- Many people have tried to figure out what's wrong with Aaron Judge in the second half of the season, could he just be regressing to the mean?
Aaron Judge was the most interesting man in baseball during the first half of this season, a Statcast wonder, a Sports Illustrated cover subject, an All-Star starter and the Home Run Derby champion. The 6' 7", 285-pound rightfielder hit an MLB-high 30 homers before the break—that's a 57-homer pace over a full season, if you don't have your calculator handy—powering the Yankees into position for a wild card berth. Since the All-Star break, however, it's been an entirely different story.
The contrast between Judge's first half and second half performances is stark. After hitting .328/.448/.691 in the first half and leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages as well as WAR (5.3), he's hit just .169/.329/.355 and his WAR has actually slipped back to 5.2. He's also made the wrong kind of history, striking out in 37 consecutive games, the most ever by a position player. Explanations abound, none of them fully satisfying. The latest includes the possibility that his woes are physical, at least in part. According to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, Judge "appeared in the [Fenway Park visitor’s] clubhouse with his left shoulder iced heavily after Sunday's game. Judge said twice that the shoulder 'doesn't bother me at all,'” but he also conceded, "I'm not getting the job done. … It's a little disappointing not to get the job done, but nothing you can do about it. You can't pout, you can't cry. You've just got to keep working and move on."
While manager Joe Girardi suggested that Judge's issues are related to his swing mechanics, neither Judge nor hitting coach Alan Cockrell believe that's the case. Via Newsday's Erik Boland, Judge said, "The big adjustment is I’m missing my pitch. They’re leaving some over the plate. Earlier in the year, I wasn’t missing those. I was putting those in play, I’d put it in the gap, put a good swing on it. The past four weeks, I’m fouling those pitches off. Now it’s 0-1. Then they’re giving me a dirty pitch and it’s 0-2, and before you know it, you’re always in that fighting mode [behind in the count] instead of being on the attack. So I just can’t miss my pitch, that’s the biggest thing.”
Judge was bound to regress at least somewhat after that torrid first-half performance. But while he still leads the AL with 37 dingers and has a shot at Mark McGwire’s rookie record of 49, his game has become practically all-or-nothing. While he struck out in 29.8% of his plate appearances prior to the break, he's at 37.4% since, having tied the major league record of 37 consecutive games with a K set by former Expos pitcher Bill Stoneman in 1971 and '72. Only three other streaks among the top 15 came from non-pitchers in a single season: the Brewers' Geoff Jenkins, the Mariners' Mike Cameron and the Rockies' Brad Hawpe all struck out in 26 straight games, the first two in 2001, the last in '07. As with home runs, strikeouts are at a record level in 2017, but that's still eye-opening.
The strikeouts camouflage the extent to which Judge's performance in both halves has been driven by drastic shifts on batting average on balls in play. In the first half, Judge had a .426 BABIP, a mark that would stand as the highest since World War II if maintained over a full season (Rod Carew's .408 in 1977 is the record). In other words, that shiny batting line was all but certain to erode. Meanwhile, his .233 BABIP since the break would be the majors' fourth worst this year; teammate Todd Frazier has the worst at .221.
Of course, underlying BABIP is the quality of contact, which can be measured in multiple ways. Via FanGraphs, Judge's rate of hard-hit balls in the first half was 49.0%, third in the majors behind the Tigers' Nick Castellanos (49.6%) and Miguel Cabrera (49.5%), but in the second it's fallen to 34.3%, 89th among the 173 qualifiers but still above the MLB average of 32.1%. In terms of average exit velocity as measured by Statcast, Judge's balls in play have dropped from 95.9 mph before the break to 92.8 mph after, and if we exclude the groundballs from that, the drop is from 100.3 mph to 92.8 mph (again). Even his average home run distance has dropped, from 413 feet to 406.
So Judge isn't making contact as often, isn't hitting balls as hard when he does make contact and isn't getting as good a set of results all the way around. What about pitch selection? Using data from Brooks Baseball, Judge has fallen off drastically against four-seam fastballs, from a .318 batting average and .705 slugging percentage in the first half to .154 and .269 in the second. His drop-off has been not quite as pronounced against sinkers (.362/.741 in the first half, .263/.474 in the second) but it's nearly unprintable for sliders (from .207/.414 to .039/.154). Granted, those are small sample sizes but still, he has just one hit, a homer, out of 26 sliders with which he made contact since the break. Meanwhile, Judge's rate of whiffs per swing has gone up in the second half for practically every type of pitch: four-seamers (26.4% to 27.8%), sinkers (20.0% to 32.5%), sliders (46.1% to 67.2%), curves (51.9% to 554.6%) and changeups (40.7% to 47.6%).
FanGraphs' Travis Sawchik has a more comprehensive breakdown of the pitch selection Judge has faced. The whole thing is worth reading, but the take-home is that pitchers are adjusting to the slugger. Judge is seeing more fastballs high or above the zone in the second half than the first (from 10.9% of all pitches to 14.5%), and likewise for more fastballs away or away off the plate (18.4% to 22.3%)—and he’s particularly having trouble making contact with the ones high and away.
Judge isn't the only reason that the Yankees' offense has fallen off from 5.55 runs per game before the All-Star break to 4.14 since, including 3.84 this month. Frazier hasn't helped as much as hoped (.221/.348/.389) since arriving in a trade with the White Sox, and while both Aaron Hicks and Jacoby Ellsbury have produced memorable moments since returning from long injury-related absences, they're batting a combined .167/.269/.333 nonetheless, and tStarlin Castro and Matt Holliday are still on the disabled list.
The Yankees will need several of those hitters to improve their production in order to hold onto a wild-card spot (they lead the Twins by 2 1/2 games for the top spot) or make another run at the Red Sox, whom they trail by 4 1/2 games. But whatever the explanation for his woes—psychological, physical, mechanical, or voodoo curse—Judge’s rebound would go a long way toward helping them reach October.