The Other Adjustments Aaron Judge Has Made

Aaron Judge has been one of baseball’s best players this season, as well as one of its biggest surprises. After slashing a sub-replacement level .179/.263/.345, good for a 63 wRC+, he has jumped out near the top of the leaderboards with 2.2 WAR (7th) and .388 ISO (4th) at the time of this writing. Much has been written about the adjustments Judge has made to get to this point, but I may have something to add to that analysis.

Travis Sawchik began documenting Judge’s strikeout improvements back in March, and has since expanded upon those changes here. Judge mentioned in the original piece that his offseason philosophy focused on swing path: “For me, it’s just kind of getting into my lower half, and getting my barrel into the zone as soon as I can and keep it through the zone as long as I can. If my bat is in the zone for this long [demonstrating with his bat] my margin for error is pretty high.” That rebuilt swing helped him cut down his spring strikeout rate, a development that has continued so far this season, as Judge has posted a 28.3% K rate this year after his disastrous 44.2% in 2016.

Travis focused on the bat path changes, but Judge hinted at another adjustment when he mentioned “getting into my lower half.” Let’s look at two screenshots of Judge’s stance (from videos here and here), one of his first career home run in 2016, and the other of his 2nd jack on April 28 of this year:

It’s impossible to know, but Judge’s great start could be attributed solely to his switching to the pants-up look. Comfort and breathability can go a long way towards improved performance; just ask George Costanza.

Uniform changes notwithstanding, look closely at the differences in Judge’s setups. The first picture shows Judge more upright. Not only are his legs fairly straight, but his torso is more erect, as well. The stance from the bottom picture is noticeably lower, with increased bend in the knees and a slight upper-body lean over the plate, maintaining a similar balance. As he said in spring training, Judge is more in his lower half.

One effect this change may bring is a smaller strike zone. One of the concerns with Judge as a prospect was, ironically, that his enormous 6′ 7″ frame would create a strike zone too large for him to consistently control. Judge seems to have addressed this issue slightly by getting lower in his stance, thus decreasing the area above the plate he is responsible for. Kris Bryant is another big guy (6′ 5″) who noticeably crouches in his stance, albeit for different reasons.

Judge has gotten lower in his setup, sure, but what really matters is how he looks as he is about to enter the hitting zone. Let’s look at he top of his leg kick and plant:

Look at the height of the leg kick. Judge has made his kick much smaller this year, and while that would usually result in a slight loss of power, something tells me he has enough in reserve to make that trade-off.

When the foot lands, he gets to similar positions both years. To my eye, he has a little more knee bend this year, and his lean over the plate is slightly increased, creating a smaller strike zone as he is about to launch.

The results of all these changes have been staggering. Judge has increased his Contact% from 59.7% to 71.5%, with nearly all of that improvement coming in the zone (Z-Contact% improved from 74.3% to 85.0%, while O-Contact% improved from 40.7% to 41.0%). He is swinging in the zone more, chasing less, and has decreased his whiff rate. All together, this means more contact, and more balls put in play really, really hard.

Aaron Judge Plate Discipline
2016 2017 Change
O-Swing% 34.9% 22.5% -12.4%
Z-Swing% 59.7% 65.4% 5.7%
O-Contact% 40.7% 41.2% 0.5%
Z-Contact% 74.3% 85.0% 10.7%
Contact% 59.7% 71.5% 11.8%
SwStr% 18.1% 11.8% -6.3%
K% 44.2% 28.3% -15.9%

To be clear, I am not suggesting that getting lower in the setup triggered some breakthrough for Judge that allowed him to miss less. When players tinker with their swings, it is seldom one big change that unlocks massive potential, but rather a series of smaller adjustments that work in tandem and add up to improvements. Think about Eric Thames, who not only worked on meditation, visualization, and tracking when struck with boredom in his apartment, but also greatly improved his flexibility. For Judge, getting lower in the stance did make the strike zone smaller when he was about to swing. It also decreased the amount of head movement he had as the ball was in flight. Judge’s head noticeably lowers from stance to plant in the screenshots from 2016, but there is virtually no movement in 2017. A stable head makes it easier to track a moving baseball. The smaller leg kick contributes to the improved head stability, and the increased simplicity makes it easier for Judge to be on time. All of that, in addition to an improved swing path that stays on plane with the ball longer, led to more contact.

It will be interesting to see where the league goes from here regarding Judge. He has made his adjustment, and now it is up to pitchers to start attacking him differently. My guess is that pitchers will start throwing him fastballs up and in off the plate to prevent him from extending his gargantuan biceps, and A LOT of soft stuff away. Hard in, soft away; innovative, right? The problem, as Jeff Sullivan has noted, is that Judge is so otherworldly strong that he can get beat in off the plate and still inside-out a home run the other way. Someone will figure Judge out and adjust. Judge will struggle, then adjust, as he has shown he will do at every level of pro ball he’s been at.

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Beau played baseball at Williams College and is currently an MBA/MS Sport Management student at UMass Amherst

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Yeah I think it might be beneficial for bigger guys to start wider and more crouched because you make the zone shorter and get to lower pitches better.

Shorter guys might benefit from more momentum in a leg together upright stance (like babe ruth) were they fall more into that lowered position but it also makes it harder to get to a good position at the right time. And judge probably doesn’t need the extra momentum.