Aaron Judge Has Found the Right Track

TAMPA, Fla. — Aaron Judge knew what his offseason objective must be. Everyone did. While his power is obviously rare among even major-league players — Jeff Sullivan recently detailed how difficult it is to exaggerate — so are his contact issues. Over his first 95 plate appearances with the Yankees, he posted a Joey Gallo-like strikeout rate (44.2%).

As the table below illustrates, Judge also recorded one of the lowest in-zone contact rates among players with 90-plus plate appearances.

Lowest Zone Contact in 2016
Name Team G PA K% Z-Contact%
Madison Bumgarner Giants 36 97 44.3% 67.7%
Alex Avila White Sox 57 209 37.3% 71.4%
Melvin Upton Jr. – – – 149 539 28.8% 72.8%
Preston Tucker Astros 48 144 27.8% 73.5%
Mike Zunino Mariners 55 192 33.9% 73.7%
Tyler Austin Yankees 31 90 40.0% 73.8%
Aaron Judge Yankees 27 95 44.2% 74.3%
Jarrod Saltalamacchia Tigers 92 292 35.6% 74.5%
Tim Beckham Rays 64 215 31.2% 74.8%
Kirk Nieuwenhuis Brewers 125 392 33.9% 75.0%
Min. 90 PA.
Z-Contact% denotes in-zone contact per PITCHf/x.

While Judge posted these numbers in a relatively small sample, some of the players who accompany him here illustrate the challenges a batter faces when he has trouble making in-zone contact. His plus-plus raw power won’t matter if it doesn’t translate to game action.

So this winter, Judge did what many 25-year-olds do: he spent much of the day staring at his phone, and spent much of that time searching through videos. But unlike most 25-year-olds, this YouTube-ing (mostly YouTube research, he said) was done with a professional purpose in mind: to find ways to better keep his bat in a position to make quality contact.

“I was usually on my phone before bed or before I went to hit. It could be anytime, anywhere,” Judge said of his video research.

His most common searches were for the swings of Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Matt Holliday, Giancarlo Stanton (who is cited as his most frequent comp) and Alex Rodriguez.

“They are the guys I like to watch,” Judge told FanGraphs. “The majority are bigger guys. Donaldson has a great swing. Cabrera is the best hitter in the game. I wanted to see what they are doing well.”

Judge also flew to New York to work with the Yankees hitting instructors for several days this offseason. He was searching for adjustments, through video and instruction, to better keep his bat in the zone.

“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.”

I began this post by citing a small-sample metric — Judge’s elevated strikeout rate — as a reason for pessimism regarding Judge’s immediate future. I should also explore reasons for optimism. And there are quite a few of them this spring. Not as many as teammate Gregory Bird is providing, perhaps, but still quite a few.

While Judge’s first spring homer drew the baseball world’s attention by glancing off the George Steinbrenner Stadium left-center scoreboard, his second homer in Grapefruit League play was arguably more impressive.

Phillies analyst Ben Davis said during the CSN telecast of the homer: “It almost looked like he got beat… he just flicked his wrists.”

And that’s what Judge has focused on this offseason: giving himself greater margin for error, allowing himself to catch up to velocity or better overcome an initial misdiagnosis of a pitch. His physical skills, his ability to produce elite exit velocity, will still allow him to do damage on mis-hits. The right-field porch and power alley at Yankee Stadium II should also greatly encourage all-fields hitting.

Here’s another example of Judge using the whole field after pulling 46.5% of his balls in play last season:

Looking for more encouragement in small samples re: Judge?

After Judge struck out in 10 of 21 plate appearances last spring, he’s struck out in just 11 of 50 this spring. The projection systems were already predicting some improvement. PECOTA calls for Judge’s first full-season strikeout rate to come in at 31.0%, which is in line with FanGraphs’ 31.5% projection. Perhaps his swing and process adjustment will allow him to meet those forecasts or beat them.

“The biggest thing for me is quality at-bats,” Judge said. “If I’m getting into good counts, swinging at quality pitches, staying aggressive, then the results will come. What I noticed this spring is I am getting into those 3-1, 2-1 counts, whereas before it was like I would get down 0-1, 0-2, getting behind.”

While he’s not having Bird’s spring (who is?), Judge’s spring and process is another reason to be encouraged about the Yankees’ collection of young, promising position players. Judge knows his raw power won’t play if he doesn’t have improved contact and process at the plate.

There’s some precedent for that kind of adjustment. Giancarlo Stanton, one of the few major leaguers who possesses physicality comparable to Judge’s, recorded a 38.3% strikeout rate in his first 81 major-league plate appearances back in 2010. By the time his rookie season was complete, however — a sample of 396 plate appearances — he’d reduced that figure to 31.3%, in line with Judge’s forecast this season. At that level, Stanton was a useful major leaguer. The next two seasons, he cut it to 28% and became a star, his walk rate rising to 11% in the process. Another long-limbed slugger, Kris Bryant, cut his strikeout rate from 31% as a rookie to 22% last season en route to an MVP campaign. And maybe Judge is on a similar track, a path to a reduction of strikeouts that will allow him to reach his significant potential.

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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London Yank
7 years ago

The New Yankee Stadium is really the third stadium. The original stadium was closed and largely rebuilt in 1974-5 during which the Yankees played their home games at Shea Stadium. Not a whole lot of the original stadium was left after this, and the stadium that was torn down in 2008 was primarily a 1970s stadium.

Spa City
7 years ago
Reply to  London Yank

Agreed. Yankee Stadium ceased to exist as the House That Ruth Built when they rebuilt it in the 70s. Even though it was in the same location, everything about the stadium changed. I think of it as a completely different ballpark.

Mike NMN
7 years ago
Reply to  London Yank

Agree completely. The old stadium had its drawbacks on sight-lines in places, but had a certain majesty to it. The “Shea Stadium” version tried to echo the past by retaining certain features, but really homogenized things.