Aaron Judge’s All-Time Rookie Season

Compelling articles frequently begin with an anecdote. Let me therefore begin with one of my own. Aaron Judge annoyed me on Monday. See, Judge hit a home run, and after the ball left the yard, I started working on this post about the details of his full rookie season. Heck of a rookie season! Just as I was really getting into it, though, I had to stop and re-work a few things, because then Judge hit another home run. New data. New tables. New images. Here’s one of them.

At first, on Monday, Judge hit his 49th home run, tying Mark McGwire’s record for a rookie. You can tell it’s a remarkable record, too, because of the gap between McGwire and the next guy on the list. Well, the record is split no longer. Judge and McGwire shared the spotlight for a handful of innings, but the record now belongs to Judge and Judge only. Judge is the first rookie to ever reach the 50-homer plateau. Although, perhaps plateau is an incorrect word, because Judge could continue to climb ever higher in this season’s final week.

Judge’s record-tying homer was typically impressive. It wasn’t one of those laser beams that Judge directed to the left-center bleachers. Instead, it was a ball he lofted just deep enough to right. Behold:

If you want to be a wet blanket, you could make a fart noise and say something about Yankee Stadium. No one could possibly disagree that the ballpark’s right-field area plays friendly to hitters. But think more about the process here. Judge went the other way with 95, just above the belt.

Judge inside-outed the pitch. And, you know what? According to Baseball Savant, balls hit with the same velocity and angle have gone for homers 97% of the time. Judge didn’t make close to his own perfect contact, but it didn’t matter. He hit a dinger the other way, at 107.3 miles per hour. For Judge, this year, that’s his 95th-fastest batted ball. It’s also faster than any ball hit this year by Adrian Gonzalez, Scooter Gennett, Ben Zobrist, Victor Martinez, Jonathan Lucroy, Brian McCann, Jed Lowrie, Didi Gregorius, Matt Wieters, or Alex Bregman. Look at Gregorius there. He’s one of Judge’s teammates, and he’s gone deep a career-high 25 times. His fastest batted ball has registered at 106.2. What would be a high for Gregorius is hardly even notable for Judge. Which, of course, is part of what makes Judge so amazing.

Judge hit an impressive home run, and it was impressive by default, because he knows no other way. His baseline is just so much higher than normal, and each of his home runs is impressive, in the same way that each of Aroldis Chapman’s fastballs is impressive. Judge isn’t just great in one area — his ability allows him to be great to all areas. He ranks seventh in baseball in wRC+ to the pull side. He ranks third in wRC+ up the middle. He ranks fifth in wRC+ to the opposite field. As a result, he’s first in wRC+ on all batted balls, by a wide margin. Some hitters spray singles. Aaron Judge sprays homers. He’s now done it over nearly six months, building one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time.

It’s easy to infer from the home-run record that Judge has achieved something rare. Of course the rookie home-run leader would stand as one of the best-ever rookies. But, there is more to baseball than homers. To take the broadest view possible, here are the top 10 rookie seasons since the turn of the last century, by WAR.

Top Rookie Position Players
Player Year Team WAR
Mike Trout 2012 Angels 10.3
Benny Kauff 1914 Hoosiers 9.9
Joe Jackson 1911 Naps 9.3
Dick Allen 1964 Phillies 8.2
Aaron Judge 2017 Yankees 7.6
Corey Seager 2016 Dodgers 7.4
Mike Piazza 1993 Dodgers 7.4
Albert Pujols 2001 Cardinals 7.2
Ted Williams 1939 Red Sox 7.1
Fred Lynn 1975 Red Sox 7.1
No playing-time minimum.

Judge isn’t that close to Trout, but still, we’re talking about fifth place. Fifth place since 1900. This season has been something extraordinary. Granted, WAR gets more flimsy the further back you go, because it does a worse job of accounting for baserunning and defense. And anyhow, while Judge is a perfectly capable defensive outfielder, he’s really known for his bat. Here are the top 10 rookies just by wRC+.

Top Rookie Hitters
Player Year Team wRC+
Joe Jackson 1911 Naps 184
Aaron Judge 2017 Yankees 169
Benny Kauff 1914 Hoosiers 167
Mike Trout 2012 Angels 167
Jose Abreu 2014 White Sox 167
Carlton Fisk 1972 Red Sox 165
Rico Carty 1964 Braves 165
Dick Allen 1964 Phillies 162
Fred Lynn 1975 Red Sox 161
Albert Pujols 2001 Cardinals 159
Minimum 500 plate appearances.

There’s a Trout season in there, and there’s an Abreu season in there. We’ve been spoiled by some of the rookie seasons that we’ve seen recently. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t lose sight of what Judge has managed to pull off. There were plenty of articles trying to put Judge’s offensive year in historical context back in June and July. Those were fine, and fairly helpful. But there’s always a problem when you’re trying to compare an ongoing, partial season to completed, former seasons. You have to allow time for regression. Judge regressed, and he regressed hard. But he’s caught fire again in September. At this point, he’s basically played a whole year. And he’s been the best rookie hitter in more than a century.

With still a few games left, Judge might drop out of second place. He won’t keep hitting two home runs every game. He has essentially no chance of climbing into first. But Judge also basically can’t drop out of the top 10. He’s cemented his standing as an all-time rookie, and not just in terms of his home-run total. This is the home-run era, after all; homer numbers everywhere are inflated. Something like wRC+ accounts for that by considering context. Even within the context of 2017, Judge has been impossibly good.

Impossibly good, slump and all.

All talented young players will run into a slump. When Judge’s performance dropped off, there was speculation he was hurt, and there was speculation pitchers had figured him out. Whenever a player dips like that, the true test is in the recovery. And, Aaron Judge has recovered. He’s been maybe the best hitter again over the past few weeks, demonstrating that he could adjust to the adjustments. It’s not a problem that Judge hit a slump. It would only be a problem if it sustained. Judge is back, now, and he leads all position players in WAR.

Elsewhere, a lot of credit needs to go to Tommy Pham. Pham has helped to keep the Cardinals alive, and he’s done so by outpacing his preseason projected WAR by 5.3 wins. That’s a hell of a season he’s had, but still, Judge has outpaced his own preseason projection by 6.2 wins, and counting. One of Judge’s awards can be assumed. Yet because of what he’s done, I have to note that only Ichiro Suzuki and Fred Lynn have won, in the same season, the Rookie of the Year and the league MVP. I don’t know if Judge’ll win as the most valuable player. I actually suspect that he won’t. But, my goodness, is there ever a case to be made. You don’t need me to tell you that Aaron Judge has been a most wonderful rookie. I’m just not sure if it can be repeated enough.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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4 years ago

I’m already accustomed to thinking of Judge as an established superstar, even though he’s still just a rookie. One hell of a season.