Aaron Judge's Spring Improvements Have Carried Over Into April
New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge is an imposing figure on the baseball field. It's impossible for someone who stands 6'7" and tips the scales at 282 pounds to not stick out, even amongst other athletes who also don't look like your average human.
While his raw power has never been a question, the real concern was whether or not his skills could translate against big league pitching. We can't jump to conclusions from his first 95 plate appearances upon getting called up last season, but a .179/.263/.345 triple slash with an eye-popping 44.2% strikeout rate couldn't have made the front office and coaching staff too confident about him jumping right in this year.
He had to earn his spot on the Yankees' Opening Day roster, and he did that by hitting .333/.391/.540 with 3 home runs and 7 RBI in 69 plate appearances during Grapefruit League action. The most encouraging part of his spring performance, though, was a decrease in strikeouts -- he went down on strikes just 15 times. A 21.7% strikeout rate is much more manageable than that 44.2% mark, don't you think?
Despite that huge difference, Judge's ability to hit the ball really hard on a consistent basis is what's been getting a lot of attention.
All the Exit Velocity
Entering action on Thursday, Judge has produced an average exit velocity of 94.85 miles per hour (MPH), which is quite a bit more than the MLB average thus far in 2017 (88.04 MPH). That's all made possible from plate appearances like the one below against the Tampa Bay Rays.
.@TheJudge44’s 6th inning RBI single had an exit velocity of 116.5 mph, the fastest base hit in @MLB this season. #Statcast pic.twitter.com/o1OE93Jj2O
— #Statcast (@statcast) April 12, 2017
Talk about needing cat-like reflexes.
The young outfielder's season is only eight games old, but this isn't the first time he's punished a baseball with such authority. While he doesn't have the hardest hit ball of 2017 at this point, he's got three of the top eight.
Hardest balls hit this season:
Hosmer 118.1 MPH
Souza Jr. 116.2
Gary Sanchez 115.7
— Daren Willman (@darenw) April 13, 2017
How is this all happening? He went from struggling in 2016 to starting this year with a .308/.379/.692 slash line through 29 plate appearances. We can once again point toward his strikeout rate -- the one he's produced in the regular season, which is sitting at just 20.7% and is a byproduct of him feeling more comfortable in the batter's box.
And that's evidenced in his plate-discipline numbers.
In a vacuum, Judge's plate discipline numbers from 2016 weren't all that bad, but his strikeout rate showed it was clearly something that needed work.
He's been much more selective in 2017, so it shouldn't be shocking to see him doing what he's doing at this point. Below is a table looking at the frequency in which he swings at pitches outside (O-Swing%) and inside (Z-Swing%) the strike zone, along with the contact rates for each situation.
The difference that jumps out the most is the drop in his O-Swing%. He's not chasing as many pitches out of the zone, which has helped lead to a drop in his swinging-strike rate (18.1% in 2016 to 12.8% at the moment) and an increase in what was already an eye-popping hard-hit rate (48.8% in 2016 to 55.0% so far in 2017).
This was the kind of production the Yankees were hoping for from Judge.
Even though he can't take advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium as often as most left-handed hitters can, he has the kind of raw power that will play anywhere and at any time, much like Giancarlo Stanton. Judge's cup of coffee in the big leagues last year wasn't exactly a fun experience, but it looks as if it was crucial in his learning curve toward hopefully becoming a successful hitter.
Obviously, 29 plate appearances isn't a huge sample, but per Fangraphs, plate-discipline numbers start stabilizing in relatively short order, with strikeout rate stabilizing after 60 plate appearances.
He still has a lot of work ahead in order to show that these improvements are sustainable over the course of a full season, but it's pretty clear that being a little more selective at the plate will make a huge difference to his overall offensive production.