Judge vs. Bellinger: The Tale of the Tape

Aesthetically, the emergent style of play in “our game” isn’t very pleasing, I would submit. The three true outcomes have run amok; the Russell Branyan-ization of baseball is almost complete. That said, there have been some satisfying side effects of this trend, Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger among them.

There has been a historic influx of young power-hitting talent this season, and these two are riding at the forefront. Are they merely the modern incarnation of Kevin Maas, or is this real? Today, let’s take a deeper dive into their respective batted-ball data to get a better feel.

These two have taken markedly different paths to their current place as two of the young faces of the sport. Judge was a first round pick out of Fresno State, a physical specimen who was more about potential than production throughout his minor-league career. Bellinger was a relatively anonymous fourth-round pick out of Hamilton (AZ) HS who actually had to spend a second season in short-season ball after hitting .210 the first time around.

Each season, I prepare my own set of minor-league position-player rankings. They’re statistically based, with players needing to meet certain age/production levels to qualify. The list serves mainly as a master follow list of full-season-league prospects; the rankings themselves are secondary, and traditional scouting methods are used afterward for refinement. Judge qualified for my list three times, at Nos. 58, 150 and, 128 in 2014, 2015, and 2016, respectively. This isn’t that exceptional for a power-hitting corner guy. Bellinger fared better, placing at No. 30 and 20 in 2015-16. After that second short-season campaign, he was a freight train, hitting 59 homers in 2015-16.

And here they are, currently laying waste to major-league pitching. How are they getting it done? In the two tables below, let’s look at their plate appearance frequency and ball-in-play authority data for 2017:

Plate Appearance Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Judge 1.2% 36.0% 25.0% 37.8% 28.9% 16.0%
Bellinger 2.7% 47.6% 19.7% 29.9% 29.0% 10.5%

BIP Authority/Overall Production Data
Judge 321 373-431 174-150 149-101 311 198 221
Bellinger 239 356-287 82-117 233-98 202 157 149

The first table breaks down their batted balls by type and also lists their K and BB rates. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. As usual, when I do these sorts of tables, red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average; orange cells are over one STD above; yellow cells over one-half-STD above; blue cells over one-half STD below; and black cells over one STD below league average.

The concepts of Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Score are central to the second table above. Unadjusted Contact Score (1st column) represents their production relative to the league (average of 100) on all batted balls — i.e., production with K and BB stripped from their batting lines. Adjusted Contact Score is what they “should have” batted relative to the league if each batted ball produced at a league-average rate for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket”. Columns 2-4 list their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for flies, liners, and grounders, respectively. Column 5 lists overall Adjusted Contact Score, Column 6 lists actual wRC+, and Column 7 lists Projected Production (Adjusted Contact Score with the K and BB added back to the equation). All data extends through Tuesday night’s games. Red font would indicate that an extreme grounder-pulling penalty was applied to either hitter’s Adjusted Contact Score and Projected Production level; the good news is that neither hitter was penalized.

Let’s start with the frequency data. Except for the high K rate, Judge’s really is a work of art. (And I’ll take the Ks given his otherworldly authority levels, as we’ll soon see.) A representative, though not excessive, fly-ball rate coupled with a microscopic pop-up rate? Yes, please. The pop-up rate is actually over two standard deviations lower than league average. Sure, that liner rate is fairly certain to regress downward over time (liner rates are much more volatile than those of other BIP types), but that’s not a major concern in the big picture. He’s drawing walks at a significant clip, as fear of the Judge has already spread through the MLB pitcher population.

Bellinger’s frequency profile isn’t as spotless. That fly-ball rate, over two STD above league average, has nowhere to go but down. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, like Judge, he has a very low pop-up rate for a power hitter, and for someone who hits so many fly balls. It’s in the average range, and not as spectacularly low as Judge’s, but still in a very good place. His K rate almost exactly matches his Yankee counterpart’s, though his walk rate, while solid, isn’t that much above league average. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a decent profile, especially for a 21-year-old, for goodness sakes.

Let’s move on to the authority/production data, where the real action is. Their Unadjusted Contact Scores (321 for Judge, 239 for Bellinger) would have led their respective leagues over a full season in 2016. Still, there is a marked difference between the two players: Judge is simply playing in a different league.

Judge’s Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 431 is even better than his unadjusted mark of 373. This means that he actually deserves more production from them than he’s gotten. That’s a scary thought. Nelson Cruz posted the highest average fly-ball velocity in the majors last season at 97.5 mph, and Pedro Alvarez, of all people, posted the highest Adjusted Contact Score on flies at 325. Judge is averaging 98.6 mph and shattering Adjusted Contact Score records. Here’s one for you: just over 6% of all fly balls have been hit at 105 mph and over this season. For Judge, 43% of them have. Unfathomable.

His liners have been scalded, as well, at an average exit speed of 101.2 mph, which also would have placed first, ahead of Cruz, among 2016 regulars. A 150 Adjusted Liner Contact Score also qualifies as fear-inducing. Just over 3% of MLB liners have been hit at over 110 mph this season; exactly 40% of Judge’s have. Remember, this is a universe that also includes Giancarlo Stanton. Judge is playing a different game than everyone else when it comes to BIP authority.

He’s basically an average ground-ball striker, and you know what? That’s OK. He’s been a bit fortunate on the ground, batting .278 AVG-.278 SLG, but that’s a minor point. He pulls the ball quite a bit on the ground, but not quite enough to qualify for an excessive-pulling penalty. For now, there are no red flags in this profile. An Adjusted Contact Score of 311 is on another planet; Chris Carter, of all people, led all hitters in both leagues at 201 in 2016, and as you might surmise, his profile had as many red flags as a May Day parade. Add the Ks and BBs back, and his Projected Production of 221 outdistances even his prolific wRC+. This guy is for real.

On to Bellinger. He’s actually been a bit fortunate in the air this season, with his Unadjusted Fly Ball Contact Score of 356 well above his adjusted mark of 287. That adjusted figure would have narrowly trailed teammate Joc Pederson (289) among NL regulars in 2016. As unlucky as he’s been on liners (82 Unadjusted vs 117 Adjusted Contact Score), he’s been even more lucky on grounders (233 vs. 98). He’s actually hitting .364 AVG-.386 SLG on the ground despite slightly below-average authority. Like Judge, he pulls quite a bit on the ground, but not enough for a penalty. Grounder-pulling is an area to be monitored going forward for both hitters.

As hard as he hits the ball, Bellinger is a totally different cat than Judge. Judge has hit 24 flies over 105 mph; Bellinger has hit 24 flies over 100 mph. A 96.1 mph average exit speed in the air is great; it would have ranked second in the NL (behind, believe it or not, Ryan Howard) last season. It’s just not in Judge’s league. The difference between the two is even more stark on liners: Judge has hit 22 liners over 110 mph, Bellinger just one. To get down to the young first sacker’s 22nd-hardest-hit liner you have to reach down to the 95-100 mph bucket. Still, at 98.8 mph, he would have tied for fourth with Yasmani Grandal in NL average liner speed (behind Ryan Zimmerman, Jake Lamb, and Stanton) in 2016.

Bellinger has, on balance, been quite lucky on balls in play, but a 202 Adjusted Contact Score is still excellent. Remember, however, that this number is built on a frequency profile featuring an unsustainable number of fly balls. Add back the Ks and BBs, and Bellinger’s 149 Projected Production is strong, but below his actual wRC+.

What does this tell us moving forward? Well, you certainly cannot discount the fact that Bellinger is four years younger than Judge. Bellinger is already a man physically, but he will get stronger. All of that said, I’m on Team Judge.

As strong as Bellinger might get, he’s not going to hit the ball as hard as Judge, who is a physical freak. Judge’s fly-ball rate actually has room to grow; Bellinger’s does not. While Judge’s liner rate is likely to regress downward, his swing is geared to produce more liners than Bellinger’s, a more pronounced uppercut. I actually see a lot of teammate Pederson in Bellinger; there are pitfalls and forks in the road that the 21-year-old will need to navigate to remain among the game’s elite. That said, I do expect him to navigate them.

I did a similar exercise with regard to Judge for an ESPN piece I wrote over a month ago; Judge’s exit-speed/launch-angle numbers have barely moved since. They’re not a fluke. He made major offseason swing adjustments (more pronounced load, allowing him to keep his weight back much better) that created the perfect beast. Watch and enjoy.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rex Manning Daymember
6 years ago

I just love Aaron Judge so dang much.

6 years ago

As much as I love Judge, I may love Blengino more