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Is Aaron Judge Really Back to His Early-2017 Form?

The Yankees slugger has hit six home runs over the past five games, including two on Sunday night against the Red Sox. Has he finally figured out how to replicate his rookie-year success, or is it too soon to tell?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In case you haven’t heard, or have the phrase “All Rise” muted on Twitter, Aaron Judge has hit home runs in each of his past five games, including two on Sunday Night Baseball against the Red Sox. It’s an impressive achievement: Since 1901, there have been only 148 homer streaks of five-plus games, or a little more than one such streak per year. (The record for consecutive games with a home run is eight, held by three players, most recently Ken Griffey Jr., in 1993.)

But it’s also not that surprising. If you had to pick any active player to go yard in five straight games, it would probably be Judge, who has more power than anyone else in the league. In fact, any home run binge from Judge is exciting because it offers the possibility that we could see the return of the Judge most fans remember: The gigantic rookie who hit 30 home runs and slugged .691 before the All-Star break back in 2017. Judge finished second in AL MVP voting that year and posted 7.2 offensive bWAR, but in 2018 and 2019 combined he earned just 7.5 offensive WAR as a series of injuries kept him out of the lineup and sapped his power. Just last Friday, I wrote in less-than-enthusiastic terms about the Yankee right fielder’s chances of reaching 500 career home runs, and it’s possible—even likely—that Judge will never again be as good as he was in the first few months of his rookie season.

At this stage in the truncated season, it’s impossible to fully evaluate whether the old Judge is indeed back. The Yankees have played in just eight games, and Judge has batted a mere 36 times. Looking at the numbers on aggregate right now would only be slightly more informative than walking around the outfield stands at Yankee Stadium with a divining rod to see where Judge’s next homer will land.

But because the season is so young, we can examine each of Judge’s six home runs relatively quickly. Each swing holds some clue into Judge’s mechanics, approach, or overall skill set that could shed light on his outlook going forward. And more important, it’s fun to watch the big guy sock a bunch of dingers.

Home Run No. 1

Pitcher: Asher Wojciechowski
Exit velocity: 104.7 mph
Distance: 386 feet

There’s a reason we don’t see very many position players Judge’s size: His body limits his game in many respects. He moves better than most 280-pound athletes, but not as fluidly as many of his smaller contemporaries. His long arms stretch out his swing to the point that he’s going to strike out a third of the time no matter what. But while Judge has great plate discipline and plays solid defense in right field, there is one skill that makes him special, and it also comes from him being the approximate size and weight of a Cadillac sedan de Ville: his power.

Wojciechowski’s 91 mph fastball was not a good pitch; the K-zone box in this video was clearly calibrated for someone much shorter than Judge, so according to Statcast, this was actually a strike. Nevertheless, Judge gets under it and pops it up with a 39.2 degree launch angle: Through Saturday, MLB players had hit 281 home runs so far this year, and only nine of those came off the bat at a higher launch angle.

Which is to say that if an MLB hitter with average power made that kind of contact on that pitch, he would’ve thrown his bat on the ground and jogged halfheartedly to first base as the left fielder caught the ball 30 feet short of the track. But since this is Judge, the ball comes off the bat at almost 105 mph and ends up four rows deep in the seats. Being big enough to play offensive tackle has its advantages.

Home Run No. 2

Pitcher: Cole Sulser
Exit velocity: 107.3 mph
Distance: 413 feet

This is the quintessential Judge home run, and it looks a lot like what he’d meant to do against Wojciechowski the night before. This is a 95 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate, and because Judge has more plate coverage than a hungry teenager at Thanksgiving dinner, he reaches out and yanks it back to left field. Not many players can turn a one-run deficit into a two-run lead so casually.

Home Run No. 3

Pitcher: Ryan Weber
Exit velocity: 99.5 mph
Distance: 376 feet

This is a very, very strange home run. First of all, Statcast categorized this pitch as a curveball, which based on speed is probably accurate, but the ball appears to tail back in like a change-up would. Either the center-field camera is so far off-center that it looks like the ball is moving in the wrong direction, or this was an absolute cement mixer of a pitch. Probably a little bit of both.

This ball comes down and in on Judge, and given the speed and location, one would expect him to put a golf swing on it and pull it down the left-field foul line. Instead, he tucks his hands in and pokes this ball to the opposite field. This result apparently also comes as a surprise to Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who has to run all the way in from Weehawken to make a leaping attempt to rob the home run. Bradley comes up short, and gets his spikes stuck in the outfield wall for his trouble. Not the prettiest home run of Judge’s career—the combination of pitch, swing, and fly ball trajectory makes me want to put my head down on my desk and take a nap—but they don’t ask how, they ask how many.

Home Run No. 4

Pitcher: Zack Godley
Exit velocity: 110.8 mph
Distance: 455 feet

We all know what happens when Judge gets a hanging breaking ball up in the zone, so don’t watch Judge here, watch Godley. The Boston right-hander throws a knuckle curve and realizes the instant it leaves his hand that he’s hung it. Godley puts his head down and turns his back to the plate before Judge even finishes swinging, and sure enough, this ball goes out at 110.8 mph and lands in the bleachers over the bullpen, sending Fox’s creepy digital fans running for cover.

Home Run No. 5

Pitcher: Matt Hall
Exit velocity: 107.9 mph
Distance: 419 feet

If by some misfortune you happen to throw Judge a belt-high pitch on the inside corner, a fastball is usually the way to go. For his career, Judge is slugging “only” .630 against four-seamers in that zone, compared to his 1.023 combined slugging percentage against breaking balls and off-speed pitches. Unfortunately for Red Sox lefty Matt Hall, this pitch comes in at 89 mph, and Judge comes out of his shoes swinging at it—much to the delight of ESPN play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian, who shouts so loud he hits the limiter on his microphone.

Every home run binge contains a few lucky breaks and fluky wall scrapers—such is the nature of the hot streak. This was neither fluky nor lucky.

Home Run No. 6

Pitcher: Matt Barnes
Exit velocity: 107.4 mph
Distance: 468 feet

Another belt-high pitch on the inside corner, this one a breaking ball, and you already know what Judge does to breaking balls in that part of the zone. He hits this one 468 feet, which is so many feet I want to christen this the Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood of home runs. Across MLB, this is the second-longest home run of the season, after Giancarlo Stanton’s 483-foot suborbital expedition from the first weekend of the season.

In order to return to the question of whether Judge is back, we must also return to the numbers for a minute.

Judge’s Numbers From 2017 to 2019

2017 (1st half) 0.322 0.448 0.691
2017 (2nd half) 0.228 0.391 0.548
2018 0.278 0.392 0.528
2019 0.272 0.381 0.54

Wondering whether Judge is returning to his 2017 form isn’t a specific enough question, because comparing his 2018 and 2019 production levels to the second half of 2017, it’s like he never left. Judge’s preposterous full-season stat line from 2017 was floated by a doubly preposterous first half. After the break that year, Judge’s production fell off significantly, and has remained at that level ever since. Now, Judge has still been an All-Star-caliber player when healthy; a .900 OPS is a hell of a level to “fall off” to. But we all remember those magical couple of months when it looked like Judge might turn out to be change-the-rules good. Where did that go?

The obvious answer, for a rookie power hitter in his first trip around the league, is that teams started pitching him differently. And it’s tempting to embrace that conclusion, considering Judge’s walk rate as a rookie ballooned to more than 20 percent as he stopped hitting for power. But the aggregate numbers don’t bear that out. The composition of pitches he faced didn’t vary more than a few percentage points month to month, and he saw almost exactly the same percentage of strikes in 2017 as in each of the next two seasons.

But in mid-2017, Judge started packing his left shoulder in ice after games. He denied then that he was playing through an injury, but that offseason he underwent arthroscopic surgery to clean out loose bodies in the joint. In July 2018, Judge took a Jakob Junis pitch off his wrist and missed 45 games. In April 2019, Judge injured his oblique and missed two months; then in September, he cracked a rib diving for a fly ball. Judge didn’t miss any time, but by March he and the Yankees revealed that the shoulder injury that had kept him out of spring training was actually related to the broken rib, and that Judge had suffered a collapsed lung as well. He came back for summer camp having rested and healed over the break, then went on to suffer a neck injury that kept him out of action leading up to Opening Day.

None of these injuries present nagging concerns, and two of them—the broken rib and wrist—are the result of acute impact, not the steady degradation of muscles or connective tissue. But there’s a consistent thread here: Judge has been playing through injury more often than not since mid-2017. And after the longest offseason in MLB history forced him to take time to recover, he’s more than halfway to the record for home runs in consecutive games.

Just typing that sentence puts me at risk of being crushed by a falling anvil with “correlation does not equal causation” scrawled on the side, or a piano marked “small sample size.” But baseballs hit by Judge are also dropping out of the sky at an alarming rate nowadays. And if he’s healthy for the first time in three years, that can only help.