A few weeks ago Joe Girardi compared Aaron Judge to Derek Jeter. The comparison was focused on the young outfielder’s demeanor, maturity and persona off the field.
On the field, Judge is a much different player than the former Captain. Nevertheless, early returns in 2017 are favorable. He could be well on his way to being the next cornerstone player for baseball’s most storied franchise, much like No. 2 was.
It’s quite the climb for a player that wasn’t even a lock to even make the Yankees’ Opening Day roster at the outset of Spring Training. He struck out nearly half of his trips to the plate in his initial taste of big-league action. He flashed the legitimate power that Yankee fans were dreaming on, but he looked overmatched at the dish against quality arms.
What a difference a year makes.
Judge is still prone to the strike out, but he has improved to a point where the swing and miss is no longer crippling to his success. By making better contact and showing more discipline at the plate, his power is taking center stage. After his home run in the Yankees’ loss on Monday, Judge was back alone atop the leaderboard in the Majors with 17 dingers.
A major component to his success was lowered expectations and less pressure.
Tons of hype surrounded his promotion last year after GM Brian Cashman refused to move him in any deadline deals when the team was making a push in 2015. The bullish attitude towards the slugger pushed his name into the national conversation. Yankee fans and haters alike bought into the hype.
The team then went full bore into rebuilding mode at last year’s deadline, adding to the strength and depth of its minor league system. The franchise pushed the narrative of the future, and the scouts lauded Yankee brass for their ability to stock the farm. Everyone was ready for the next crop of homegrown talent in the mold of Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte. Naturally, when the names started showing up in the Bronx, immediate success was the expectation, and Gary Sanchez’s rookie campaign certainly didn’t help.
Judge, of course, did not provide those same results. He struggled. That failure, ultimately, may have been the best thing for the slugger. It gave him plenty to work on in the offseason. Just as importantly, coming into 2017, the expectations were gone for the beleaguered slugger.
Judge found himself buried at the bottom of the Yankees lineup while players like Jacoby Ellsbury, who had far less power, hit cleanup.
Even after Judge got off to a hot start, Girardi was slow to move the right-fielder up in the order for fear of putting too much pressure on him. Status quo was working and he stuck to it.
Of course, you can only let the league-leading home run hitter swing away at the bottom of the order for so long. Judge has since moved up to a more traditional power spot, and he’s still delivering.
After failing so spectacularly last year, it’s only fair to ask a couple of questions: (1) Can this success be sustained? (2) Which Aaron Judge is the real Aaron Judge?
The answer? Something in the middle.
After going 2-for-4 on Tuesday with a couple RBIs, upping his season total to 37, Judge now sits with a .323 average and 1.112 OPS. He’s also got 56 strikeouts in 167 at-bats though he has added 26 walks. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has been cut in half from where it was in 2016. That is the biggest key to his success. Still, that strikeout rate remains a concern. He continues to strike out 28.8-percent of the time; a percentage well in line with his minor-league numbers. Much more improvement from there seems unlikely.
When Judge does make contact, it’s been hard contact. His BABIP is high as a result. He’s hitting .385 on balls in play. Last year at Triple-A he was at .319 and he hit .289 the season prior. Also, even while Judge’s power is real, his ISO is .368. That’s a truly ridiculous number. Most projection systems have him in the mid-.200s when the season ends, which would mean we can expect a significant power slump.
In the end, Judge’s numbers will regress. His average, in particular, will come down as pitchers adjust. His minor league career does not provide any support that maintaining an average north of .300 is realistic.
If you want more proof to support regression, the aforementioned Sanchez is a good example. He was last year’s reincarnation of Babe Ruth, but has had a more difficult time in 2017. Sanchez’s OPS+ is still over 100. He’s still an above average player, but he’s no longer a superstar. Teams watch, and teams adjust.
In the end, the power is real for Judge. You can count on that in our MLB Pick ‘Em Contests. The average is not. He will struggle. He will slump. But, he will also be a key component to a bright future for this Yankees team.