The New York Yankees have been MLB’s biggest surprise this season, sitting atop the AL East with a 17-9 record.
Behind the unexpected surge has been the promising play of a few young prospects — quite the change for the notoriously cash-happy, star-studded Yankees — none more so than 25-year-old right fielder Aaron Judge.
In less than one season in the majors, Judge has become perhaps the most fearsome hitter in baseball.
Through 26 games, he’s hitting .330 with a .587 SLG and .939 OPS. His 13 home runs lead the league and are the most by a rookie through 26 games in MLB history and his 27 RBIs are tied for the most in the AL. His 10 homers in April were a MLB rookie record. According to ESPN, Judge has six homers of 425 feet or more, most in baseball.
The rise has been most likely, as Judge, at 6-foot-7, 282 lb, represented something of a gamble for the Yankees when they took him with the 32nd pick in the 2013 draft.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal how the analytics alone would have suggested Judge would be a risky pick.
“From an analytic standpoint you try to make safe bets, and Judge coming out of college was 6-7, and he had a lot of strikeouts, and from a historical standpoint in this game, being 6-7, is obviously a detriment.”
According to Rosenthal, only 12 players 6-foot-6 or taller have made 1,000 plate appearances in MLB history.
There are concerns with players’ swing mechanics when they’re as big as Judge. As ESPN’s Keith Law broke down on Buster Olney’s podcast, big players can have “long” swings and can get jammed up inside. Billy Beane of the A’s noted to Rosenthal that contact was an issue for Judge — he had power when he could hit the ball, but whiffing was common. Even last season, Judge struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats.
Still, according to Rosenthal, the Yankees, like Beane and Judge’s college coaches, were impressed with Judge’s power, athleticism, and mental approach. It’s paying off.
Like Barry Bonds before him, there is something extra-captivating when Judge rips the ball.
According to Law, Judge has made adjustments to his swing at every level. Yankees manager Joe Girardi recently pointed out that Judge has focused on his legs more in his stance and has stopped kicking his legs on swings. Pitchers will adjust to Judge, but he has shown the ability to make the adjustment right back.
“He has become more disciplined, more selective, and is forcing pitchers to be even more precise,” Law said. “I still think there are ways to pitch to Judge, but if you miss, this is what happens. I really do believe … Judge is going be a star for a long time because his ability to make that adjustment to control the strike zone enough where pitchers have very little margin for error is real.”
We’re not even an eighth of the way through the MLB season, meaning there’s plenty of time for pitchers to figure out Judge and for Judge to slump. In the meantime, he’s raking at a historic level and making the Yankees, improbably, a darling of MLB.
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