Aaron Judge Could Change Hearts, Minds of Evaluators

“He’s so quiet and simple… he looks like a contact hitter trapped in an ogre’s body.”

Charlie Blackmon on Aaron Judge

No one hits the ball like Aaron Judge. If America had any lingering doubts, they were put to rest during Monday’s Home Run Derby.

A 500-foot home run, even in a batting practice setting, is rare. Judge reached that mark four times, including a 513-foot shot.

https://twitter.com/SInow/status/884606517130952705

No batter has hit a 500-plus foot homer in game action since Adam Dunn in 2008 but Judge, who has a 496-foot homer this season — or perhaps Giancarlo Stanton — figure to breach that mark. And Judge might be the only person capable of of challenging Mickey Mantle’s estimated 565-foot homer.

The power is astounding. But it’s the ease with which Judge generates it that’s also so unusual. He didn’t fatigue during the Derby like Cody Bellinger. He doesn’t require max effort to produce a 400-foot batted ball.

What’s so remarkable about Judge isn’t just his 6-foot-7, 280-pound, NBA power-forward (or NFL tight-end) body, but rather — as Blackmon, one of Judge’s slack-jawed peers, noted on Monday — his swing.

Remember, there were doubts about Judge amongst the general public before the season. Some fantasy-baseball data reveals that skepticism: Judge was drafted 262nd overall in preseason drafts, 73 spots below teammate Gregory Bird, according to FantasyPros.

There have been doubts about Judge among professional evaluators, too. Judge fell to Yankees with the 32nd overall pick — a comp pick acquired by Cleveland’s signing of Nick Swisher — in part because of his unusual body for the sport. (Judge OPS’d 1.116 as a junior at Fresno State.) Judge was never ranked in the top 50 of a Baseball America top-100 list, and he ranked 90th just this spring, in part because of concerns about his ability to make contact with major-league pitching.

And the fears were real. He had the seventh-lowest zone contact rate (72.3%) last season, minimum 90 plate appearances, according to Pitch Info. He highest strikeout percentage (44.2%) among position players with at least 90 plate appearances.

There was a time when there were real doubts about Judge’s future. And that time was recent as last September against Orioles pitching.

What’s so remarkable about Judge this season is not so much the raw power — that always existed in abundance — but the adjustments he has made to have it appear so often in games.

He has jumped his zone contact percentage up to 83.3%. While it still ranks just 137th among 166 qualified hitters, he has made a critical jump to a more populous area of the bell curve of the MLB hitter population. There are only 14 qualified hitters with sub-80% zone contact ratings this season, and only one has a rate below Judge’s mark from last last season. Keon Broxton, at 69.9%, holds that unfortunate distinction.

Judge has created a remarkably efficient swing and he did so in one offseason, which I detailed back in March.

Judge spent his offseason watching hours of YouTube videos of right-handed sluggers like Stanton, Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Matt Holliday, and Alex Rodriguez. He flew to New York to work several days with the Yankees hitting instructors to find a more efficient swing path. He knew the power wouldn’t matter unless he could contact pitches.

Said Judge to FanGraphs in late March:

“We talked about really getting into my swing… It was getting that muscle memory, watching video to see what some guys do, and repeating it,” Judge said. “For me, it’s just kid 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. The guys on the mound are good. They are throwing mid- to upper 90s, they have good offspeed pitches. … If I’m expecting 95 [mph] and he throws it 97, and I get beat a little bit, I want to still have my barrel in the zone so I can drive it to right field. Or if he throws a slider and I’m a little out in front, my barrel is through the zone, I can still drive the ball to left field.”

Judge’s swing seems different, seems simpler, to the untrained eye.

Everyone knew that if Judge could more often transition raw power to game power, the results would be spectacular — with or without a juiced ball.

Judge isn’t the only long-limbed slugger of late to dramatically reduce his strikeouts and improve his contract rates after his initial exposure to major-league pitching. The 6-foot-5 Kris Bryant did this a year ago. The 6-foot-3 Paul Goldschmidt made the adjustment. And even the 6-foot-6 Stanton made significant improvement. Stanton had a 38.2% strikeout rate over his first 80 major-league plate appearance. Stanton reduced the rate to 28.0% in his second full season and has trimmed it to 23.6% this season, which is not far above the major-league average. That suggested a breakout was possible, even as velocity keeps increasing.

Judge is an extreme outlier because of his size. But even he, with the length of an NBA small forward, has proven that such a body type can create a swing efficient enough to be the MVP favorite and AL WAR leader at the All-Star break.

There have only been 12 players 6-foot-6 or taller to log 1,000 major-league plate appearances, according to MLB Network research.

While Frank Howard, Darryl Strawberry, and Dave Winfield combined for a number of top-10 MVP finishes, no player with the size of Judge has won the award. Judge could become the tallest MVP in the game’s history. And in doing so, he could perhaps challenge and change some thinking on what body types can succeed. In an era when baseball is attempting to attract more athletes at the amateur level to the game, that isn’t insignificant. Maybe in today’s game, John Van Benschoten would have been left to hit.

Judge has become a contact hitter trapped inside an ogre’s body. That combination has opened up a lot of eyes, and a lot of possibilities. Just as Stanton must now look up to Judge, perhaps Judge will have to one day look up toward another young star.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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james123
6 years ago

The strikeouts have been creeping up, but if he can keep it below 30%…… no reason he can’t be successful for a long time.

Aaron Judge's Gavel
6 years ago
Reply to  james123

Actually K’s have held pretty steady and inched down a little lately:

http://i.imgur.com/ug8mDQn.png

Fearandloathing
6 years ago

Thanks for posting that, pretty incredible stability across cats even as pitchers have tried to adjust to him (indicated by his elevating walk rates).

james123
6 years ago

What’s concerned me is his z-contact%. Consistently dropping all year

Aaron Judge's Gavel
6 years ago
Reply to  james123

I donno, looks pretty steady to me. If you had looked at this a month ago, sure, but he’s brought it back up the last few weeks:

http://i.imgur.com/74KiLpB.png