The 2021 New York Yankees have been all pitching and no offense. Just as no one expected.
Experts and fans alike came into the season expressing concern over New York’s second-through-fifth spots in the rotation, Gerrit Cole was set to headline the staff, but no one knew what to expect from the rest of their starters. Luckily a lineup featuring last season’s batting champion, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton, and of course, the face of the franchise Aaron Judge, would be able to provide them with plenty of run support, even if they started the season with Jay Bruce at first base with slugger Luke Voit injured.
Nope! Instead, the Bronx Bombers have been grounded for the better part of 2021.
The pitching has been better than expected, but it’s been the only thing keeping them out of the basement of the AL East. New York sits at 31-29, and their offense has been downright impotent, they’re 0-18 when opponents score five or more runs. Though as fans and analysts assign blame for the anemic offense, no fingers can be pointed at Judge.
In the years since his Rookie of the Year, near-MVP 2017 season, Judge has been one of the best players in the league, when he’s been on the field. Unfortunately, from 2018 through 2020, injuries have progressively cost New York’s giant outfielder more and more time. And this is likely what’s caused the hold up in contract extension talks with New York; the most important ability is availability and despite his skills, Judge has not been able to contribute for large swaths of his career, but time is running out for the Yankees to make a decision.
2022 is Judge’s final year of arbitration eligibility, and without a deal, he’d be an unrestricted free agent going into 2023. The Yankees must make a choice, and through the first two months of the 2021 season, Judge has made quite the case for backing the Brinks truck up.
Court Back in Session
Judge is slashing .295/.398/.540 through the first week of June, his .938 OPS is the fourth highest in the American League, and most importantly, he’s played in 57 of the Yankees’ 60 games – though his contributions have not translated into wins.
*Rookie season, called up August 13th
***Through 60 games
And there is no glaring, easy, immediate fix for New York’s offensive woes, nor is there any obvious trade that makes sense – especially when all signs point to the Steinbrenners treating the luxury tax like a hard cap. So it seems that any turnaround in 2021 will stem from internal improvements.
For Yankees fans, Trevor Story is making $17.5m total in his walk year. The Yankees are right up against the luxury tax threshold, which I know you guys don't think should influence who the org acts. But hard to see Story's salary + tax goals as compatible for a halfish year.
— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) April 26, 2021
Without pinning all the team’s hopes on Judge’s shoulders (or absolving the rest of the team’s poor performance) the advanced analytics indicate that he, and by extension, the Yankees’ offense as a whole, is overdue for a bit of luck.
Judge is leading the majors with an xwOBA of .451; for reference, his xwOBA was .447 in 2017. The difference between then and now, and the reason he hasn’t been mentioned in any MVP conversations (besides the Yankees’ record) is that in 2017 his wOBA was .430, this year it’s .402. But expect that gap to close this summer, prior to this season that .017 difference in 2017 was the largest disparity between Judge’s wxOBA and wOBA, a .049 difference points to more than a bit of bad luck.
This point is further illustrated by the stark difference between his xSLG and his actual slugging. A .504 slugging percentage places him at 11th in the American League, but his .643 xSLG is the third-best in MLB. That -.103 difference is the 23rd largest negative discrepancy in the league.
Technically, this means Judge is literally not living up to expectations. Though unlike most of the Yankees’ roster, it’s not his fault. The rest of his numbers show that he’s more locked in than ever.
Perhaps the least surprising of these stats is that Judge also leads the league in average exit velocity (97mph). However, what’s remarkable is that the 2.5mph difference between his average exit velo and the next highest––Vlad Guerreo Jr.’s (94.5mph)––is the same as the difference between Vlad Jr. and the 19th highest average exit velo (JD Martinez, 92mph).
Judge also trails only Ronald Acuña Jr. in hard-hit percentage, and the two of them are in a league of their own here. Respectively, 58.1% and 58% of Acuña’s and Judge’s batted balls have an exit velocity of 95mph or more. Kansas City’s Salvador Perez ranks third in this stat at 55.8%.
For years Judge has been the consummate three true outcome hitter. His propensity to strike out has been perceived as his greatest weakness besides injuries, he’s been in the bottom 5% of the league in K% every season in which he’s qualified. Yet in 2021, he’s managed to cut it down to 24.6% from his career average of 30.6%. His BB% has dropped a bit as well, from 15.5% for his career, down to 14.4%, but he remains in the top 7% of the league in drawing walks.
In a season that’s been defined by an absurd surge in how much pitches are breaking, Judge is making more contact than ever. His whiff % this season is 27.7%, down from 35.1% for his career, and the improvement is most evident against breaking balls. His 35.9% whiff rate on breaking pitches is a major improvement from even his previous career-best, 44.4% in 2018. That season, 32.4% of pitches he saw were classified as breaking balls by Baseball Savant, this year that number has increased to 35.9%. He’s seeing more of them and missing less often.
Judge is taking care of business inside the strike zone too––his 80.7% zone contact percentage is also career-high – and while he is chasing slightly more pitches outside of the zone (23.9%) than at any time outside of his first cup of coffee in 2016, his chase contact % is an eye-popping 53.1%.
This newfound increase in contact has made Judge an even more dangerous fastball hitter. He’s not flailing and missing at sliders down and away while trying to protect, forcing pitchers to come back at him.
He is seeing the fewest number of heaters that he has in his career (51.3%), but he’s crushing the ones that he is getting. His .343 batting average, .382 xBA, and .511 xwOBA against fastballs this season are career highs, and his .694 slugging, .758 xSLG and .478 wOBA dwarf everything except his 2017 numbers against heaters.
12 of Judge’s 14 home runs have come on fastballs this year. He’s on pace for just under 40 homers this season but is poised to go on a tear this summer. Currently, his average launch angle is 11.5 degrees and it’s led to a career-high 31.5% line drive percentage. As the temperature rises and the ball begins to carry a bit more, if Judge can raise his average launch angle to get closer to 2017’s 15.6 degrees The Bronx may be in store for a flurry of much-needed home runs from him this summer.
Aaron Judge Launch Angles
Reading The Verdict
If so, will it be enough to buoy a Yankee offense? New York’s scored 223 runs this year, the fifth-fewest in baseball. Despite building their offense around the longball, they rank 13th in home runs after never ranking lower than fifth since Judge’s rookie year. One shudders to think how putrid the Yankees would look without Judge.
Fewest Runs Scored Through 60 Games
*Missed a week of play in April
After years of deep, but ultimately disappointing, playoff runs the dam has burst and fans are calling for heads. Aaron Boone’s, Brian Cashman’s, and Giancarlo Stanton’s, in particular.
Over the course of the first two months of the 2021 season, an extension for Judge has gone from one of the organization’s biggest questions to a no-brainer. Everything else may be on the table, but the Yankees must retain Judge long term. Perhaps they’ll get a discount due to him turning 30 next year and his injury history, but last season a 28-year-old Christian Yellich signed a seven-year $188.5 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. Given circumstances around this Yankee team and the critical role that Judge plays for them, that feels like the right place to start.
The Atlanta Braves locked Acuña up for eight years before his sophomore season, while the San Diego Padres signed Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 14-year extension before his third season. Both players made the majors at a younger age than Judge, but New York is seeing the consequences of letting the arbitration process play out. Judge’s contract gets more expensive every day that he stays healthy, once again he looks like the perennial MVP candidate he’s always had the potential to be and it is going to cost the Yankees.
Judgement Day approaches and a six-foot-seven Terminator wearing pinstripes and 99 is breathing down Brian Cashman’s neck and Hal Steinbrenner’s wallet.
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)
I have very serious doubts that the Yankees will pony up what it would take for a long term extension for Judge w/ the Cole and Stanton contracts on the books. If he’ll take a few premium years with differed money and/or team options (right now,) that might get it done, but I think it’s more likely he hits FA w/o an extension, and, like, half the teams in MLB would be in on the bidding.
No matter what, the Yankees will wait until they know what’s involved in the next CBA. They WILL NOT extend him until preseason 2022 at the earliest, if there actually IS a preseason 2022! (No, not talking about the apocalypse, just labor strife in major league baseball.)
This is far from a foregone conclusion. Yankees fans (and Yankees obsessives like me) shouldn’t be holding their breath for this in the near future. If they wanted him as a captain or something, they would have broached this earlier.