Aaron Judge’s Breakout Began in March, Perhaps Earlier

I met Aaron Judge in Tampa, Florida, this spring near his locker in the corner of the Yankees clubhouse. Prior to the interview we shook hands, that most culturally traditional way of greeting a stranger. He engulfed my right hand with a catcher’s mitt of an appendage, and a grip something like a vice tightening. Thankfully for the structural integrity of my metacarpals, he relaxed the grip.

Judge is a strong man. He is a giant among men. This is only a slight exaggeration:

It should come as no surprise that he has as much raw power as any player in the game. It should come as little surprise that he already holds the Statast record for exit velocity of a batted baseball (119.4 mph), surpassing that of Giancarlo Stanton (119.2 mph), whom is his most commonly cited, best-case comp, and a fellow could-have-been Division I tight end.

Judge, of course, is off to a tremendous start — a start documented yesterday by FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards, who notes that the young outfielder has enjoyed one of the most power-laden Aprils on record. Judge is one of the most compelling young assets Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has accumulated, a player who could be part of the next Yankee dynasty. While few expect Judge to continue his torrid pace, he has answered questions about his ability to serve as a quality regular, and he’s reduced the distance from the floor to his considerable ceiling.

The question with Judge — as with Stanton or any hulk of a player — has been clear: can he make enough contact? Can he translate more of his raw power into game power?

The answer has been mostly in the affirmative so far this year. After striking out at a staggering 44.2% rate in his first 95 major-league plate appearances last season — raising alarms in the process — Judge struck out in just 26.7% of his April plate appearances. After posting the sixth-worst zone contact percentage (73.8%) among hitters with at least 90 plate appearances last season, Judge has improved his zone contact percentage to 86.5%. He has cut his swinging-strike rate from 18% last year to 12% this spring.

Many seem quite surprised by the breakout, and we should be surprised by the depth and level of it. But we also should have probably seen it coming, because it happened before the season began. Judge began doing this in March and it meant something.

Many spring-training stats don’t matter. But some do. FanGraphs’ own Mike Podhorzer found that spring strikeout rate is predictive and The Economist took it a step further even including a citation of our own Dave Cameron in a piece on the meaning of spring training statistics:

These “peripheral” numbers tend to stabilise much faster: the year-to-year correlation for qualifying batters’ strikeouts from 2013-14 was .90. And sure enough, they also show a strong connection between spring training and the subsequent regular season

A graph from that same piece:

The Brits gave us rounders, the beginnings of baseball, and also proof that some spring-training statistics matter — including strikeout rate. Judge dramatically reduced his strikeout rate this spring, K-ing just 15 times in 69 plate appearances, for a 21.7% rate. That meant something.

And it meant even more in context, when you learn that Judge spent his winter studying the swings of the game’s best hitters, and larger-framed hitters like Stanton and Miguel Cabrera. He was often glued to his phone or tablet searching YouTube for swings to study. He was focused on reducing the length of his swing. He knew what he had to fix and he was motivated to make the adjustment. He traveled to New York this winter to retool his swing with the Yankees hitting instructors.

Said Judge to FanGraphs back in 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. 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.”

He gave us visual evidence of that adjustment in spring training. Here’s Judge swinging late on a fastball, but still getting his bat into the zone sufficiently to drive the pitch out to right field:

After producing a negative linear-weight value against fastballs last season (-2.5), he’s produced positive value early this one (2.5). Judge is better catching up to major-league fastballs, he’s better identifying and contacting pitches in the zone.

Here are the pitch locations of his 122 swings last season via Baseball Savant

And the pitch locations of Judge’s 103 swings this season…

Judge is tightening his zone.

Of course, even those spring-training statistics that we regard as more predictive, like strikeout rate, can be misleading. Byron Buxton struck out 11 times in 53 spring plate appearances. He hasn’t carried that performance into the season. But there was evidence of Judge closing the gaps in his swing this spring, there were signs of improved process and approach. So as impressive as Judge’s April was, really, we should have seen it coming. Well, maybe not all of this amazing-ness, but some of it. Sometimes what happens in March carries meaning. We shouldn’t be so quick to erase all meaning from spring-training improvement. Judge is the largest living example of that.

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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Mike Dmember
6 years ago

The problem with spring stats is you don’t necessarily know by looking at ST numbers in full what is the level of competition the player went against (although after a certain number of PAs you figure these things would even out).

For example, Buxton could’ve faced many more minor league pitchers vs. Judge this spring.

I typically don’t view good ST stats as being a positive indicator, but if a player has bad ST stats to me that can be a red flag.

Toffer Peak
6 years ago
Reply to  Mike D

Ironically, I’m the opposite. Good results can’t be faked, but bad results can be the result of experimentation; new pitch, new swing, etc.

6 years ago
Reply to  Toffer Peak

But then can’t good results (for a hitter, say) be the result of the pitcher experimenting? Hmmm…

I think what we need is a measure of how a hitter did relative to the other hitters against the same pitcher.