(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)
Guys like Aaron Judge represent what the league is looking like as a whole. The three true outcomes. Strikeout, walk, and home run. He’s taken a league trend and run with it to absolute stardom. Judge goes up there and watches a lot of pitches, whiffs on a bunch of swings, and generally crushes the ball when he makes contact. He could keep doing what he does and remain a great major league player. But does anyone doubt that Judge and similar players could improve from making some more contact? What if Aaron Judge could make more contact on breaking balls? There is no argument that he would not benefit from that, and Judge is doing just that this season.
In 2017, Judge faced 880 breaking pitches, the second most in the league behind Jose Bautista. He made contact on less than 50% of swings against those pitches, the second worst in the league ahead of only Alex Avila. Sliders, specifically, absolutely tormented Judge. He produced a 74 wRC+ against 685 sliders faced last season. His next worst pitch was a 180 wRC+ against the 188 cutters he saw. Judge was dreadful against breaking balls, no small part of the game, and still ended up with an 8.2 WAR and a runner-up MVP finish. So far in 2018, Judge has faced 143 sliders. He has a 313 wRC+ against those sliders, and that should absolutely terrify everyone.
Opposing pitchers try to exploit Judge’s swing and miss by avoiding fastballs and inducing chases out of the strike zone. No one wants to miss a fastball to Judge. Last season, he had the third-lowest rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone at 39.5%. This season, he sits at the fourth-lowest rate in the league, seeing 37.8% of his pitches in the strike zone. Pitchers rely on the chase and miss from Judge. This season, though, Judge has looked different against sliders in multiple ways. Plotted is the contact rate for hitters against sliders in 2018 vs 2017 (min 70 faced). Judge is in black:
Judge still does not look all that impressive. But hey! In 2017, there is no one below him. In 2018, there are quite a few people behind him. He sat at 48.9% last season and is at 59.6% this year. Judge has improved his slider contact rate by more than 10%! That is the eight-largest improvement in the league. He also has the fifth-most improved swinging strike rate on sliders between the last two seasons. Judge is still making contact against sliders at a below average rate, but he has improved dramatically in that regard. And with Judge, he does not need to make all that much contact.
The small sample size asterisk is still hanging around, and is certainly applicable for most hitters, but Judge has already faced 148 sliders. No one else has faced even 130. It’s difficult to call small sample on the difference for Judge. Along with contact gains, he is killing the ball on contact. Judge is slugging .900 on the pitch, compared to .290 last year, with a 66.7% line drive rate. Take a look at his batted ball spray charts on sliders from the last two seasons, with 2017 on the left:
Judge is lifting everything into the air when making contact with sliders, lining base hits and keeping the ball off the ground. He had seven balls in play off sliders that classified as a Statcast “barrel” all of last season. This season, Judge already has four. He even hit this opposite field home run in early April, something he failed to do all of last season.
Judge extends out to connect on a low and away slider and is able to drive it out of the park. That is something you would not have seen last season. In terms of swing adjustment to sliders, his swings have looked a whole lot better against this pitch this season. Take this slider from Joe Kelly last season. Watch Judge’s lower half:
Here is a screenshot of the two as Judge’s bat is coming through.
On the left, Judge’s front foot is planted and he squares up the ball and sends it out of the park. On the right, Judge starts to roll over and the back knee bends down awkwardly. Most notably, though, look how Judge kicks out his hips and contorts down to the ball on the right. Instead of being in a position to make solid contact, Judge is losing his power and essentially waving at the pitch with the way he sends hips outward. Take a look at a few more shots, with 2018 Judge on the left and 2017 Judge on the right:
The differences are subtle, but Judge’s hips are flying out again in the right image and his body is contorting to the pitch uncomfortably. One more:
On the left is the perfect example of Judge keeping his hips in and squaring up an outside slider off Chris Sale. Same hips falling out and awkward legs on the right. Obviously, this is just a few hand-picked situations from the last two seasons out of many. But when watching Judge, the difference is evident. Judge is looking more comfortable on his swings against sliders this season and letting his natural power roll. The contact improvement can also likely be contributed in part to seeing such a massive dose of sliders.
We do have to acknowledge the lack of improvement in the strikeout department, though. His 2018 strikeout rate is right in line with 2017. Judge’s contact rate on fastballs has dipped nearly 7%. This change is not showing up in the strikeout numbers. Perhaps this slider improvement will dissipate to nothing and Judge will keep doing Judge. But it’s never good for opponents when he puts the ball in play. Limiting swing and miss on breaking balls is a great step towards putting more balls in play.
Aaron Judge will not change drastically. He’s been a big swinger in the past and he’s a big swinger now. The strikeouts are never going to disappear for him. The style that he plays with is what makes him a star. But his teammate Giancarlo Stanton rode a contact improvement last season to a 59 home run MVP year. More contact certainly won’t hurt Judge. We can’t predict if this will continue and lead to even more success, but Judge is minimizing the biggest weakness in his game from a season ago. I’d say that’s a good thing.