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Aaron Judge Is Now Chasing the Wrong Kind of History

We might not know what’s causing the Yankee phenom’s drastic second-half decline, but we can say that it’s nearly as extraordinary as his first-half success

Aaron Judge Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

On July 20, a little less than a week after baseball’s All-Star break ended, my colleague Ryan O’Hanlon published a tongue-in-cheek takedown entitled “Aaron Judge Has Become the Worst Player in Baseball.” As Ryan noted, Judge had gone 3-for-26 with nine strikeouts, two double plays, and a caught stealing in seven second-half games, amassing the worst FanGraphs WAR of any player in the brief span since the break.

At the time, Judge’s uncharacteristically rough week looked like the lone opportunity to find fault with the player whose breakout had become one of the game’s biggest stories. No one expected his mini-slump to continue. Until that stumble started, Judge, the majors’ first-half MVP, had seemed to improve as the season progressed. June had been the Yankees right fielder’s best full month of the season, and he’d hit .357/.438/.714 in eight July games before a “break” in which he’d won the Home Run Derby with a physics-defying power display.

However, that apparent case of the hiccups has continued for seven subsequent weeks. Judge, who’s hitting .183/.350/.355 with a 34.1 percent strikeout rate since the All-Star break, has only eight homers in that span, and while idle Wednesday relinquished his long-held AL home run lead to Oakland’s Khris Davis. Judge no longer has the worst WAR of the second half, but he’s closer to the bottom of the leaderboard than the top, ranking 125th of 168 qualified hitters. His 0.3 postbreak WAR through Tuesday’s games put him between Kevin Pillar and Jean Segura, far from the rarefied air he occupied earlier in the year.

Theories about Judge’s dramatic downturn abound, even if we exclude the oft-debunked—albeit not completely unprovable, in any individual case—supposition that the Home Run Derby messes with a slugger’s swing. For one, Judge was due for regression after recording a league-leading .426 BABIP and 41.7 HR/FB rate before the break; although he’d hit the ball harder than anyone and often looked like a hitter who was capable of breaking the scale, those numbers were too high even for a genuine giant to sustain.

For another, pitchers have zeroed in on Judge’s apparent weaknesses, throwing their fastballs to him higher in the zone (and more often away) and also delivering a more steady diet of sliders (23.9 percent in the second half, up from 20.3 percent in the first half). As Judge has seen fewer pitches in the strike zone—38.3 percent, down from 41.3 in the first half—he has both chased more often (30.1 percent swing rate at out-of-zone pitches, up from 25.7 percent) and missed more often (65.7 percent contact rate, down from 68.3 percent). Some inconsistency in the way that umpires have handled his unusually elevated zone probably hasn’t helped.

Lastly, it’s possible that Judge is playing through injury. Last week Yankees beat writer Bryan Hoch reported that Judge repeatedly received extra treatment on his left shoulder in August, and quotes from Joe Girardi in the same article made it clear that if Judge were at less than full strength, he wouldn’t necessarily let on to his team or the media. Although the 25-year-old has retained his ability to hit tape-measure shots—two of his three longest dingers this season came in mid-August or early September—a nagging shoulder problem would help explain why he’s been clearing the fence so much less often.

Whatever the reasons for Judge’s extended slump, the disparity between his first- and second-half performance is stark. So much so, in fact, that it’s prompting questions about whether the drop-off is historically significant.

As it turns out, Judge’s late-summer swoon could be as extraordinary as his spring success. It’s typical for players to produce less overall value after the All-Star break than they did prior to that point, because baseball’s “halves” aren’t split down the center of the schedule. (The Yankees reached their nominal midway point after 86 games.) Nor, of course, is it uncommon for players to have huge mismatches between their early and late production when injuries limit their playing time in the second half of the season. As one would expect, though, it’s odd for a player who doesn’t miss significant time to sink from a superstar half to a virtually replacement-level sequel within the same season.

To determine where Judge’s drop-off ranks, I asked FanGraphs founder David Appelman to send me first- and second-half WAR values for all hitters who qualified—that is, made at least 3.1 plate appearances per team game—in both halves of past seasons. Because the All-Star break doesn’t always occur at exactly the same point in the schedule, he used July 15 as a cutoff for each season to keep things consistent. And because FanGraphs’ game-by-game records go back to 1974, he set the starting point there, giving us a sample of 43-plus seasons.

It’s too soon to cement Judge’s ranking; he has almost a month to add to his second-half total, and he could still erase himself from the below leaderboard if he finishes strong. As of today, though, he just beats out former Tiger Brennan Boesch, whose hitting underwent an unparalleled free fall from a 166 wRC+ in the first half of 2010 to an abysmal 20 wRC+ in the second. Barring a season-ending bounceback, Judge would finish among the dual-qualified players with the biggest WAR drop-offs between their first and second halves. Among other players this season, only the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon, who’s fallen from a first-half 4.9 to a second-half 1.6, comes anywhere close to the top of this list with weeks remaining in the regular season.

Leaderboard showing Aaron Judge ranking second among qualified hitters with a 4.8-game drop-off in WAR so far in 2017

Excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season, only one player in this 40-plus-year period has recorded a greater WAR decline than Judge has had to date: Twins shortstop Roy Smalley in 1979. Smalley hit .341/.424/.535 in 89 games through July 15 of that season, then plummeted to .185/.262/.327 in 73 games thereafter. Smalley was a solid player who’d peaked the previous season with a WAR of close to six, but he’d never before hit the way he did for the first three months of 1979, which earned him his only All-Star selection.

Just as in Judge’s case, some of Smalley’s early overperformance may have been BABIP-related; the shortstop posted a .349 BABIP in the first half, well above his .278 career rate. (Smalley may not have known what his BABIP was, but a Star Tribune column in September 1979 noted that he had “admitted repeatedly that he was playing over his head.”) But in Smalley’s case, the main culprit could have been overwork; as you may have noticed, 89 and 73 sum to 162. Smalley, who led the AL in plate appearances, didn’t get any days off.

Smalley also attributed his struggles to raised expectations and increased scrutiny; we don’t know whether Judge has suffered from the same pressure, but he’s found himself at the center of an even more intense spotlight. “It seemed to me that I was going to have to carry a lot of the offense and I just let it get to me,” Smalley said in the same Star Tribune piece. “I just magnified my problems and I got all messed up, I built up so much anxiety. Plus I was tired. I needed those three days off during the All-Star break more than I’ve ever needed three days’ rest in my whole life.” Smalley hit only .145/.229/.248 in September.

There’s only one asterisk on Smalley’s first-place ranking: The All-Star break came earlier this season than it did in 1979, and Judge’s second half started with a game on July 14. Because Appelman’s cutoff was July 15, Judge’s 0-for-9 in his first two post–All-Star starts still counted toward his first-half WAR total for the purposes of this piece. Switch those oh-fers from the first-half column to the second-half column, and Judge’s decline would be a bit bigger than it appears, although likely not by enough to displace Smalley’s by the time Judge’s season is done. Although Smalley’s ’79 is tops among hitters, the greatest post-1974 decline from first half to second among dual-qualified, non-strike-season players came from a pitcher: Roger Clemens in 1988.

Table showing Rodger Clemens leading in WAR drop-off among pitchers with a 5.2-game difference

Clemens, the reigning Cy Young Award winner that season (as he so often was), posted 7.3 WAR through July 15 but added only 2.1 WAR after that. According to contemporary accounts, he hurt his back moving furniture at his home in August, which led to the first five-game losing streak of his career. One article from early October noted that he’d “relied more on an off-speed arsenal than his celebrated fastball” in his last 10 starts, and on the eve of the playoffs, even Clemens admitted, “I don’t know if I’m 100 percent or not.” Clemens was bumped back to Game 2 in Boston’s ALCS matchup with Oakland, and although he went seven innings and struck out eight, he lost his sole start in the series sweep.

Clemens is neither the only Hall of Fame–caliber player nor the only Red Sox ace on the pitcher list; for now, Chris Sale joins him after a fantastic first half of 2017 and a less superb second half so far. Sale, who has a 4.57 ERA since the start of August, has made only nine starts after July 15, and given his track record, he’s not a bad bet to pitch himself off this list.

I’ll close on a more positive note, with two tables listing the hitters and pitchers who’ve enjoyed the largest second-half WAR increases in seasons since 1974.

Hitters:

Table showing George Brett leading the all-time WAR increases between first and second halves, with a 3.6-game difference

Pitchers:

Table showing Frank Tanana leading pitchers in all-time WAR increases, with a 3.5-game difference

We’ve seen a new entry on the hitter top 10 in each of the past two seasons, courtesy of torrid stretch runs by Shin-Soo Choo in 2015 and Joey Votto last season. (As of now, no hitter appears poised to join them this year.) The pitcher leaderboard has stayed largely unchanged in recent years, perhaps because teams have grown less willing to work their arms hard toward the end of the season.

Judge is winding down on a much more negative note, but the positive spin on his lopsided season is the same as it was for Smalley’s and Clemens’s. For one thing, Judge could also be hiding a fleeting, underlying issue (like Smalley’s fatigue or Clemens’ ill-fated interior redecorating) that would make his funk understandable but wouldn’t hamper him in the future. For another, a four- or five-win decline in the second half of a campaign is possible only after a heck of a first half. Despite his decline, Smalley received MVP votes in 1979, and Clemens finished sixth in AL Cy Young voting in 1988 (according to FanGraphs, the 11th-most-valuable pitching season of the past 30 years).

Judge’s complete body of work will likewise impress future stat-page surveyors who haven’t experienced the extreme ups and downs of his 2017 season in real time. He’s still a lock for AL Rookie of the Year, and even if he doesn’t add a tenth of a win to his total between now and October, a sixish-win season would be about 4 1/2 higher than the preseason projections foresaw. Even if it ends in unpleasant fashion, Judge’s season will still qualify as an unexpected triumph.