The absence of Mike Trout, however unfortunate, has the possible effect of opening up the field for the American League’s MVP award. It’s also possible we’ll see a position player other than Trout lead the league in wins above replacement for the first time since 2011, when Jacoby Ellsbury posted a 9.4-win season. Trout still leads the league this season (3.3). Given that he could miss two months of time to injury, however, he could be hard pressed to finish ahead of his peers for a sixth consecutive campaign.
So that brings us to the No. 2 player on the American League leaderboard, Aaron Judge.
I received some questions about MVP odds during my Monday chat and Judge’s name came up. As impressive as Judge has been this season, including a 510-foot batting practice shot in Toronto…
Aaron Judge hitting one 510 feet with 128 evit velocity in bp? Retweet if you want Judge to be in the Homerun Derby pic.twitter.com/F1xVbvHctL
— Dingers Only™ (@Dingers_Only) June 3, 2017
… I sense there are questions, concerns about the league’s ability to punch back when it accumulates more scouting material against an inexperienced hitter who possesses both a long swing and unusual baseball body. Judge doesn’t yet have the same type of exposure to major-league pitching and defenses that other MVP candidates have. When pitchers began to refine their approach against him, will Judge be able to counter punch?
There’s already some evidence that a considerable slow down is imminent: Judge’s strikeout rate has been inching up.
While Judge deserves credit for his offseason work — including a swing adjustment that has resulted in dramatically improved bat-to-ball skills and allowed his raw power to translate into games — the forecasts call for merely a good player, not a great one. Our Depth Chart projections, which are a combination of Steamer and ZiPS with curated playing-time estimates, have Judge slashing .253/.338/.500 for the rest of the season, with 22 more homers and 2.2 wins.
Judge has already proven to be an able and willing student, and the improvement he’s made from his first exposure to the major leagues has been impressive. Maybe he will counter punch effectively and put together a truly remarkable campaign. But there’s something contributing to Judge’s strikeouts, a factor working against him relatively more than his MLB peers to date in his young MLB career: the low strike.
Consider this third-strike call from Pirates pitcher Tyler Glasnow from earlier this season:
And consider another third-strike call, from then-Mariners pitcher Wade LeBlanc last season:
To the average major-league hitter, those pitches are around or above knee-level; they’re excellent pitches. They are clearly strikes thrown to the average batter. For Judge, though, they’re below the knees. Since there are no players the size of the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Judge in the majors — the 6-foot-6 Giancarlo Stanton is the nearest comp — umpires are being challenged to adjudicate a unique and large strike zone.
I employed the useful Baseball Savant search tool to get a detailed look at where strikes are being called against Judge. I was particularly curious to examine the 50-50 area at the bottom of the “detailed” zone now provided by Savant.
This season, 41% of pitches on the lower edge and just below the strike zone are being called as strikes against Judge (75 called strikes of 183 pitches in examined location). For MLB hitters as a whole, it’s a 24.3% rate (9,300 called strikes of 38,193 pitches in examined location). Last season, 24.6% of pitches in that location went as called strikes against Judge according to the search tool, compared to 17.4% for the league.
I also looked at pitches well below the strike zone. Judge has seen 379 pitches in his young career dating back to last season, 2.1% of which have been missed calls going for strikes. According to Statcast data, the going league-average rate for called strikes in the area is 0.4% since the beginning of last season.
Of the pitches in the top third of the zone since last season, at the top edge of the 50-50 area of the zone, only one out of 56 pitches thrown there has been called for a strike against Judge this season. The league-average rate is 12.3% (8,444 out of 68,547 pitches located there). So umpires are giving Judge a larger bottom of the zone to date, but a smaller top of the zone.
Still, the net result is negatively effecting Judge in two ways. For starters, he’s been more of a high-ball hitter to date in his career. Consider his career isolated slugging percentage per swing:
The other issue is that far more pitches are thrown to the bottom part of the strike zone, more than twice as many of them. Here’s a visualization of all called strikes against Judge to date in his young career:
At least at this point in Judge’s career, umpires are having trouble calling a correct zone on him. Judge would perhaps be even better, he would be in more hitter’s counts, getting more elevated pitches, if he were facing an accurately called strike zone. The good news for Judge is that perhaps umpires will learn to better call Judge’s strike zone. In that bottom 50-50 area of the strike zone, 21.4% pitches have been called as strikes against Stanton, his closest contemporary in terms of right-handed batting height, since the start of 2016.
So not that Judge needs much help, but perhaps he will get it eventually, and his power will play up even more often.