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Yankees' Aaron Judge Has Become Every MLB Pitcher's Worst Nightmare

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 18, 2021

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge gestures after hitting a solo home run off Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Bruce Zimmermann during the third inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 16, 2021, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Imagine, if you will, a gigantic hitter with extraordinary home run power and weaknesses that are gradually turning into strengths. If you're a pitcher, that's not someone you want to face.

Which brings us to Aaron Judge.

Now in his fifth full season with the New York Yankees, Judge is fresh off earning American League Player of the Week honors after he went deep four times in three games against the Baltimore Orioles over the weekend.

The last of those was a true exclamation point. Though his clout on Sunday was his second-fastest of the 2021 season at "only" 114.7 mph, it was nonetheless his longest at 443 feet:

MLB @MLB

.@TheJudge44 is on fire. That's four homers in three games and now a share of the big league lead. https://t.co/mxeJGewn85

With 12 long balls to his name, Judge is now tied for second on the major league leaderboard behind only Shohei Ohtani (13). He thus has a shot at a second AL home run title to go with the one he secured with a then-rookie record 52 blasts in 2017.

But even as great as the '17 version of Judge was, the '21 version is greater.

   

Aaron Judge's Resume

  • 29 years old
  • Drafted by Yankees with No. 32 pick in 2013
  • Made MLB debut Aug. 13, 2016
  • AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP runner-up in 2017
  • All-Star in 2017 and 2018
  • Career Stats: 462 G, 131 HR, 18 SB, .274 AVG, .391 OBP, .561 SLG

   

Judge Is Healthy and Locked In Like Never Before

After taking his lumps in a 27-game audition with the Yankees in 2016, Judge took the league by storm with a 1.139 OPS and 30 home runs in the first half of 2017. It looked then like the 6'7", 282-pounder was on his way to lasting superstardom.

But then he "regressed" to a .939 OPS and 22 homers in the second half of '17 as he battled a left shoulder injury that eventually necessitated surgery. Injuries to his right wrist, left oblique and right calf sidelined him for 37 percent of the Yankees' games from 2018 to 2020. Notably, that's not even counting last year's right rib injury.

Even when Judge played in that three-year span, he limited his offensive upside with the fourth-highest strikeout rate among hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances. On a per-swing basis, only Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo made less contact.

In these respects, Judge has offered a much-needed change of pace in 2021.

Terrance Williams/Associated Press

He's appeared in 38 of the Yankees' first 41 games and helped them to a 20-16 record in his 36 starts. Maybe this is a sign that the changes to his offseason training regimen—i.e., less lifting and more yoga—are working. Or, maybe his improved durability simply has to do with his finally making it through the offseason and spring training without any major injury scares.

Yet there's also more to Judge's resurgence than just good health.

When looking at his underlying stats, it's easiest to notice he's averaging an absurd 96.5 mph on his batted balls with a well-above-average 14.0 walk percentage. But because Judge was known for his prodigious power and eye for the zone even before 2021, those are also merely variations on a theme.

A bigger story is that his strikeout rate is a career-low 26.1 percent and that he has the contact rate to show for it:

  • 2017: 67.6%
  • 2018: 65.9%
  • 2019: 65.1%
  • 2020: 67.3%
  • 2021: 74.7%

From the perspective of Yankees first baseman Luke Voit, Judge's shift toward contact has everything to do with his approach: "He's not missing mistakes, he's controlling the zone and really making the pitchers make good pitches."

Owen McGrattan of FanGraphs noticed in late April that Judge was settling in to an approach that was appropriate for someone his size. Rather than continue to reach for them, he was letting low pitches go while continuing to attack those in the middle and upper portions of the zone.

Even better is how he's fine-tuned this approach for specific pitch types. Whereas he's been more passive against off-speed and breaking stuff at and below his knees, he's been more aggressive against fastballs in the upper two-thirds of the zone and above it:

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

So far, Judge's aggression against fastballs is proving to be as good in practice as it is in theory. He's slugging .737 against the hard stuff, which is both a personal high and the fourth-best mark this season.

Thus has Judge generated not only 12 home runs but also a .291/.395/.597 batting line and a career-best 179 OPS+. And the scary part is that certain advanced metrics suggest he's actually underachieving.

   

What Could Go Wrong?

If there's one "yeah, but" that must be applied to Judge's surge, it's that he's doing something we'll call "Gleybering."

As in, he's making like Gleyber Torres did in 2019 and beating up on the Orioles while posting more modest production against everyone else:

  • vs. Baltimore: 2.010 OPS, 7 HR
  • vs. Others: .743 OPS, 5 HR

Obviously, Judge's dominance against the AL East's resident cellar-dweller still counts. But with 10 games against Baltimore already down, New York will offer only nine more chances for Judge to pad his stats against the O's.

If other teams don't humble Judge, the injury bug might. Because while he hasn't yet had to go on the injured list, he has sat with separate cases of soreness in his left side and lower body.

In fairness, the cautious approach the Yankees have taken to his playing time is by design. Judge has clearly learned from his past bouts with injuries, telling Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News in mid-April, "Any soreness, based on track record, instead of missing a month, why not miss one game or two games?"

Even still, the more serious injuries Judge suffered before 2021 and the minor ones he's had this year strongly hint that his massive frame has a downside: There's simply a lot of him that can get hurt.

   

But What If Judge Does Keep This Up?

As Judge has gone, so have the Yankees.

This is true not only to the extent that the Bronx Bombers are 7-2 in the nine games in which Judge has gone yard but also in how his own hot streak has corresponded with the team's shaking off its slow start. He's hit .339/.423/.758 with eight home runs since April 27. The Yankees have won 13 of 19 games during that span, thereby climbing out of the hole they dug with a 9-13 start.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

This is to say that Judge is building a case for AL MVP that isn't strictly tied to what's on the back of his baseball card. And the narrative aspect of his case could only get stronger, as the Yankees will need as much help from him as they can get now that fellow slugger Giancarlo Stanton (left quad) and center fielder Aaron Hicks (left wrist) are freshly on the injured list.

If Judge can get them there, the Yankees will also need all they can get from him in the postseason. Though an 11-year absence from the World Series wouldn't be an outrage for many other clubs, it is for an organization that played in at least one Fall Classic in every decade from the 1920s to the 2000s.

What's more, continued excellence on Judge's part could make managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman rethink what Bryan Hoch of MLB.com described in February as a "wait-and-see" approach regarding the slugger's contract status.

With his free agency looming after 2022, the clock is already ticking for an extension. If Judge maintains MVP-caliber production throughout 2021, he could have just the leverage he needs to negotiate a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the meantime, he just needs to keep doing what he's been doing. Because even if he isn't the best hitter in baseball right now, his gargantuan power and matured sense for how to tap in to it might just make him the league's scariest hitter.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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