Going Deep: Aaron Judge Is Having a Weird Season
Let’s just get this out of the way: Aaron Judge is having a good season. No doubt, he is still one of the most feared hitters in the game. It’s hard to complain about a 123 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR in only 64 games. It may be a little disappointing for those who took him high in fantasy drafts and expected a season more in line with last year’s 149 wRC+, but it is still a good showing, and Judge is still the main cog in the Yankees machine that is punishing pitchers on their road to the postseason. What we can discuss, however, is how weird of a year Judge is having. While still being productive, he is doing things differently that may be holding him back, and if he cuts down on some of that weirdness, he’ll be even better.
It’s been a strange year for a few premier talents, with two of the biggest examples being Jose Ramirez and Mookie Betts. As we all know, Ramirez got off to a putrid start this year but has come alive in the second half. His first half was so bad that his 1.066 OPS in the second half is still not enough to push his wRC+ above 100. That’s pretty weird. Betts also went through his period of weirdness when he all of a sudden forgot how to hit left-handed pitching in the first half, but since July, he’s rocking a 144 wRC+ against lefties. That’s also pretty odd. Weird things happen in baseball and can affect hitters of all types. Judge is just the latest example of this.
The weirdness really began for Judge after he came off the injured list in late June. During his healthy stretch to begin the season, Judge was basically the guy we expected him to be. Here is his 2019 up until his injury in late April compared to his 2018 season:
It’s a sample of only 89 plate appearances, but pre-injury Judge in 2019 looked very similar to the 2018 version and right on track for another strong year with MVP considerations. Since coming off the injured list, though, Judge hasn’t quite looked like himself:
He is still getting on base a ton, which is typical from Judge, but the power has cratered. For context, Freddy Galvis is slugging .444 this season, and he wasn’t in high enough demand at the trade deadline while playing strong defense at a premium position that the Blue Jays just let him go on waivers for nothing but salary relief. Obviously Judge is a better hitter than Galvis (Judge’s walk rate is nearly four times higher than Galvis’, for starters), but the Yankees star’s slugging decline has to be somewhat concerning. In fact, there are only a handful of players with a more drastic decline in slugging from 2018 to 2019 than Judge’s -0.063 difference, including both Ramirez and Betts. If we just look at his -0.083 difference from the post-injury time frame to 2018, it would be one of the most drastic among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances.
Fortunately, the Yankees haven’t had to count on Judge to hit like his old self with the emergence of guys who are apparently among the best sluggers in the game such as Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, and a new slug-happy DJ LeMahieu. Seriously: Judge is 11th on the team in slugging among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, and if that isn’t weird, then I don’t know what is. Still, I think the Yankees would like to add the Judge who is capable of hitting 50 home runs back into their lineup.
Let’s see what’s behind the heavy slugging decline.
Like I hinted at earlier, a lot about Judge actually looks similar to the hitter he has been for most of his career. There is still nobody in the game who hits the ball harder on average, he’s still walking at one of the highest rates in the sport, and he’s still a Statcast darling with an xwOBA and xwOBA on contact that are both in the 98th percentile of all hitters in the game and an xSLG that’s 95th percentile. That’s why this power outage is weird, because he’s still doing all of the things that usually lead to success. Is this just a slump? Maybe a run of bad luck? Are the effects of his injury playing a role? While all that could be possible, there is one major thing about Judge’s profile that stands out: how often he pulls the ball.
Take a look at his pull rates for his career:
Judge has always liked to take the ball up the middle and to the opposite field, but this season it’s gotten pretty extreme. Among all hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, Judge pulls the ball at a rate that puts him at the 27th-lowest in baseball. That’s not a bad thing by any means, as just looking at the leaderboards, there are plenty of good hitters with lower rates, such as Shohei Ohtani, as well as Judge’s teammate and the overall hitter with the lowest pull rate, LeMahieu. After all, his home ballpark of Yankee Stadium is a one that rewards right field power, so it makes sense to try to go the opposite way.
In fact, a lot of the Yankees’ right-handed hitters like to go the opposite way. Some of the most prominent batters in the Yankees lineup such as Gleyber Torres, Cameron Maybin, and Urshela are righties who go along with both Judge and LeMahieu and pull the ball less than league average. Part of Luke Voit‘s success last season was based upon his ability to take the ball up the middle and to the opposite field and was part of the reason he was attractive to the Yankees as a trade target.
I believe it’s part of an organizational shift by the Yankees to target right-handed hitters who can go to the other way and stop targeting left-handed pull hitters to take advantage of the short right field fence but also come with shift-heavy profiles that cause their batting averages to plummet upon arriving, causing them to become less productive overall. We saw this earlier in the decade with the Yankees having lineups filled with these types of hitters—with Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, and Curtis Granderson being the most notable examples—but that’s a topic for another day.
Shifting back to Judge, there’s nothing wrong with not pulling the ball that often. Most hitters get a large part of their success from going to the pull side. Judge doesn’t, and that’s cool because I love seeing balls getting assaulted like this to the opposite field—something few others in baseball can do:
Nothing wrong with that all. The thing is, Judge has been the complete opposite when he actually does pull the ball. Take a look at this table showing his slugging to the three directions from 2017 to 2019:
The constant theme here is that Judge is an absolute monster when it comes to slugging the other way. The difference between the prior two seasons and this one is that instead of being a monster to all portions of the field, Judge has taken a dramatic step back in slugging to the pull side. And when you glance at his spray charts, it becomes clear why. Here’s a look at his spray chart from 2018 on top compared to his 2019 spray chart on the bottom:
To this point in 2019, Judge has hit exactly one fly ball to the pull side, and even that single green point is more to center field than it is to left field, and is maybe a stretch to call it a pull-side fly ball at all. None of his home runs have gone to left field. With that in mind, the next thing that stands out is that the majority of his grounders have gone to the pull side. That’s pretty typical, but because he doesn’t have the same amount of hard-hit liners and fly balls to the pull side to go with it, we have a pretty good explanation for his drastic step back in slugging to the pull side.
Overall, Judge’s 1.067 slugging percentage to the opposite field is the third-best in baseball, trailing only Javier Baez (1.103) and Christian Yelich (1.088), while his .451 slugging mark to the pull side is the 15th-worst in baseball, and he is toward the bottom of the leaderboard surrounded by names such as Billy Hamilton (.401), Wilmer Difo (.401) and Joe Panik (.396), which makes sense, as it’s hard to hit for power when you hit a lot of ground balls and aren’t putting the ball in the air, so that usually leads to lower slugging percentages, which helps explain Judge’s slugging decline.
Now, one could look at this and offer a rebuttal that suggests Judge is being pitched to differently this season and that he is just taking what he is given. While Judge is a proponent of hitting the ball where it’s pitched, saying after a July 17 win against the Rays in which he homered: “I try to hit the pitch where it’s pitched. If it’s away, I’ll go away. If it’s in, I pull it. Just depends on the pitch,” compared to other right-handed hitters, he gets pitched less to the outer third of the plate than most. In 2018, he saw 48.3% of his pitches on the outer third of the plate, according to Statcast, and in 2019 that number has dropped to 47.3%. He’s seen 36.1% of his pitches on the inner third of the plate in 2019 compared to 34.8% in 2018, so he’s actually getting more pitches inside, but he’s not pulling the ball as much, which leads me to believe this is more of a conscious effort by Judge to go the other way more often.
Judge did talk earlier this year about swing changes he made over the offseason, and those changes could have led to this new oppo-heavy approach. After all, it is hard to hit inside pitches like this over the fence as he does here against Brendan McKay:
Or this opposite-field home run on a pitch that’s even more inside from David Price:
As impressive and fun to watch as those two home runs are, it’s rare to see pitches that far inside taken the opposite way for homers. Judge is already as unique a ballplayer as there is, with maybe the easiest and most effortless power in the league, but he could stand to improve his overall approach at the plate. It appears that focusing so much on going the other way has compromised his overall production, with such a heavy drop in output to the pull side that it’s pretty shocking.
It is possible that some of these developments could stem from lingering effects from his earlier oblique injury, as those do tend to linger and stick even after players come back from it. It is also possible that this could just be a slight blip on the radar, as even the best hitters go through strange funks like this every now and again. For whatever it’s worth, manager Aaron Boone believes Judge isn’t far from snapping out of it, but if he does snap out of it, it will be interesting to see if more power to the pull side comes with it, as even before this slump, Judge was still not having much success to the pull side.
No matter what it is, Judge needs to improve in this area to get back to the level he has been at previously. The Yankees haven’t needed peak Judge that much this season as they keep rolling through opponents despite everything that’s happened. But when it comes to the postseason, it surely wouldn’t hurt for the real Judge to return, as they may have to face the gauntlet of pitching staffs of the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers in their quest for the World Series.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)