What Can We Expect From Aaron Judge?
Being that I am a Yankees fan, Aaron Judge is no stranger to me. I’ve been following his career since draft day 2013, and even then, it was well-established that if he cracked the majors, he would be one of the largest players in the sport’s history. After slugging back-to-back home runs with Tyler Austin in his Major League debut, fans have awed at his power and the potential that it brings. The obvious comp is Giancarlo Stanton, as flawed as that one is. At Judge’s age, Stanton already had 154 home runs.
There are plenty of questions about Judge’s potential, because his major league debut introduced more questions than answers. Even before he saw a single major league pitch, there were two major flaws: an inability to hit breaking balls, and an inability to cover the lower half of the strike zone. So, in assessing his talent, let’s just get the bad out of the way. Other than his 44.2% strikeout rate, his heat maps tell the story. First, his pitch%…
…and next, how that stacks up against his slugging percentage:
So, major pitchers are good. We know. Judge has difficulty hitting pitches low and away, and pitchers primarily pitched there, and with good results (for them).
Now, we can do the same thing for his zone in regards to breaking pitches….
…and what his results were by slugging percentage:
Pretty much the same deal, right? If there’s one certainty to the 2017 season, we know that pitchers are going to consistently attack Judge with that pitch selection and location. That’s how he had a 63 wRC+ in 27 games.
So on to the good. First, without comment, here are his hit velocities from 2016:
— Josh Norris (@jnorris427) March 2, 2017
At 96.8 mph, he had the highest average hit velocity in baseball last year. Oh yeah, and he hits balls really far, which shouldn’t be a surprise. In a recent article at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan gushed about Judge’s eminent power, with some interesting graphics to prove it. Here’s my favorite:
Unreal. Judge is that tiny little dot, probably the best combination you can have to get the most “barrels”. Of course, someone as knowledgeable as Sullivan knows the risk: “The problem, as usual, is contact consistency. Some players struggle between peak contact and weak contact. Judge struggles more between peak contact and no contact. He swung through a lot of baseballs in the majors, but even in Triple-A, his contact rate was well below the league standard. Judge made contact with 72% of his swings. The league average was six points higher.”
That’s kind of where we stand in regards to Judge. He has the most raw power of anyone in the sport not named Giancarlo Stanton, but he also has an incredibly low contact rate, and an incredibly high strikeout rate.
This conundrum reminds me of a recent prospect hand-wringing phenomenon, when Javier Baez hit the big leagues in 2014. He was one of the best prospects in baseball, and some even thought that he had 80-grade power and could hit 60 home runs if the run environment improved. So when he came up, he was an immediate disappointment. He had a 41.5% strikeout rate, and he had a 54 wRC+ in his debut season. It’s a little familiar.
It’s hard to find comparisons in modern baseball because such high strikeout rates with major league ability would have been unseen even twenty years ago, yet here we are, grasping for straws to find similar cases in a new category of high-power, high-strikeout hitters. His problems were distinct, so the comparison doesn’t really hold beyond that point, but that’s the fun of it.
Here are a couple of projections for Judge’s career: KATOH gives him 5.8 WAR through his first six seasons, and PECOTA gives him 10.9 WARP. I tend towards the latter, but any one of them, or none of them, could be correct because those aren’t really that good in N=1 cases.
I am really excited to see Judge’s potential, my Yankees fandom notwithstanding. He could be the next great power hitter in the game, and boy, you can never have enough of those. There are red flags–it isn’t that hard to imagine him flaming out and becoming a fourth outfielder or minor league journeyman. But with his power, he’ll get his time, and we’ll soon find out if he can make adjustments over the course of a major league soon. If he does, we could be seeing more of this.