How Aaron Judge Can Turn the Corner

Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge is, to say the least, an imposing figure in the batter’s box. Judge is one of only three position players in baseball history with a height and weight of at least 6’7” and 255 pounds, respectively – the other two, for those curious, being 1960s power hitter Frank Howard and current Tigers minor league Steven Moya – and with his enormous size comes enormous strength. According to Statcast, 59.5% of Judge’s batted balls last season left the bat with an exit velocity of at least 95 miles per hour, a mark that trailed only those of the Brewers’ Domingo Santana and the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz. Further, Judge’s average exit velocity ranked second among the entire league, with only Cruz ahead of him. However, the player comparison that most swiftly comes to mind is the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton, who, incidentally, finished third in average exit velocity last season. When Judge truly barrels up the ball, as exemplified here, his raw power tends to elicit the type of awe usually reserved for Stanton.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Judge was largely unable to capitalize on this strength in 2016. Although he only saw 95 plate appearances, he batted an uninspiring .179 with an astronomical 44.2% strikeout rate. Even his ISO, above average at .167, was still disappointing for a player claiming raw power as his most prominent attribute.

The Yankees, of course, were fully aware that their right fielder’s approach at the plate needed an adjustment. Said Yankees assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames during spring training:

I thought [Judge] started expanding a little too much… At the big-league level, the game’s a little bit more physical, it’s a little bit faster and I thought it sped up on him a little bit and he started expanding.

A cursory look at Judge’s 2016 batting statistics plate surprisingly suggests that plate discipline may not be as big a problem as one would expect based on Thames’ comments. Among 451 position players with at least ninety plate appearances in 2016, Judge’s O-Swing percentage was tied for 119th at 33.6% (27th percentile), and his Z-Swing percentage of 63.5% ranked nearly identically, at 112th (68th percentile).  Judge, surprisingly, rated fairly well in both measures: he chased far fewer balls than the average hitter, and he swung at a healthy percentage of strikes.

His contact rates, on the other hand, did not inspire quite the same sanguinity. Last season, Judge ranked dead last in overall contact percentage, as well as on pitches outside the strike zone. On pitches inside the strike zone, his contact percentage saw a slight improvement relative to his peers, but still ranked 42nd from the bottom. BaseballSavant’s pitch heatmaps suggest that Judge seemed to have the most difficulty with low and away pitches, both in and out of the strike zone. The following graph displays the locations of Judge’s swinging strikes from 2016 (not including foul balls):

As the preceding heatmap illustrates, the crux of Judge’s contact problems occurs in the low-and-away portions in and around the strike zone. However, a heatmap of Judge’s hardest-hit balls (exit velocity >= 100) shows that Judge’s best contact occurs on pitches that aren’t located anywhere near the low and away sections of the zone. In fact, the pitches Judge hits best are on the inside half of the plate:


Now, let’s see where Judge’s weaker contact (exit velocity <= 99) falls in the strike zone.


So, low and away pitches not only induce a league-leading whiff rate for Judge, but even when he does manage to connect, he connects with his weakest exit velocity. Marcus Thames’ comments, therefore, may require a slight adjustment: Judge didn’t necessarily expand the zone in 2016, but he certainly didn’t make the most efficient use of it. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, the following graph illustrates Judge’s 2016 whiff rate by zone:


From these charts, we can observe Judge’s whiff rate slowly rising from left to right (inside to outside) across the strike zone. To cut down on his high swinging-strike rate, which was the third-highest in the league among those 451 batters, Judge should reduce his swing rate on low and outside pitches – at least, until the count or game situation demands a more aggressive approach. Ahead in the count, however, Judge should look primarily for the middle-in pitches that have produced better and more frequent contact. He shouldn’t even consider swinging at anything on the outer sections of the plate, as he did last season while ahead in the count (heatmap from FanGraphs):


As of Tax Day afternoon, the Yankees are only 11 games into the season, so it’s admittedly a bit early to draw any major conclusions. Even so, we should note that Judge has shown signs of legitimate improvement over last year’s campaign. In 33 at-bats, Judge is slashing .276/.364/.621, and although a 175 wRC+, .345 ISO, and 50% HR/FB rate are all but guaranteed to decline, there’s still reason to believe that Judge has made significant strides in his approach at the plate. Last year, Judge saw the 18th lowest percentage of fastballs in the league at 49.8%, a percentage that this season has dipped even further, to 45.5%. Pitchers, expecting Judge to flail as in 2016, have fed him a steady diet of low and away breaking balls. The following chart reflects all off-speed pitches Judge has faced to date in 2017:


Even with this steady diet of low and away breaking balls, Judge has managed to cut his O-Swing% from 34.9% to 23.9%, and his swinging-strike percentage has fallen from 18.1% to 12.0%. This is especially impressive considering that, like last year, pitchers have thrown him a fairly low percentage of strikes (about 41%).

The Yankees have lots of reason for optimism regarding their young slugger. As the starting right fielder in Yankee Stadium’s less-than-spacious right field, Judge’s value to his team will derive mostly from his batting output. If Judge can consistently lay off of the low and away pitches that gave him problems last year, he’ll have more opportunity to mash the balls that find the inner half of the plate – like this beauty from last Wednesday. If his early 2017 performance is any indication, Judge’s offseason adjustments have the potential to transform him into a Giancarlo Stanton-caliber power hitter.

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