Why Aaron Judge’s Strikeout Numbers Are and Aren’t A Problem

Last Saturday’s Game 7 loss to the Astros was a tough one for the Yankees.  A team that has battled all year and exceeded expectations at every turn.  Considered to be in a rebuilding year at the beginning of the season, the Yankees surprised many by having a very successful season and even making the playoffs.  They then continued to surprise by coming back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS.  862906558-0

In the ALCS, the Yankees went quickly down 0-2 in the series to the Astros, but then worked their magic once again and won the next three at home to give themselves a 3-2 lead in the series.  Despite this wonderful effort, however, the Yankees would eventually fall to the AL West Champs in seven.

Many Yankee fans were disappointed in coming up short of a World Series appearance, myself included, but only for a brief moment.  I quickly realized that we weren’t even supposed to be there.  We worked ahead of schedule and had a good run.  And since this was technically a rebuilding year, the team still has much room to improve and will only get better from this moment on.  In talking about rebuilding and improving as a team, let’s discuss a key figure in this organization: Aaron Judge.

Aaron Judge has had quite possibly the greatest rookie season in MLB history.  Finishing the year with 52 home runs, 114 RBIs and slashing .284/.422/.627.  A statline that will certainly win him the AL Rookie of the Year award and possibly MVP.  But this incredible season comes with a tiny little blemish; Judge struck out 208 times.  A number that not only led the league, but also broke the rookie record for strikeouts in a season.  It is also worth mentioning Aaron Judge set the record for most consecutive games with a strikeout by a player (pitchers included) at 37, a record none would wish to hold.  aaron-judge-consecutive-games-strikeout-record

Now of course this is all no secret.  With all the hype surrounding Aaron Judge this season, it was hard not to hear about anything Aaron Judge-related.  Hell, ESPN practically had only three topics of discussion on their channel:  Aaron Judge, football, and LeBron James.  And anytime anything baseball-related happened, they had to relate it somehow to Judge, making their baseball broadcasts nearly insufferable (there’s other reasons, but let’s not get into that).  

So everyone knows he strikes out and everyone watched it happen over the course of the season.  And we continued to watch it into the playoffs.  The Yankees had a great playoff run, but Aaron Judge was not as effective as everyone perceived or expected him to be.  He came up big here and there, but it was quite honestly more often for his defense as opposed to his offense.  He only had one hit in the entire Cleveland series, and batted a decent .250 against the Astros.  He had four home runs paired with 11 RBIs in the playoffs and reached base a solid amount, but like in the regular season, his strikeout numbers continued to rise.  Judge struck out a whopping 27 times in the postseason, passing Alfonso Soriano for the most strikeouts in a single postseason.  Stats like this are less than ideal for a player the Yankees consider to be one of their main producers.

All of these ugly strikeout numbers paint Judge as being a pretty poor hitter at the plate, and it may sound like I’m trying to put down Aaron Judge, but I’m not.  In fact, quite the opposite.  What I am trying to (and will) explain is that Aaron Judge could simply be the leader of this new generation of hitters that is emerging in the league.  A generation that does not care much about strikeout numbers and is willing to sacrifice a few more strikeouts for more long balls.

If one were to look around the league right now, you would see a lot of free-swinging youngsters with high home run numbers, with Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger leading the way.  One can see this new trend forming just by the total number of home runs hit this season.  6105 home runs were hit this past year, absolutely shattering the previous record of 5693 in 2000.  The ball is flying out of the park left and right and it’s only going to increase from here on out.

The new generation of hitters love the home run and are very anti-small ball.  They’d rather beat the shift by bombing it 450ft over center as opposed to bunting it the other way.  You won’t be seeing guys like Kyle Schwarber or Joey Gallo bunting any time soon. joeygalloIn fact, they’d rather strike out trying than even attempt to hit it the other way.  And you can forget about fighting to get a piece on a breaking pitch.  These guys sit and wait on fastballs they can drive out of the yard.  If they’re thrown anything that moves, they’re either not going for it or swinging out of their shoes thinking it’s a fastball.  On the rare occasion they get a hanging breaking pitch, that’s when you see these guys driving the ball into a parking lot five blocks down the road.  These guys don’t care for contact hitting.  If it happens, great, but they’re more preoccupied with their launch angle; a new statistic that has been introduced in recent years with the help of Statcast.  Players will work on developing their swing to reach their desired launch angle, an angle ideal for driving the ball over the fence.  The problem is, hitters will then stick to this angle and not waver from it, meaning that they will quite often swing right through pitches they could otherwise put into play on the ground or at least foul off.  One argument for this philosophy of hitting, of course, is that a strikeout is simply another form of an out, no different than grounding out or flying out, to them, an out is an out.

But are strikeouts simply that?  Just an out?  Of course on the scoreboard it is, but does it always have the same effect on the game as every other type of out?  Short answer, no, it doesn’t.  Every out is unique and poses a different scenario, but let’s dive a bit deeper.  Let’s look at three players who are known for having high launch angles.  Let’s look at the stats of Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, and Joey Gallo.  All three of these players hit a lot of home runs this year, and all have had their fair share of strikeouts.  What happens most often when a batter attempts to fight off a strike two pitch, they roll over and bounce it into the ground, leading sometimes to double plays that kill a rally, so let’s check out these three’s ground ball and double play stats.

Key:

GO-Ground Out

GDP-Grounded into Double Play

GO_AO-Groundout to Flyout Ratio

NAME GO GDP GO_AO
BELLINGER 89 5 0.71
GALLO 65 3 0.67
JUDGE 100 15 1.01

 

As you can see, their ground out and double play numbers are quite low.  To put it in perspective, the rest of the league hovered around the mid-to upper 100s for ground outs and around the mid-to upper 10s for double plays.  Judge was right around there in terms of double play numbers, but in comparison to the rest of the league, his ground out numbers are quite low.  And Judge has the most “normal” stats out of these three players, yet still is more on the low-end in retrospect to the rest of the league.  These guys don’t ground out very often, and are able to produce with the long ball, so what’s the problem?  Is there a problem?  Well, maybe.

For the sake of this article, let’s stick to Judge.  I mean, he is the reason for this article in the first place and the one who has seen the most success and publicity.  Aaron Judge is what is known as a true outcome hitter, meaning he really only produces the three true outcomes: A walk, strikeout, or home run.  Evidence of this being the case for Judge can easily be seen in his OBP, home run, and strikeout numbers.  His home run and walk numbers are absurd no doubt, but that strikeout number is a bit of a problem.  Now I’m sure Yankee fans don’t mind Aaron Judge striking out a lot because they really only care whether he’s hitting home runs, which he is.  Quite honestly, they may even be too distracted by the home run numbers to realize the ugliness of his inability to put the ball in play when he reaches two strikes.  The fans might not care, but the organization should be a bit worried.image  This guy is supposed to be your future.  Him and Gary Sanchez are supposed to be your biggest two producers for the team and if Judge is struggling to put anything in play, especially with men on base, you’re going to struggle as a team.  “But Zach, like you said, he’s producing, just look at the numbers.”  Yes I understand that, and I do not mean to invalidate this season for him, but in all likelihood, he is not going to produce at this high of a level year in and year out.  If he does, then everything I say in this article means nothing.  But pitchers are going to learn how to pitch to him.  In fact, many already have.  Just look at his post all-star break stats (minus September) and his postseason stats; very low average and high strikeout percentage.  Pitchers know his weakness and will continue to learn how to pitch to him.  This will only lead to more strikeouts for Judge, which in turn will lead to less and less production from Judge.

This past season when Judge was on, he was on.  There’s no doubt about that.  But when he slumped, he slumped hard.  And that’s where we saw most of his strikeouts.  It wasn’t like he was striking out and producing at the same time.  When he got into his spells of continuously striking out, he stopped producing altogether.  This is where the problem truly arises.  If he were producing, but striking out for his outs (like he did in the first half), then there wouldn’t be much of a problem, but it’s because he is slumping and basically only striking out that the problem comes about.  When you are slumping, you still hope to put the ball in play and at least try to make something happen, especially with men on base, but Judge instead would strike out, ending any possible chance of helping his team out even when he’s not at his best.  

Aaron Judge’s season can be broken up basically into four parts.  First Half Judge, Post All-Star Break Judge, September Judge, and Postseason Judge.  Each version of Judge different from the rest.   First Half Judge was an absolute beast.  Slashing .329/.448/.691 with 30 home runs and 66 RBIs, earning him a starting spot in the All Star Game.  Post All Star Break Judge was disappointing at the least.  Judge’s batting average plummeted like my GPA during finals week and he only hit 7 home runs from the end of the All Star Break to September.  Production was down in nearly every category, except for walks.  Walks were the only thing keeping him afloat.  September Judge was arguably best Judge.  For the month he slashed .311/.463/.889 with 15 home runs and 32 RBIs.  September really boosted his stats back to being complete absurdity and helped solidify his historic rookie year.  And lastly, Postseason Judge.  Judge’s dominance was nonexistent throughout the postseason, causing him to come up short in key situations.  In total, Judge left 20 men on base during the postseason, which is not what you like to see from your top hitter.

These postseason numbers bring up an interesting question that I’ve seen discussed a bit about Aaron Judge.  Is he clutch?  Because being “clutch” is a trait that many teams hope for in their players especially come playoff time.  This question of clutchness, of course, is proposed about nearly every star player across all sports and it’s a bit of a tricky one.  Clutch is not something that can be really measured. kris-bryant-cubs It’s not a stat that can be calculated like batting average or slugging percentage.  A few have tried to calculate “clutch” in the past and have even attempted to calculate Judge’s “clutchness.”  Fangraphs.com published an article last month claiming that Aaron Judge has been “the least clutch player on record.”  A list that also includes greats like Joe Carter, Alex Rodriguez, and Kris Bryant. Their definition of clutch is this, by the way (More info on their website).

 

“…[H]ow much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations

than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” It also

compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high

leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered

clutch. Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very

little towards predicting the future.”

It’s a bit of an odd way if you ask me and attempts to mathematically explain a phenomenon that cannot be really explain because much of it is mental and random at times.  Much like the hot hand in basketball, clutchness is not something that can really be calculated or explained scientifically.  To me, it just happens.  But I guess that’s why I’m writing this article and not doing science experiments.  Clutchness is so difficult also because a big moment can happen at any point in a game.  The biggest play of the game could be a solo home run in the 3rd inning that helps the team win 1-0.  That’s generally not considered clutch, but is in fact a huge play.

Do I think Judge is clutch?  Would I trust him in a big spot?  I’m not sure.  But I would probably lean closer to no.  But that is only because I would trust a veteran player who has more experience in tight spots.  Judge is still a rookie.  And I think a lot of people still forget that.  He may have come up short in a few situations in the playoffs, but you have to remember he’s never been there before.  The more experience he gets in situations like that, the better he will get.

I’ve said a lot in this piece and have touched on a bunch of topics, but what does it all mean?  Are Judge’s strikeout numbers a big deal?  Yes and no.  It all depends on how Judge moves forward and develops as a player.  Again, he’s only a rookie.  He’s got time to adjust and improve.  He’s only played one full season at the big-league level.  There is still a lot that he has to learn690271066.  Having guys like Matt Holliday and Brett Gardner around this past year have had a great impact on his development and they will continue to guide him.  If Aaron Judge truly wishes to become an elite player for years to come, however, then he’s going to have to cut down the strikeouts a bit.  He doesn’t have to reach Tony Gwynn levels of patience and contact, but Judge does have to make a bit of an adjustment.  208 is far too many for a player in the meat of your order.  If he can learn to put the ball in play more and make things happen, not even get hits, then I feel he will see more improvement.  If he doesn’t, then he risks becoming a Chris Davis-type player who’s only usage is for the long ball, which I do not think the Yankees or Judge want.  

Judge doesn’t have to make too many adjustments on his eye at the plate, his OBP shows that he has an excellent one up there, but he has to be more mindful of the breaking ball.  The amount of times I’ve watched Judge swing and miss on the breaking ball low and away is far too many to count.  If he can learn to either recognize the spin a bit better or to step into the pitch and spoil it off, then he will drag out the at-bat longer and hopefully get a fastball he can crush.  

I have full faith Aaron Judge will adapt.  He’s a smart kid and want to succeed in this league.  He struggled last year during his September call up and was able to learn and grow as evident by this year’s performance.  Judge is going to have a long career in pinstripes.  Let’s just hope he can lay off some of those breaking pitches.

 

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