the big leagues by September. In 63 games at Double-A Trenton, Judge had a .284/.350/.516 slash line, good for a wRC+ of 147. 2013's 32nd overall pick appeared to be extremely capable of hitting professional pitching, after concerns that his 6'7" frame would lead to too many swings and misses.
Unfortunately, Judge finally hit a wall at Triple-A with a .680 OPS in 61 games. It was somewhat of a sobering stretch for the RailRiders' outfielder, as it was the first time in his professional career that he failed to post an extraordinarily high BABIP:
While Judge never posted elite contact rates at any level, his ability to hit the ball hard helped him post respectable batting averages. But when he reached Triple-A, his luck began to run out. Without an above average BABIP, he failed to reach base consistently. To make matters worse, his raw power had yet to translate to game power, and he lacked the home runs to justify a low on base percentage.
So should the fans be worried about Judge's ability to make contact in the big leagues? Obviously, striking out 30% of the time at the Triple-A level does not bode very well for his future in pinstripes. But from what the Yankees have seen so far, it would appear that Judge is striking out for the right reasons.
In January, Baseball America's Teddy Cahill did a write-up on the Top 100 college prospects entering the 2016 season. While on the topic of strikeouts, Cahill cited a conversation with an MLB scouting director who does not believe that all strikeouts are created equal:
"You definitely want to see a guy who can manage the strike zone," one director said. "If a guy is chasing and expanding the zone, that's more of a red flag than a guy who sells out for power."
In the lower levels of the minor leagues, Judge demonstrated a solid understanding of the strike zone. In 2014, he posted walk rates of 14% and 17.5% at Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa, respectively. But at Double-A and Triple-A, Judge appeared to falter a bit, as his walk rates came back down to earth. Marcus Thames, who was the hitting coach at Scranton at the time, said Judge was "still learning" to recognize breaking balls.
It should be noted, however, that Thames never suggested that Judge was chasing sliders and curveballs trying to golf them out of the ballpark. Judge has always done a good job of maintaining a line drive approach, probably realizing well before his Yankee career that he would not get away with an uppercut swing. According to Brendan Kuty at NJ.com, he spent the offseason at the Yankees minor league complex at Tampa working on pitch recognition, and showed off his ability to hit a hanging slider in spring training:
If you set the video to 0.5x speed, you will notice two things. First, Michael Kay sounds pretty trippy in slow motion. Second, it almost looks like Judge had a slight pause in his leg kick, as if he slowed his swing down after recognizing the slider. In this clip, Judge shows just how frightening he can be if he can recognize breaking balls on a regular basis. Despite a relatively level, compact swing, he was able to drive the ball for an opposite field home run.
Like Judge, pitchers from the last few draft classes have undoubtedly improved as he has risen up the ranks. At lower levels, he may have seen pitchers with nasty secondary pitches. Despite their upside, they may have lacked the polish needed to deceive hitters and have their breaking balls look like fastballs for as long as possible. On the other hand, Triple-A teams are the homes of older pitchers with service time on MLB teams. As he navigates through the International League, Judge will run into craftier pitchers who have clawed their way up to Triple-A by developing a diverse arsenal of pitches.
Going forward, Judge will have to prove that he can lay off breaking balls from mechanically sound pitchers who are better at hiding the ball. If this is indeed the reason for his inconsistency at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, then it should just be a matter of getting more at bats and making the necessary adjustments. The fact that Judge hit his wall at Triple-A specifically suggests that it is more about experience than a general lack of ability. Hopefully, Judge can get past this final learning curve.
Data is courtesy of FanGraphs.