A Look at Aaron Judge’s Season-Opening Slump

John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Monday afternoon’s game between the A’s and Yankees ended in impressive fashion for Oakland, with closer Mason Miller buzz-sawing through the top of New York’s lineup to close out a 2-0 victory. The 25-year-old righty struck out Anthony Volpe, Juan Soto, and Aaron Judge consecutively on 14 pitches, mixing eight four-seam fastballs — all with velocities above 100 mph — with four nasty sliders. He absolutely overpowered Judge:

Those fastballs Judge flailed at were clocked at 100.7 mph, 102.2 mph, and 102.5 mph, the last of which wasn’t quite as fast as the 103.3-mph heater Miller used to strike out Soto. Whoosh!

Still, this isn’t about Soto or Miller, as exciting as both of them are. It’s about Judge, whose 2024 performance has been puzzling, as he’s been striking out a lot lately and is off to the slowest start of his career. On Saturday — Aaron Judge Bobblehead Day at Yankee Stadium — he struck out in all four of his plate appearances against the Rays and heard a smattering of boos. Approaching the situation with Jeterian diplomacy and humor, he told reporters afterwards, “I’ve heard worse. I’d probably be doing the same thing in their situation.” His struggles have been somewhat camouflaged by Soto’s early success (.319/.432/.538, 187 wRC+ so far) and by the team’s 16-8 start, but the Yankees have little chance of holding onto their slim AL East lead if they can’t get their biggest hitter going.

Judge, who will turn 32 on Friday, is batting just .180/.315/.348. He entered Tuesday’s game against the A’s in the midst of a 3-for-28 skid that included just a trio of singles and one walk against 16 strikeouts since April 15. He showed signs of life during Tuesday night’s 4-3 win, hitting a sizzling 95-mph grounder past a diving Tyler Nevin for a double, then coming around to score on a two-run Giancarlo Stanton double. Later he barreled a slider for a 104-mph warning track fly out to right center field:

Thanks to his 15.7% walk rate, Judge’s 99 wRC+ is short of a crisis; this isn’t like looking at what’s left of José Abreu. But it’s decidedly out of character for a player who set an American League record with 62 homers in 2022 while hitting .311/.425/.686 (209 wRC+) en route to MVP honors, then followed it up by hitting .267/.406/.613 (174 wRC+) last year. Unfortunately, in putting together the majors’ highest wRC+ this side of Shohei Ohtani, he was limited to 106 games and fell 44 plate appearances short of qualifying for the batting title because he missed eight weeks after tearing a ligament in his right big toe in a collision with the outfield wall in Dodger Stadium. But while his stats did take a downturn after the injury — especially in his first few weeks back — that decline does not appear to be of a piece with this year’s slow start:

Aaron Judge, 2023–24
Year Split PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wRC+
2023 1st Half 213 16.4% 29.6% .291 .404 .674 .383 .333 187
2023 2nd Half 245 21.6% 27.3% .245 .408 .557 .313 .271 164
2024 April 108 15.7% 28.7% .180 .315 .348 .168 .232 99

Judge’s strikeout rate is similar to both halves of last season (he was injured on June 3 and didn’t return until July 28), up from 25% the previous two seasons. His BABIP and ISO are drastically below his post-injury stretch, however, and his quality of contact is lower:

Aaron Judge Batted Ball Stats, 2023–24
Season Split GB/FB GB% FB% IFFB% Pull% EV LA Brl% HH%
2023 1st Half 0.62 29.6% 47.8% 9.1% 49.6% 97.2 20.7 30.4% 62.6%
2023 2nd Half 0.60 31.2% 52.0% 4.6% 40.8% 98.1 20.1 24.8% 65.6%
2024 1st Half 0.81 37.3% 45.8% 18.5% 33.9% 93.5 19.5 11.9% 47.5%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

I think we can dispense with the idea that Judge’s current slump is a direct extension of last year’s post-injury return, because he was hitting the ball much harder then than he is now. Last year, for the second year in a row, he led the majors in average exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate (97.6 mph, 64.2%, and 27.5% overall, respectively). This year, at a point when he’s got enough batted ball events to be past the point where exit velocity and barrel rates stabilize (40 and 50 BBE, respectively, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carlton) but is short of the point where hard-hit rate stabilizes (80 BBE), Judge’s average exit velo still ranks in the 95th percentile. His barrel and hard-hit rates are merely in the 80th and 79th percentiles, respectively.

Even while bearing in mind that groundball and fly ball rates stabilize around 80 BBE as well, we can see that Judge is not only pulling the ball much less frequently but hitting it on the ground a bit more often. He’s getting under a ton of pitches (33.9% of his BBE, according to Statcast, up from 20.8% last year); he already has five infield flies, compared to eight in each of the past two seasons. Remarkably, he’s only pulled two fly balls so far (both for a homer), compared to 23 last year (11 for homers) and 48 the year before (31 for homers). As a percentage of his batted ball events, his share of pulled fly balls has fallen from 11.9% in 2022 to 9.6% last year to 3.4% this year. No wonder his Statcast expected stats are way down:

Aaron Judge Statcast Expected Stats, 2021–24
Season BBE AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2021 397 .287 .308 .544 .594 .387 .418
2022 404 .311 .305 .686 .706 .458 .463
2023 240 .267 .289 .613 .712 .420 .461
2024 56 .180 .214 .348 .409 .302 .333

Judge is hitting the ball hard enough to expect better numbers, but even those are well short of the kind of mayhem he typically produces.

It’s not because he’s changed his approach, hacking away at more pitches than normal. His 41% swing rate, 23.8% chase rate, and 78.7% zone contact rate are all within two percentage points of last year’s marks, generally towards the side of improvement, and likewise for his 12.8% swinging strike rate and 28.4% called strike and walk rate. Taking a peek at Robert Orr’s SEAGER metric — which grades a player’s swing decisions based on the count, pitch location, likelihood of it being a strike, and the damage typically done on contact in that location — Judge actually scores higher this year (25.5, fourth among players with at least 50 BBE) than in 2023 (23.4, sixth among players with 300 BBE) or ’22 (22.0, eighth).

That leaves the execution, which hasn’t been up to the slugger’s usual standards. Judge routinely sentences fastballs to die; he hit .349 and slugged .792 against four-seamers last year, similar to in 2022 (.346 AVG, .802 SLG), but this year, he’s at .179 with a .286 SLG in 33 PA. He hit sinkers at a .323 AVG/.692 SLG clip last year, but is at .214 AVG/.429 SLG in 18 PA far. As for sliders, the only other pitch type against which he’s got at least 10 PA, he’s gone from .227 AVG/.561 SLG last year (and very similar in 2022) to .158 AVG/.211 SLG in 24 PA. Aggregating all breaking pitches to beef up the sample size, he’s slipped from .205 AVG/.457 to .182 AVG/.333 SLG in 39 PA, with his average exit velo plunging from 94.7 mph to 88.6.

Location-wise, a few generalities emerge when comparing this year’s heat maps to last year’s. Judge has yet to barrel anything on the inner third of the plate and is doing damage in fewer parts of the strike zone…

…while whiffing in more areas (though his overall swinging strike rate is down):

Against fastballs (four-seamers and sinkers), he hasn’t been as productive in the middle of the zone — and really in all parts of the zone:

For breaking balls (curves and sliders), his hot spots are much smaller than last year:

So what’s going on? The explanation probably comes down to his swing mechanics, and may or may not have something to do with his health. In February, Judge said that his right big toe will require “constant maintenance” for the rest of his career, and in March, he dealt with abdominal discomfort that resulted in an MRI. He attributed the issue to the extra swinging he did in the offseason in an attempt to undo the mechanical compromises that resulted from his toe injury. Per MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch:

“I think just from swinging from November all the way until now, every single day, it put some wear and tear on it,” Judge said. “Especially coming back after a [right big] toe injury when your mechanics are a little messed up and you’re just working on some things.

Judge added that he felt the discomfort in the middle of his abs, mainly on the follow-through of his swing. He took some time off from swinging a bat, and went nine days between Grapefruit League appearances. Nonetheless, he was ready for Opening Day and has played in all 24 games so far, 19 in center field — which can put more wear and tear on his body — and five at DH.

Neither Judge nor the Yankees have suggested his current woes owe to him playing at less than 100%, but whether it was a result of his offseason work or his discomfort, he did make some mechanical changes that MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds and Sean Casey broke down a couple of days ago. The former spoke to Judge about his swing last year and the latter spent the second half of the season as the Yankees’ hitting coach; Judge wanted him to return in that role, though he declined:

Judge told Reynolds that he focuses his mindset and mechanics on hitting a line drive at the second baseman’s head (“I want to take [the second baseman’s] hat off and I want that to keep going into our bullpen” in Yankee Stadium’s right field, which “keeps my bat path clean”). Reynolds illustrated that so far, Judge is holding his hands a few inches higher than he did in 2022, resulting in a different bat path through the zone, and instead of finishing his swing with his body moving toward the second base side to achieve his stated goal of decapitation, he’s pulling off the plate. Both Reynolds and Casey agreed that Judge isn’t far from getting his swing right, and that when he starts hitting the ball to right center, it will be a sign that he’s back.

Tuesday’s barreled ball may have been such a sign. Manager Aaron Boone took it as such, telling reporters after the game, “It’s good to see him kind of get into one… Good to see him shoot one the other way like that to right-center where [Esteury] Ruiz made a pretty play on him. He’s always close… [It’s a] matter of time.”

For his part, Judge said after Saturday’s game that his swing feels great and that his slump is just a matter of not capitalizing on the limited number of pitches he gets to hit:

“I’m not getting too many pitches to do damage with, but I’m still getting some pitches to hit and I gotta capitalize on them. I think what it comes down to is staying aggressive in my zone. When I do that, usually good things happen.”

All of which is to say that while the numbers aren’t pretty, Judge and those around him believe that he’s close to putting it all together. We’ve seen the big guy go in and out of sync numerous times throughout his career, and with the exception of some of his short stays in the postseason, he pulls himself out of his slumps every time. There’s nothing to suggest he won’t do so this time.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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AJP
1 month ago

Once he starts hitting the fastball, watch out.