Aaron Judge's 495-Foot, 120 mph Power on Collision Course with 60 HRs

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJune 21, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 20:  Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees hits a home run in the fifth inning against the Los Angeles Angels during their game at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

NEW YORK — The cheers begin the moment the ball comes off his bat.

As they should.

There are so many remarkable things about what New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge has done in the first three months of this season, so many remarkable numbers. Exit velocities up to 121.1 mph. Home run distances up to 495 feet. Eleven opposite-field home runs, the most in the major leagues.

But there's another number that explains why those Yankee Stadium fans are right to cheer whenever Judge hits a ball in the air. It's 56.8, the percentage of fly balls Judge has hit at Yankee Stadium that have cleared the fence, according to FanGraphs.com.

That's right, 56.8 percent. So if you cheer every fly ball Judge hits at home like it's going to be a home run, more than half the time you're going to be right.

Remarkable.

Sure enough, in a late-June Yankees loss to the Los Angeles Angels, Judge hit two fly balls (plus one line drive that reached the outfield). One fly ball was caught. The other was his major league-leading 24th home run.

He hit his 30th home run last Friday against the Milwaukee Brewers, and he still leads the majors.

No one else in baseball is doing this. Not even Cody Bellinger, even though his home run numbers are pretty remarkable, too. Nobody else converts fly balls into home runs at nearly the rate Judge does (41.7 percent for all games, also according to FanGraphs).

No one has, not since Ryan Howard turned 39.5 percent of his flyballs into homers for the 2006 Philadelphia Phillies. Howard hit 58 home runs that year, the most anyone has hit since baseball began testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

So, yeah, Judge could do that. He could hit 58, and if you can hit 58, you can hit 60. And even if 60 wouldn't approach the steroid-aided 73 Barry Bonds set as baseball's official single-season home run record in 2001, it would be a pretty special accomplishment.

And, yes, Judge absolutely could do it.

"It's like an NBA guy using an eight-foot goal," Yankees third baseman Chase Headley said. "The ballpark plays different for him."

Ballparks are playing good for all hitters this season, and few play better for home runs than Yankee Stadium. Even there, no one is doing what Judge is.

"He's an outlier," Headley said. "So big. So strong."

So big, so strong, and Judge has become such a better hitter this season. He's not chasing as many pitches out of the strike zone, but a scout who watched him throughout his professional career said it's just as notable that he's not taking as many hittable pitches in the zone.

"He used to be tentative at times," the scout said.

The numbers show the improvement, with Fangraphs saying Judge is both taking more balls and swinging at more strikes than he did last season. And when he swings at those strikes, he's making more contact.

All of that fits with what we've been watching since the season began, and all of it suggests Judge has a real chance to keep up the home run pace he has set. He has more home runs through 86 games than Howard did when he hit 58 (30 to 28).

There is one thing Judge could possibly do to help him keep up or even pick up the home run pace:

Hit more fly balls.

Home run hitters usually do. Bellinger, for example, hits a fly ball nearly half the time he makes contact (49.7 percent, according to FanGraphs). Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets is even higher, at 55.7 percent.

Judge, perhaps surprisingly, is well down the list. Only 37.9 percent of the balls he hits get classified as fly balls (as opposed to ground balls or line drives), which ranks 148th among players with 100-plus plate appearances.

"I hadn't really thought about that," Judge said. "I'm just trying to square up as many balls as possible. If I do that, good things will happen."

Good things are happening for him, if not for the Yankees, who lost their seventh straight game Tuesday. Good things are happening, so why change?

"You don't want to mess with something that's working," said Marcus Thames, the Yankees' assistant hitting coach. "You don't want to be too smart."

Let him keep thinking about hitting the ball hard. Let the fly balls come at whatever rate they come, and let them keep flying out of the ballpark at rates rarely seen before.

Let it keep happening, and watch the home runs keep piling up. All the way, perhaps, to 60.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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