Everyone knew New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge was going to be a unique player. His height told us that much. Only a handful of players have reached the majors at 6-foot-6 or taller. Even fewer have stuck around long enough to make a significant impact.
Those who lasted did so with a similar skill set. They supplied elite power, excellent patience and a ridiculous amount of strikeouts. The same should have been expected of Judge. In many ways, that’s been the case. Judge is tall, powerful and whiffs often.
But there’s one key area where Judge is completely defying the odds. Despite a strikeout rate that places him among the league’s worst, Judge is hitting an incredible .331 through his first 328 plate appearances.
Consider this: 28.5 percent of all Judge’s plate appearances have ended in strikeouts. That ranks in the top-15 this season. Judge went into Thursday’s game with a higher strikeout rate than Chicago Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber — and Schwarber was sent to the minors after hitting .171.
Schwarber may be an extreme example, but his performance highlights just how difficult it is to hit for average when you strike out at such an extreme rate. Only one hitter in MLB history has posted a .300 average or higher while striking out in at least 28 percent of his plate appearances. Melvin Upton hit exactly .300 in 2007. He had a 28.1 percent strikeout rate.
If you want to go further back, Mark Reynolds flirted with .300 in 2006, hitting .299 with a 26.4 percent strikeout rate. That same year, Ryan Howard hit .313 despite a 25.7 percent strikeout rate.
Judge is whiffing more than all three players. He’s hitting .331.
The correlation between a high strikeout rate and a low batting average is obvious. If a player swings and misses a lot, he’s not making contact often. If he’s not making contact, he’s not putting the ball in play. If he’s not putting the ball in play, he’s not getting a lot of hits.
Most of that is true for Judge. Judge’s Contact%, which measures how often a player makes contact with balls both in and out of the strike zone, is just 69.3 percent. That’s the 12th lowest rate in the league.
When Judge has made contact, though, balls are falling in. Judge has 89 hits, which put him near the top of the league. One of the main factors contributing to that is Judge’s batting average on balls in play, or BABIP.
BABIP measures how often a ball put in play goes for a hit. It was initially believed the average BABIP should be about .300, but there are some exceptions. Speedy, contact hitters, like Ichiro Suzuki can post higher BABIPs since they put the ball in play often and use their speed to beat out hits. Hulking sluggers, like Adam Dunn, can post lower BABIPs since most of his balls are hit in the air, and easier to field.
Dunn’s career BABIP was .286. Ichiro, who is considered a pretty big outlier, has a career BABIP of .339. Judge leads baseball in 2017 with a .419 BABIP.
That figure isn’t just high for this season, it’s historically significant. Since 1900, only three players in MLB history have ever posted a BABIP higher than .419. Babe Ruth had a .423 BABIP in 1923, George Sisler had a .422 BABIP in 1922 and Rogers Hornsby had a .422 BABIP in 1924.
While that’s tremendous company, Judge’s high BABIP makes evaluating his season complicated. Nothing in Judge’s profile suggests he should post abnormally high BABIPs. He’s more Dunn than Ichiro at the plate. The fact that’s he’s been able to do so thus far suggests he’s benefitted from a fair amount of good luck.
It’s also plausible that Judge has been locked in all year. If he’s hitting the ball hard and seeing the ball extremely well, perhaps his BABIP should be exceptional. It’s at least something to consider.
But the problem with that argument is that it’s unreasonable to expect Judge to sustain this level of success. Ruth, Sisler and Hornsby all reached their extreme BABIPs with much lower strikeout rates than Judge. Ruth’s 13.3 percent strikeout rate was the highest of the trio.
On top of that, none of those players were able to sustain those numbers for long. Both Hornsby and Sisler were able to post one more year with a BABIP over .400, but that was it. Ruth finished with a career .340 BABIP. Sisler had a .346 BABIP. Hornsby was the best of the bunch, posting a .365 BABIP over his career. During Judge’s brief career (he played in 27 games in 2016), he’s posted a .392 BABIP.
Ty Cobb is the only player in MLB history who could sustain an abnormally high BABIP for a lengthy period. Cobb’s name appears six times on the list of the top-30 BABIPs in MLB history. The stat doesn’t go back further than 1913, so there’s no data for Cobb’s first eight years in the league. He retired with a career .378 BABIP.
What does that mean for Judge? Unless he’s the next coming of Ty Cobb, regression is likely to hit. That’s obvious. As good as Judge has been, rare is the player who can post a .331/.451/.699 slash line over a full season. His batting average is going to decline.
How much worse will it get? Everything about Judge suggests he fits the profile of the hulking slugger. That doesn’t mean his BABIP will suddenly drop below .300. Giancarlo Stanton, for example, has a career BABIP of .320. Even with that, Stanton’s career batting average is .266.
Even if Judge were to hit .250 over a full season, he would still be a valuable player. His power is elite, and he walks enough to post high on-base percentages. Even when you factor in extreme regression, he’s an above-average player. Right now, though, he’s playing like an MVP.
History screams that Judge is an outlier. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest he’s mortal, and bound to fall back to Earth. And yet, he’s excelling now, leaving a sliver of hope that maybe Judge is just incredibly unique.
Everyone expected that. No one expected this.
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