Pitchers are adjusting their approach to Aaron Judge

Of the Baby Bombers promoted since the calendar turned to August, Gary Sanchez has received the vast majority of attention, and justifiably so. That isn’t to say there hasn’t been any excitement regarding Aaron Judge, who hit a mammoth home run in his first big league at-bat and another long ball in his second game. After the 6-foot-7 outfielder’s first two games, though, Sanchez has torn the cover of the ball while Judge has slowed down a bit. This post isn’t intended to compare the two, but rather to illustrate a trend for Judge that has been somewhat overlooked (or we’ve been distracted from) because of Sanchez’ home run barrage.

Judge, a first round pick in 2013, has arguably been the jewel of the farm system since latching on to the organization. The power is obvious, and the athleticism is impressive given his stature. It’s easy to dream on Judge becoming the Yankees’ right fielder for the next decade while holding down a spot in the heart of the lineup. But if there’s any fly in the ointment, it’s Judge’s ability to consistently put the ball in play.

In the minors, Judge has run high strikeout rates, reaching as high as 28.5% in Triple-A last season. This season, while repeating the level, he did improve that mark. A 23.9% rate before his promotion to the Bronx still isn’t ideal, but certainly a positive development. Strikeouts in the minors are a highly predictive measure of a player’s success in the big leagues, so Judge certainly still has that working against him. This isn’t to say that his strikeouts will foil him, but it won’t help his chances of unlocking his potential.

Generally, the book on Judge has been to attack him with breaking balls away. Last year, when Marcus Thames was still Scranton’s hitting coach, he had the following to say about Judge’s weakness:

“If you come to a game and watch, everybody’s trying to make him expand (the strike zone),” Thames said. “So if he expands, he’s going to get himself out. So he’s going to have to have discipline to know what he does well, and that’s swing at strikes. If he does that, he’s going to be fine. Once he does that, everything else is going to take care of itself. He’s still learning. He doesn’t have 1,000 minor-league at-bats yet. I think he’s in a good spot and he’s going to do some damage.”

Case in point, from Spring Training:

Because Judge has had a history of fanning frequently doesn’t mean he has an undisciplined approach. He’s had a penchant for taking walks in the minors, posting walk rates just above 11% in each of his two seasons at Triple-A. In his short stint with the Yankees, he’s walked 3 times in 33 trips to the plate. I know, small sample size, but he’s only swung at 28.8% of pitches outside of the strike zone and 41.3% of all pitches. League averages for those are 30.4% and 46.5% respectively, meaning at the least, Judge has been selective thus far.

Knowing that the scouting report is to attempt to get Judge to fish at breaking balls, I took a look at opponents’ pitch selection over time. Thus far, Judge has seen 133 offerings, not including the 5 knuckleballs he saw from Steven Wright. I thought it would be better to exclude such an uncommon pitch to get a better idea of how pitchers have approached the mammoth right-handed outfielder.

Judge Pitch Selection
Pitch data via Baseball Savant

Surprise, surprise. The more the league has gotten to know Judge, the more breaking balls we’ve seen. Expect that trend to continue until Judge can either fend off or take those pitches with some regularity.

Through last night’s game, Judge has been punched out in 11 of his 33 times at the plate. Although his career is incredibly young, that total shouldn’t surprise anyone at the moment. Is he a true 33.3% strikeout rate hitter in the majors? He might be. For fun, let’s just say he does settle in as a 30% strikeout guy; how much success have others had with similar issues?

SeasonNameTeamK%wRC+
2015Chris DavisOrioles31.00%147
2015Kris BryantCubs30.60%136
2013Mike NapoliRed Sox32.40%128
2016Mike NapoliIndians31.30%127
2014Chris CarterAstros31.80%125
2012Chris DavisOrioles30.10%121
2016Trevor StoryRockies31.30%119
2016Giancarlo StantonMarlins30.30%116
2011Mark ReynoldsOrioles31.60%116
2012Adam DunnWhite Sox34.20%115
2014Adam Dunn- - -31.10%113
2013Pedro AlvarezPirates30.30%112
2016Chris DavisOrioles33.40%112
2012Pedro AlvarezPirates30.70%112
2013Chris CarterAstros36.20%112
2016Chris CarterBrewers31.70%110
2013Adam DunnWhite Sox31.10%107
2012Carlos PenaRays30.30%98
2014Chris DavisOrioles33.00%94
2013Mark Reynolds- - -30.60%94
2013Dan UgglaBraves31.80%91
2011Drew StubbsReds30.10%90
2016Steven Souza Jr.Rays34.40%90
2015Michael TaylorNationals30.90%70
2012Drew StubbsReds30.50%65

Since 2011, there have been 25 individual seasons in which a hitter qualified for the batting title with a strikeout rate 30% or greater. 17 of those 25 hitters were above average producers overall, per wRC+. So hey, that’s good news! Right? Not so fast. Selection bias strikes!

Simply put, teams aren’t going to tolerate a 30% strikeout rate unless a hitter makes up for it in another department. Only the most talented big swingers are going to get chances while whiffing so often. Teams are far more willing to give players a chance with, say, a 15% strikeout rate. This is why you mainly see guys like Chris Davis, Kris Bryant, and Giancarlo Stanton in the group above. They hit dingers, and lots of them. You want to go down on strikes nearly a third of the time in the big leagues? That’s fine, as long as you put the ball over the fence 30 some-odd times a season. The guys at the bottom of the list, like Carlos Pena, Dan Uggla, and Michael Taylor, are either out of baseball or struggling to get back to the bigs because they don’t offer much when they aren’t striking out.

Fortunately for Judge, there’s a chance his power can make up for his shortcomings. He has substantial raw power, and put it on display with his first big league home run. There’s also a chance that he shows improvement putting the bat on the ball, like he did year-over-year in Triple-A. To this point, there’s absolutely no reason to write him off, and I don’t think anyone is, because of his penchant to whiff. We just need to be patient, because the slugging potential is unquestionably present. As long as Judge counters opposing pitchers’ adjustments to him, he’s more than capable of being a very successful middle-of-the-order bat.

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