Aaron Judge would have been forgiven for regressing this year. If anything, a sophomore slide was the rational forecast for a player whose rookie season was so unexpected and extraordinary. Last spring, Judge was the narrow winner of a position battle with Aaron Hicks; by October, he was the most feared hitter in a lineup that finished one game shy of the World Series, having set a new rookie home run record with 52 taters, led the majors in fWAR, and completed one of the five best rookie seasons in history.
Anticipating greater or even comparable production in 2018 would have been unrealistic, as the sheer amount of good fortune, health, and batted-ball optimization necessary to craft such a successful season rarely occurs multiple years in a row. Judge’s strikeout-and-power profile in particular seemed to suggest a coming pullback. Judge’s OPS was 200 points lower in the second half than the first in 2017, and he went entire games in the playoffs without making contact; in the offseason, he drew, not unfairly, a comparison to the Orioles’ Chris Davis, who followed a 53-homer campaign in 2013 with a sub-Mendoza batting line the next year.
But a month into the 2018 season, the Yankees’ right fielder is hitting even better than last season, and through Monday’s games, he sits one spot ahead of Mike Trout and two ahead of Bryce Harper on the league’s wRC+ leaderboard. Judge is still walking and crushing homers and hitting the ball hard, and he’s also addressed his one glaring flaw: Unlike Davis, Judge no longer appears a threat to lead the league in strikeouts.
That shift represents a remarkable evolution for Judge, who struck out in an astounding 44.2 percent of his plate appearances in his rough 27-game debut in 2015, then posted the fourth-highest strikeout rate among qualified hitters (30.7 percent) last season. This year, though, he’s ahead of 49 others, at just 24.5 percent. Judge’s improvement is at odds with the leaguewide trend, which has seen strikeout totals continue to rise; now, he’s almost at the MLB average. Plus, only five qualified hitters have shrunk their strikeout rate by a greater amount than Judge from 2017 to 2018.
Judge hasn’t achieved this cut by overhauling his offensive strategy. Largely, his approach hasn’t changed from last season; he is still the same patient hitter, as his walk rate (now north of 20 percent) shows. His average of 4.45 pitches per plate appearance is a top-10 mark in the majors, and he’s reaching two-strike counts at nearly the same rate as last season. The difference in Judge’s strikeout rate stems from what happens in those two-strike counts. When a given plate appearance reached two strikes last season, Judge struck out 49.6 percent of the time; this year, that ratio is just 40.7 percent, which is below the league average of 43.1.
More specifically, Judge has limited his swing-and-miss tendencies in those situations. He’s still whiffing at basically the same rate as he did a year ago in zero- and one-strike counts, but despite retaining his all-or-nothing swing path earlier in the count, he’s lopped off a huge portion of his two-strike whiff rate, where he is now better than the league average. He’s adjusting within at-bats to fit each pitch’s context to much greater effect than a season ago.
On the surface, Judge isn’t reaping tremendous benefits from this shift. His OPS in two-strike counts has risen by a negligible amount (.731 last season, .736 in 2018), and his altered strategy means that when he does make contact with two strikes, he’s not driving the ball as hard in the air.
But Judge’s strikeout improvement carries a set of side benefits. First, basic math dictates that Judge reducing his egregious strikeout totals should provide him more opportunities to contribute in a variety of ways at the plate. At his current rate, he’ll lose about 40 strikeouts from last season, giving him that many more chances to walk or put the ball in play and hope for a base hit. With his roomy strike zone and long swing, Judge will never make contact like Joe DiMaggio, but as last year showed, he doesn’t have to in order to be one of the league’s best hitters.
Second, it makes for a more reliable presence in the lineup every day: In this era of three-true-outcomes hitting, teams can stomach a 30 percent K rate if that’s the price for a 50-homer campaign or .400 on-base percentage, but that profile is neither the most aesthetically pleasing nor the most helpful for a team over the course of a season.
Research from sabermetrician Bill Petti has shown that high-strikeout hitters are generally more volatile and less consistent with their production, as they’ll mix in plenty of 0-for-4 days along with homer binges. That makes intuitive sense, too, as batters who put the ball in play less often seem more prone to slumps; indeed, Petti writes in an email that Judge, who, at his strikeout nadir last summer, looked like the worst player in baseball, exhibited above-average volatility in 2017. (For comparison, Petti writes, Mike Trout, who posted a career-low strikeout rate last season, produced the second-least-volatile campaign of any player since 1974.) Petti’s research also suggests that greater consistency across the lineup is better for a team’s win total, so a more consistent Judge will aid New York’s run-scoring distribution at the margins.
And third, recent examples of TTO sluggers who limit their strikeouts offer positive models for Judge as he progresses from his rookie season. New teammate Giancarlo Stanton, for instance, won the NL MVP and collected 59 homers last year in large part because a revamped batting stance helped him cut a 29.8 percent strikeout rate to 23.6. (Of course, Stanton’s strikeout-laden start to his Yankees career means Judge’s adjustment might not be permanent, even if changes to plate discipline tend to be stickier than those to more luck-based metrics, like batting average on balls in play or home-run-per-fly-ball rate.)
Stanton’s change came eight seasons into his career, though; Judge is managing the feat in his second. The clearest recent comparison, then, is Kris Bryant, who in his rookie year struck out in 30.6 percent of his plate appearances, giving him the third-highest rate among qualified hitters. But he’s lowered that mark by sizable margins each year since: down to 22.0 percent in 2016, 19.2 percent in 2017, and just 13.3 percent—a top-25 mark—thus far in 2018. At first, Bryant’s strikeout gains provided a buffer against luck-based regression; although his BABIP fell by 46 points between his rookie and sophomore seasons, his overall batting line improved. Now, as he walks more frequently than he strikes out for the first time, the Cubs third baseman is creating runs at the highest rate of his prodigious career.
Bryant, of course, was a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection before triumphing in the MVP vote in his second season. Judge has the first box already checked, and while Trout will remain the AL’s favorite for the latter award as long as he’s healthy, the Yankees Goliath is the best bet of any in the field to overtake the Angels center fielder. A Judge with strikeout problems was frightening enough for opposing pitchers; a Judge without—who in a Troutian fashion is systematically recognizing and then fixing his weaknesses, and who will continue to evolve as his MLB career unfolds—is even scarier.
All stats current through Monday.