Since 2017, Aaron Judge Has Not Been The Same; In 2020, That Could All Change

New York Yankees, Aaron Judge
Mar 3, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) runs the bases after hitting a two run home run during the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees are known as the “Bronx Bombers” and for good reason. This is mainly because they have frequently looked to shape their team around a group of power hitters and home run stars, a pattern which stretches back decades ago to the days of Babe Ruth. If anything, one can debate that the Yankees have implemented this style of hitting now more than ever before, characterized by their ball-crushing group in Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sánchez and now even the young shortstop in Gleyber Torres.

The 2019 season was nothing short of ideal, as the Yankees powered their way to another booming year, placing 2nd in the league in home runs with 306 on the season, just one shy of the Minnesota Twins (ESPN). But impressively yet oddly enough, Aaron Judge nor Giancarlo Stanton were at the forefront of this accomplishment. Stanton did not play much at all last season due to a left bicep strain which was then followed by a rough knee injury midway through the year, so his absence is naturally understandable. But Aaron Judge, on the other hand, has not looked the same since the record-breaking year he had as a rookie in 2017.

Despite posting 27 home runs in each of his last two seasons, which is a nice achievement for your average MLB player, this is rather low for what Judge can actually bring to the table and it’s simply hard not to notice the drop in numbers Judge has had since his rookie year (ESPN). It’s certainly fair to say that Judge battled his own share of injuries as well that kept him on and off the field these last two seasons. But Judge did play over 50% of the games in both 2018 and 2019, so that doesn’t remain to be the major reason why he hasn’t been able to perform as the superstar we expected him to be (ESPN). Essentially, what has been the biggest, consistent struggle for Aaron Judge is strikeouts, which has taken big shots towards his confidence. And this struggle comes down to two key factors for Judge: 1) plate discipline and 2) perfecting his swing.

Let’s put it into statistical perspective: In 2017, Judge led the Yankees in strikeouts with 208 (ESPN). After coming off a season where he played 155 games, Judge followed that up with 112 in 2018, leaving us with a bewildering statistic: Judge was second in strikeouts behind Stanton with 152 in total, eclipsing fellow teammates Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Miguel Andújar and Didi Gregorius by 30+ strikeouts despite all of them playing 130+ games on the year (ESPN). Last year wasn’t much different: Judge was second in strikeouts again after playing only 102 games on the year, this time only one shy from team leader Luke Voit at 142 (ESPN). In addition, Judge yet again had more strikeouts than Gleyber Torres, Brett Gardner, DJ LeMahieu, and Gio Urshela who all played over 130 games (ESPN). Along with his strikeouts, Judge’s walk total has also shot down tremendously over these last three years; he had 127 in 2017, which then fell steeply to 76 the year after, and then to 64 last season (ESPN). On top of that, Judge’s on-base percentage also took a hit; starting off with a strong .422 OBP in 2017, his OBP dropped to a .392 in 2018, which was then followed by a decent .381 OBP last season (ESPN).

It might be hard to grasp his struggle with just these statistics that only show you so much. But if you watched Judge play last year, it’s hard not to forget his continuous challenge to refrain from swinging at biting off-speed pitches low in the zone almost on a daily basis. Now more than ever, pitchers do not throw strikes that are in the zone as much as they used to because hitters have become way too good at hitting those kinds of pitches out of the park. As a result, pitchers throw much more out of the zone and Judge’s vulnerability was certainly exposed due to that adjustment and how effective it can be against hitters.

It’s been two years since Aaron Judge has battled his hitting discipline issues, and entering his fifth season, it’s tough to imagine him doing so for a third straight year (ESPN). Let’s take for example 2019 NL MVP Award Winner Cody Bellinger. After ripping up the National League in 2017, Bellinger took a hit his sophomore season with the Dodgers, only mustering 25 HRs and 76 RBIs after coming off a rookie season where he posted 39 HRs and 97 RBIs (ESPN). Bellinger, similar to Judge, also struggled with strikeouts, leading the team in 2017 and then placing 2nd in 2018 (ESPN).

But what transformed Bellinger was the same two issues Judge needs to overcome as well. First, Cody strengthened his discipline at the plate tremendously, dropping his strikeout total from 151 to 108 in 2019 and upping his walk total from 69 to 95 (ESPN). Power hitters are notorious for biting so easily at pitches out of the zone, and just like Bellinger, Judge could finally bounce back and break that habit this season. In addition, Bellinger refined his swing in order to produce the best contact and delivery he could place on the ball, and it was a game changer. For Judge, it’s the same thing: He needs to perfect his contact swing as he develops a better eye at the plate, which will allow him to become much more than just a home run or strikeout hitter.

After having a full offseason of rest and conditioning, Aaron Judge is poised to jump back onto the scene again and start off this decade with a bang. Judge is a gifted hitter and looking back on 2017 and what he’s accomplished, it’s hard to believe that such performance was just a fluke. Judge raised the bar and set the new standard for young power hitters in 2017, which has introduced us to studs like Mets first baseman Pete Alonso who broke his rookie home run record. But Judge has still so much to prove at the age of 27 after sliding off the map these last two seasons. And if he beats on his craft this preseason, improving his discipline and contact swing at the plate, Aaron Judge could very well post a mammoth, MVP-caliber season for the New York Yankees.