Aaron Judge Could Smash MLB's Single-Season 223 K Record, But Who Cares?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 7, 2018

New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge walks back to the dugout after striking out in the ninth inning for the fifth time in the second game of a baseball doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, Monday, June 4, 2018, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

As somebody who's a 6'7", 282-pound giant by nature and the starting right fielder of the New York Yankees by occupation, Aaron Judge is hard to miss.

His bat? Different story.

Judge was the American League Rookie of the Year and the MVP runner-up in 2017, and he recently became the fastest major leaguer ever to 70 career home runs. So, much of what he's accomplished in his major league career makes the grade as "pretty good."

Judge's latest feat, however, is one he'd rather not be associated with. He struck out eight times in a double-header against the Detroit Tigers on Monday. That's a Major League Baseball first.

The 26-year-old's first move was to shrug it off, telling reporters: "A terrible day. [But] that's the beauty of baseball. I get to wake up and it's fresh new at-bats."

The problem, of course, is that a day like Monday isn't too far outside the norm for Judge.

Avoiding strikeouts has been a challenge for him since the moment he joined the Yankees in August 2016, and so it goes in 2018. He ranks second with 84 strikeouts. According to ESPN, he's on pace for 235 strikeouts by season's end.

Only Mark Reynolds should be pleased to hear it, as Judge ending at that number would knock his 223 whiffs in 2009 from the top spot in the single-season strikeout book.

And yet, the question must be asked: Should anyone care?

DETROIT, MI - JUNE 4: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees foul tips the ball to strike out against the Detroit Tigers during the ninth inning of game one of a doubleheader at Comerica Park on June 4, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. The Yankees defeated the
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Well, put it this way: This is something that nobody should be 100 percent indifferent about.

Judge's whiffs are part of a larger problem in Major League Baseball. Some might even call it an epidemic. For while it's no secret that MLB hitters have set new strikeout rate records every year since 2008, things are really getting out of hand in 2018. 

Strikeouts (8.57 per game) are now more frequent than hits (8.37 per game). That's an inaction-to-action ratio that MLB isn't happy about.

"One month is a rather small sample, and we are hoping that the phenomenon of strikeouts exceeding hits is an anomaly that will not persist over the course of the season," commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in an email to the Associated Press in May (h/t Boston.com).

Regarding Judge specifically, things would be better for he and the Yankees if he didn't strike out so much. Strikeouts aren't the worst outs—hello, double plays and triple plays—but they're still outs. And everything else being equal, a ball in play is better than a ball not in play.

Not surprisingly, Judge's production is at its worst when his strikeout habit is at its worst. That was the case after the All-Star break last year, when he had a 35.1 strikeout percentage and .690 OPS through August. And it's the case now, as he has a 37.7 K% and .781 OPS since May 15.

But now for the good news: Judge is uniquely equipped to withstand even the worst strikeout binges.

He showed as much in the regular season last year, as he made up for his MLB-high 208 strikeouts with a 1.049 OPS and 52 homers. He even made up for a staggering 47.4 K% in the postseason with a solid .816 OPS and four home runs in 13 games.

Judge has two safeguards against being overcome by his strikeout habit: his knack for taking pitches he shouldn't be swinging at, and his knack for absolutely clobbering what he makes contact with.

And both of these safeguards are even stronger in 2018 than they were in 2017.

To wit, his batted balls still tend to look like this:

In 2017, Judge hit balls at an average of 94.9 mph. That was the highest in MLB by plenty.

In 2018, Judge has bumped his average up to 96.2 mph. That, also, is the highest in MLB by plenty.

When considering all this, it's impossible to ignore what Judge would be capable of if only he put more balls in play. If he could set home run records with a bad strikeout habit, just imagine what kind of trajectory he would be on without it.

However, he's just as worthy of sympathy as he is a finger wagging.

By way of one of the tallest frames in MLB history, Judge has one of the biggest strike zones ever seen. With more zone to cover comes a higher likelihood of failing to do so. There's not a whole lot he can do about that.

What Judge can control is the rate at which he expands the strike zone. That happens to be another thing he's getting better at:

If this continues, it should just be a matter of time before Judge is walking as often this season (16.9 BB%) as he was last season (18.7 BB%).

On balance, it's well within reason that Judge will ultimately match last year's performance despite his elevated strikeout rate. As it is, now seems as good a time as any to mention that he's already working on a .967 OPS and a 47-homer pace. 

The Yankees will gladly take those numbers no matter how many strikeouts they come with. With Judge, they're a cost of doing good business. 

          

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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