Aaron Judge Is Pulling the Ball Againon August 4, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Aaron Judge Is Pulling the Ball Again

For all of the dysfunction that Major League Baseball has offered thus far in the 2020 season, some players are firing on all cylinders, from first-month flashes in the pan (Donovan Solano is hitting .457/.474/.657, Hanser Alberto .429/.459/.686) to familiar faces. Few of the latter are doing so to a greater degree than Aaron Judge. The Yankees right fielder, who has missed a good chunk of the past two seasons due to injuries — and might have missed half of this one if not for the delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic — has hit an major league-high six home runs, all of them in a streak of five straight games from July 29 through August 2. That streak came to an end on Monday, as he had to “settle” for a 2-for-4 performance in the Yankees’ 6-3 win over the Phillies, their eighth in nine games.

The last two of Judge’s home runs came on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox and were timely, to say the least. His towering three-run shot to left field off of Matt Hall erased a 2-0 deficit in the second inning, while his two-run homer to left center off Matthew Barnes broke a 7-7 tie with two outs in the eighth inning, providing the margin of victory:

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That last one had a projected distance of 468 feet according to Statcast, making it not just Judge’s longest homer of the season, but the second longest in the majors this year behind a 483-footer by teammate Giancarlo Stanton on July 25 against the NationalsErick Fedde). The win gave the Yankees a three-game sweep over the Red Sox; during that series, Judge hit a two-run homer against Ryan Weber in Friday’s 5-1 win and a solo shot off Zack Godley in Saturday’s 5-2 win. Prior to that, he lit up the OriolesAsher Wojciechowski in a 9-3 win on Wednesday and Cole Sulser in an 8-6 win on Thursday; the latter was a three-run ninth-inning shot that also proved to be a game-winner. Here’s his fastest off the bat, an ungodly 110.8 mph versus Godley (sorry):

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Just three of Judge’s 27 homers last year were faster off the bat than that, led by a 116.3 mph job off the MarlinsRyne Stanek on July 5.

Now, none of the pitchers that Judge has beat up upon is likely to figure in the American League Cy Young race, to say the least, but that was still an impressive streak, the longest of Judge’s career. There were four such streaks last year, by Jose Altuve, Nelson Cruz, Yuli Gurriel, and Max Muncy, with Paul Goldschmidt topping them all with a six-game streak. The major league record is eight games, of course, shared by Dale Long (1956 Pirates), Don Mattingly (1987 Yankees), and Ken Griffey Jr. (1993 Mariners). Judge’s streak is the longest for a Yankee in 13 years, and the fourth-longest in franchise history:

In all, that’s not too shabby for a player who had significant health questions as recently as late June, and who has struggled to stay on the field and put together a full-season follow-up to his 52-homer, 155-game 2017 campaign, for which he made his first All-Star team, won AL Rookie of the Year honors, and finished second to Altuve in the AL MVP voting. Judge was limited to 112 games due to a chip fracture in his right wrist in 2018, and 102 games due to an oblique strain last year. While he hit .272/.381/.540 with 27 homers, his 141 wRC+ represented the lowest mark of the past three seasons.

Judge missed all of spring training due to what was originally thought to be a right shoulder injury but was later diagnosed as a stress fracture in his right first rib, traceable back to an attempted catch last September 18. As of June 24, he was limited to hitting baseballs off a tee; not until July 2 was he taking live batting practice. In other words, had the season had run on schedule, he might not have made his debut until after the All-Star break.

Through Monday, Judge leads all major leaguers in home runs, and all AL players in slugging percentage (.886) and wRC+ (245). He also ranks first in average exit velocity (96.0 mph), no small surprise given that he’s led in that category in each of the past three seasons, with a high of 95.9 mph last year. What’s particularly interesting about Judge thus far is that five of his six home runs have been hit to either left field or left center, his pull side. That’s nearly equal to his total for all of last season:

As I noted last August 29 — in an article I only remembered that I’d written by the time I got to this paragraph myself, despite the fact that it contained a ton of GIFs and spray charts and tables, but you try spending five months with a preschool-aged chatterbox during a pandemic — Judge didn’t even hit his first pull-side homer of the season until August 20, his 13th homer overall and the start of a stretch of seven homers in 11 days. Six of his final 15 homers were to the pull side; at 40%, that’s right on target with his career average. The increased rate of pulled home runs, and more success pulling the ball in general, appeared to owe something both to his fully healed oblique as well as some slight mechanical tweaks that I detailed within that piece. Even so, his overall pull rate on all of his batted balls, 38.7%, was the lowest of his career, down from 41.4% as a rookie and 40.2% in 2018. This year, in the early going — sound the small sample klaxon if you must — he’s at 69.6%, accompanied by a career low 34.8% groundball rate.

While Judge is one of the most prolific home run hitters in the game, the infrequency with which he homers to the pull side really stands out. Among the 26 players with at least 90 homers since the start of the 2017 season, he’s third-lowest in terms of the percentage of homers to the pull side, and tops in terms of the percentage that go to opposite field:

I’ve made that table sortable, so it should be fun to play with. As you can see, Judge is seventh in home runs overall during that timespan, but 23rd in pull side homers, and second only to Martinez in oppo shots. Why? It likely owes to a combination of his strength and bat speed — again, we’re talking about the perennial exit velocity leader here — as well as his whole-field approach, and the inviting short porch of Yankee Stadium, 314 feet away.

As you can imagine, Judge does take advantage of Yankee Stadium to some degree. In the same timespan, he’s hit 66 homers at home, second only to Martinez’s 71 but just as close to Nelson Cruz and Charlie Blackmon’s 61, which is tied for seventh. His 46 road homers, meanwhile, are tied for 22nd in that same span; Mike Trout is first with 60, one head of Cruz and Mike Moustakas.

One thing I found interesting in poring over his Statcast data is that while Judge’s average home run distance to the opposite field is a bit shorter at home, it’s longer by the same degree when it comes to his pull side:

For some reason, Statcast is missing distance data on four road homers in that span, two in 2017 and then one apiece in each of the past two seasons, and the pull/center/oppo totals differ slightly from the data here at FanGraphs (we have one fewer to center, one more to oppo), but I don’t think that really changes anything. For what it’s worth, Judge’s overall average distance for pulled homers ranks fifth in the majors for those with at least 10 (and third if you raise the cutoff to 12); Nomar Mazara is first at 424 feet. Judge is merely tied for 48th in average distance for opposite field homers, which puts him in the 40th percentile.

I don’t think there was any doubt Judge is drawing benefit from Yankee Stadium to some degree. The point is that he’s apparently healthy and launching monster shots for a team that looks like a juggernaut in the early going. The Yankees’ 5.67 runs per game ranks second in the AL, while their 20 homers, .489 SLG, and 133 wRC+ are first. Stanton, who likely would have started the season on the injured list as well, is healthy and hitting .296/.472/.593, Gio Urshela (.300/.400/.667) has continued last year’s magic, and DJ LeMahieu (.412/.429/.618) has thankfully shown no ill effects from his battle with the coronavirus. The sample sizes are small, but the Yankees still look like the team to beat, and having a healthy Judge and Stanton ought to give opposing pitchers night terrors.

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