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Elite Aaron Judge Is Back, and It Changes Everything for New York Yankees

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 5, 2019

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures as he crosses home plate after hitting a solo home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Aaron Judge is once again as big of a hitting threat as he is a human being.

The New York Yankees' 6'7", 282-pound slugger almost looked like a lost cause amid his post-All-Star break slump. As recently as Aug. 15, he was hitting only .257 with an .827 OPS. Those aren't exactly numbers befitting a two-time All-Star and former American League Rookie of the Year.

Yet in 17 games since Aug. 16, Judge has been pounding his gavel to the tune of a .338 average and 1.148 OPS. After mustering only 12 home runs through his first 69 games, he's also launched eight over the past few weeks.

Included among those is a 462-foot blast against the Seattle Mariners on Aug. 27 that marked the 100th of his four-year career:

New York Yankees @Yankees

Century Clubbed. 💯 #AllRise https://t.co/lZbnC1hA1Q

"A lot of people were talking about it and asking why he's not hitting homers," Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez said of Judge on Aug. 28, per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "I can tell you that I wasn't worried at all. I know what kind of talent he has, I know what he can do on the field. Right now, he's hot. Thirty is not out of reach for him."

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Though the Yankees already have the AL East championship all but wrapped up, Judge's hot bat could help them claim the best record in the American League, if not all of Major League Baseball. The former would secure home-field advantage in the AL playoffs. The latter would lock it up all the way through the World Series.

Despite ongoing issues in the Yankees' starting rotation, Judge is also positioning them to be a nightmare matchup in October. 

After setting a single-season record for home runs in 2018, the Yankees' offensive approach in 2019 was always going to be predicated on their ability to hit home runs. But because of a cascade of injuries, they've ceded their record to the Minnesota Twins.

Right now, however, the Yankees look more than capable of outslugging the Twins and any other team they might come across in the playoffs. They hit a total of 74 home runs in August, which is 14 more than any team had ever hit in a single month.

By the end of last month, no single Yankee was hitting the ball over the fence at the same rate as Judge. That's liable to continue so long as he stays healthy and on his game.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 02:    Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees in action against the Texas Rangers at Yankee Stadium on September 02, 2019 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Yankees 7-0. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Staying healthy has been the hard part for the 27-year-old. Between shoulder surgery in November 2017, a broken wrist in July 2018 and an oblique strain this April, he's been in a near-constant state of recovery over the last two years.

It's no wonder that a general sense of amnesia about his previous accomplishments seemed to set in, yet one need not go back far to find a time when Judge had a firm place among baseball's best players.

His big break came in 2017, when he posted a 1.049 OPS and slammed a rookie-record 52 homers. Despite his offseason shoulder operation, he started 2018 off with a .947 OPS and 26 homers through 99 games before a Jakob Junis fastball caught too much of his right wrist.

Between that start to 2018 and his entire 2017 season, Judge enjoyed a 254-game stretch in which he ranked second to Giancarlo Stanton in home runs and third to Mike Trout and J.D. Martinez in OPS. According to FanGraphs, only Trout accumulated more wins above replacement.

The excellent right field defense that went into Judge's WAR hasn't gone anywhere. And now, finally, his elite hitting stroke is about as back as his surface-level numbers would suggest.

Per xwOBA—a Statcast metric which measures expected production based on walks, strikeouts and contact quality—Judge has been one of MLB's five best hitters since Aug. 16:

  • 1. Juan Soto, WAS: .487
  • 2. J.D. Martinez, BOS.434
  • 3. Anthony Rendon, WAS: 4.33
  • T4. Aaron Judge, NYY: .430
  • T4. Franmil Reyes, CLE.430

Good health is presumably one of the driving forces behind Judge's sudden renaissance, yet it hasn't been lost on eagle-eyed viewers that he's also made changes to his batting stance. 

blog post by Derek Albin that noted as much got the nudge-nudge, wink-wink treatment from the YES Network's official Twitter account:

YES Network @YESNetwork

Aaron Judge is on a tear, and a tweak in his batting stance may be a contributing factor. https://t.co/No902XW87D https://t.co/P7RXY5nHe4

Judge's more open stance and higher hand position hasn't helped him hit the ball harder. Since Aug. 16, his average exit velocity is actually down from 96.7 mph to 93.1 mph.

The real difference is a twofold change in the trajectory of his batted balls. A launch angle improvement from 10.2 degrees to 12.4 degrees has allowed him to put more balls in the air, and the right-handed swinger has also been using more of the field.

Before Judge got hot, his line drives and fly balls were clumped to the right of center field:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Since he's gotten hot, he's been spreading them around and has even pulled some home runs:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com

Judge's opposite-field habit wasn't a problem from a raw power standpoint. He has more than enough oomph in his swing to rack up oppo shots at any park, not just Yankee Stadium.

It was more so a case of him simply neglecting his strengths. As good as Judge was at hitting to right field in 2017 and 2018, he was no slouch when he went to center field or to left field instead:

  • Pull: 1.413 OPS
  • Middle: 1.291 OPS
  • Oppo1.442 OPS

If there's something about Judge's hitting to be concerned about right now, it's that he's struck out (23) well more often than he's walked (five) since he found the right gear on Aug. 16. Yet that is more of an inconvenience than an actual problem, and it'll stay that way if Judge remains hot into October.

Even if pitchers somehow silence Judge, they'll still have to get past Sanchez (34 homers), Gleyber Torres (34), Edwin Encarnacion (31), DJ LeMahieu (24), Brett Gardner (20), Luke Voit (19) and potentially a healthy version of Stanton, who peaked with 59 long balls two years ago.

With a lineup like this, there may be no amount of pitching question marks that can hold the Yankees back.

                   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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