Aaron Judge is Mercilessly Punishing Baseballs Again

It’s no secret that the Yankees have weathered quite the storm when it comes to injuries. Despite losing more player-days (2,210) and payroll dollars ($70.9 million) to the injured list than any other team, they own the AL’s best record (88-47) and highest-scoring offense (5.86 runs per game), and they’re fast closing in on the Twins for the major league lead in homers. They’ve done all of this despite receiving comparatively modest contributions from their two most potent sluggers, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. But while the former has been limited to one home run and nine games played amid myriad injuries and setbacks, the latter appears to be finding his stroke.

The 27-year-old Judge, who missed two months (April 21 to June 21) due to an oblique strain on his left side, has played just 78 games this season and homered 18 times, but six of his homers came during the Yankees’ just-completed nine-game west coast road swing, that after he had homered just once in his previous 28 games and 127 plate appearances while hitting.222/.339/.333. For the trip, he hit .359/.375/.897 — there’s one walk and 13 strikeouts in 40 PA, a fair tradeoff for that extreme power — lifting his season line to .277/.386/.514 (135 wRC+). Along the way, he set personal season highs with a 116.0 mph, 467 foot blast off the A’s Joakim Soria on August 20, and — wait, you think I’m not gonna show Judge sentencing that ball to die?

After that, Judge homered in all three games of the Yankees’ weekend interleague series against the Dodgers, adding notches on his belt from Clayton Kershaw, Tony Gonsolin, and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the process. Then on Tuesday night, he went 462 feet and 114.1 mph off the Mariners’ Yusei Kikuchi:

As noted, that was the 100th home run of Judge’s career, making him the third-fastest player to reach the mark:

Fastest Players to 100 Career Home Runs
Rk Player Games to 100 Year Reached
1 Ryan Howard 325 2007
2 Gary Sánchez 355 2019
3 Aaron Judge 371 2019
4 Ralph Kiner 376 1949
5 Joey Gallo 377 2019
6T Bob Horner 390 1981
6T Chuck Klein 390 1931
8 Mark McGwire 393 1989
9 Joe DiMaggio 395 1938
10 Eddie Mathews 397 1954
11T Ryan Braun 400 2009
11T Giancarlo Stanton 400 2013
13 Cody Bellinger 401 2019
14T Albert Pujols 415 2003
14T Willie Mays 415 1955
16 Rudy York 422 1940
17T Rocky Colavito 422 1959
17T Mike Piazza 422 1996
19 Juan Gonzalez 423 1993
20 Mark Teixeira 430 2005
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Four of those players have dented that list this year, including Sanchez on Friday (August 23) against Ryu. All four have enjoyed the advantages that come with having the wind at their backs, historically speaking. As I’ve noted several times, this year is the most homer-ful in history, at 1.40 per team per game, with 2017 (1.26), 2016 (1.16), and 2018 (1.15) also in the top five; the interloper there is the 2000 season (1.17). Gallo debuted in 2015, Sanchez and Judge in ’16, and Bellinger in ’17.

Not ready to put the matter to rest, Judge added another homer on Wednesday afternoon, a towering drive to left field off Matt Wisler. While his flurry of home runs is notable in and of itself, even more notable is the distribution of those homers around the yard. First, I present Baseball Savant’s spray charts for his 2017 and 2018 outputs (52 and 27 homers, respectively):

Now, here’s 2019, with date tags that I created affixed to all of those that are to the left of right-center:

Before this flurry, the righty-swinging Judge hadn’t pulled a single ball for a homer in 2019, and had only three that were hit to center field. In this nine-game span, he’s pulled three and added three more to center. What’s more, prior to early July, he hadn’t even hit a double to center or left field; he added one of each on Wednesday:

As those spray charts should affirm, Judge is not a particularly pull-oriented slugger. Of the 122 hitters with at least 1,000 PA in 2017-18, his 40.9% pull rate ranked 65th. His power plays to all fields, and for whatever issues he’s had this year, his 96.7 mph average exit velocity not only leads the majors, it does so by a comfortable margin. The 2.4 mph gap between him and second-ranked Miguel Sanó is the same as the distance between Sanó and a quartet of players tied for 21st. Whew.

What separates Judge from other sluggers, generally speaking, isn’t his pull power. Consider these rankings covering the 2017-19 stretch, with a minimum of 200 batted ball events in a given direction:

Judge’s Batted Balls by Direction, 2017-19
Direction PA AVG SLG wRC+
Pull 316 .454 (3) .876 (12) 256 (4)
Center 253 .446 (3) .847 (2) 240 (2)
Opposite 221 .444 (5) 1.023 (1) 281 (1)
All stats through August 28. Numbers in parentheses denote rankings among players with 200 batted balls in that direction for the period.

Judge’s relative standing on pulled balls is the lowest of the three classifications, though in part, that’s a function of this season; considering only 2017 and ’18, his .466 average ranks second, his .947 slugging percentage fourth, and his 281 wRC+ third. Here’s a breakdown of his past three seasons, which illustrates the erosion of his performance to the pull side and also his recent rebound:

Judge When Pulling the Ball, 2017-19
Period PA AVG SLG wRC+
2017 140 .471 1.043 304
2018 107 .458 .822 251
2019 69 .412 .618 168
2019 Through July 41 .375 .400 101
2019 August 28 .464 .919 264
All stats through August 28.

Now that’s more like it. Prior to Judge coming around, there was some amount of speculation that his oblique hadn’t fully healed, though as of mid-August, both the slugger and general manager Brian Cashman insisted he was healthy. As CBS Sports’ Mike Axisa noted on August 17, even amid what was then a 22-game slump, he had maintained a 93.8 mph average exit velocity. However, a closer look at his batted ball distribution shows that for the period, his groundball-to-fly ball ratio was way out of whack (1.71 for those 22 games, compared to 1.03 for his career). The trough to the right side of this rolling expected wOBA graph coincides with that slump:

So, what changed? On Tuesday, the YES Network shared a link to a blog entry at Views from 314 Feet by a writer named Derek Albin, along with a screenshot comparing Judge’s stances on August 12 against the Orioles’ Tom Eshelman, and August 18 against the Indians’ Mike Clevinger:

Albin noted that Judge — who’s known as a tinkerer when it comes to his swing — had recently opened his stance and raised his hands. I’ve grab some clips from Savant against those two pitchers (not necessarily the same ones Albin showed), and the difference is even more apparent. First, from August 12:

The center field camera is slightly off center, but Judge’s feet appear to be more or less equidistant from where the inner line of the batter’s box would be if it hadn’t been rubbed out, and his bat is very upright, at about a 75 degree angle. Now compare that to August 18:

Here Judge’s front (left) foot is set back, and his bat begins at a 45 degree angle. Scroll back up to the Soria clip and you can see he’s set up similarly. On the Kikuchi homer, however, his foot positioning is similar to his setup circa August 12, something Albin observed that he was still doing against lefties; compare that with his more open setup against Wisler. He might be positioning his hands slightly differently, but that could just be a matter of the frames I grabbed:

Anyway, that’s one theory. Here it’s also worth noting that on August 14, the New York Times‘ Bob Klapisch quoted Judge as saying, “It’s a little something with my top hand, which I’m working on,” with regards to his mechanical issues. Perhaps that’s some of what we’re seeing when it comes to the angle of his bat when he sets up.

Regardless, it appears that Judge has gotten his groove back, and his recent outburst has helped the Yankees set a major league record with 70 homers this month, blowing past the previous record of 58, set by the 1987 Orioles and matched by the ’99 Mariners. Thanks to that jag, the Yankees are closing in on the Twins for the major league-lead in homers. Here’s the breakdown by month:

The 2019 Team Home Run Race
Month Twins Yankees Dif Cumulative dif
April/March 50 46 4
May 56 45 11 15
June 51 47 4 19
July 52 42 10 29
August 49 70* -21 8
Total 258 250 8
* = MLB record for a single month. All totals through August 28.

Both teams are primed to blow past the full season record for homers, set just last year by the Yankees with 267. While the Twins have three more games remaining than the Yankees, if Judge is back in the swing of things, you can guess which team I’m betting on to finish on top.

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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4 years ago

I wrote about Judge’s turnaround and adjustments on my blog Back To The Bronx on Tuesday. Judge has definitely re-positioned his hands in his batting stance, but the assertion that he’s more open doesn’t seem right to me. If anything, he’s gotten closer to even since August 16th.

Judge particularly struggled against fastballs during his slump. My theory is that his hand placement has allowed him to get to a hitting position more quickly during his load and he’s now no longer late on those fastballs that were giving him trouble, allowing him to pull the ball in the air more frequently. You can read the full article below.