Why Aaron Judge's monster 495-foot HR is just the beginning for the Yankees rookie

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Before he launched a 495-foot rocket-propelled grenade to the reaches of Yankee Stadium, where no previous ball ever dared go, Aaron Judge’s longest home run of the 2017 season had traveled a piddling 457 feet. Thirty home runs this season had gained more frequent-flier miles than that, including ones from such luminaries as Yan Gomes, Chad Pinder, Austin Slater, Greg Garcia, Brett Eibner and Jorge Soler. It’s almost like Judge didn’t want to unveil all of his feats of strength too early in his breakout season.

Over the weekend, Judge shattered any illusion he was holding something back. On Saturday, he hit a home run that left his bat at 121.1 mph and reached the stands in 3.6 seconds. No ball has been hit harder since Major League Baseball started tracking every batted ball three years ago. For an encore Sunday, Judge took poor Logan Verrett’s hanging 85-mph slider and did something so obscene to it that the broadcast should’ve been rated TV-MA.

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It’s impossible to say whether Judge is unlike anything baseball ever has seen, because radar-aided camera technology did not exist during the eras of Frank Howard, Mark McGwire and the other leviathans of the game who may well have smashed balls at similar speeds. The longest home run ever is Mickey Mantle’s 565-foot blast at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., and it’s pretty clear it didn’t go 565 feet. Technology has a funny way of making legendary feats seem a lot less legendary.

Still, nothing in baseball captivates quite like a titanic home run. Fans live to see a ball travel parts of the stadium that seem impossibly far away. And though yours truly and others have hypothesized that the uptick in home runs across the game this season stem from a change to the ball itself, if that is the case, it’s not necessarily making the ball fly farther.

While it may seem like there are more mammoth home runs than ever this season, the percentage of those that have gone at least 450 feet actually are almost the exact same as they were the last two seasons — 2.60 percent this year, 2.46 percent last year and 2.57 percent in 2015, according to Statcast. The change in 425-foot-plus homers is relatively negligible, too. In the most tangible difference, the percentage of 400-foot-plus homers is at 53.86, up more than 3 points from last year and 4 from 2015. It hasn’t done a whole lot to change average distance of home runs, which has jumped a foot a year, from 399 to 400 to 401 this season.

A few more like Sunday’s, and …

1. Aaron Judge may single-handedly move that number by another foot. Thing is, it’s not like what happened over the weekend comes as any surprise. In the battle of people who have hit a baseball harder than 119 mph this season, the scoreboard reads:

Aaron Judge: 4
The 729 other MLB players who have a plate appearance this season: 0

And that’s not even counting the 495-foot job, which left his bat at 118.6 mph. That simply joins the list of the 25 hardest-hit balls this season, of which Judge has 10.

Aaron Judge’s 495-foot home run on Sunday is the longest since Major League Baseball started tracking every batted ball three years ago. (Getty Images)
Aaron Judge’s 495-foot home run on Sunday is the longest since Major League Baseball started tracking every batted ball three years ago. (Getty Images)

Look, it’s easy to say all this hullabaloo over exit velocity is pedantic because, well, it is. Seriously, does it really matter if a guy hit the ball 121.1 mph vs. 115 mph? Both sear the air at an inconceivable speed. Neither is particularly likely to end in an out. Guy hit it really, really, really hard. Do we really need to quantify that?

No. Of course not. This is baseball, though. It is the sport of numbers, of minutiae, of pedants. If the toy that is Statcast gives us even an iota more appreciation for what Aaron Judge is capable of, good on it, good on the people who geek out for it and good on MLB for using its technology wizardry to help sell one of its stars. Being the King of Statcast didn’t exactly help …

2. Giancarlo Stanton’s Q-score, but then playing in front of 1,500 people at Marlins Park has a particular way of destroying much hope for that.

It is interesting to see Judge doing what always was presaged for Stanton. He was the one who hit 490-foot home runs. He was the one who hit balls 120 mph. He was the one whose power was the impetus behind a $325 million contract. And while he’s off to a rather delightful start — .286/.366/.564 with 16 home runs — Judge is one of the few who can dwarf Stanton in size, might and achievement.

Stanton does carry at least one statistical advantage over Judge: His average home runs travel 417 feet, the fourth longest in the game behind third-place Kendrys Morales, second-place Avisail Garcia and …

3. Mark Reynolds, masher of mashers. Some incredible power hitters have played in Colorado: Andres Galarraga, Larry Walker, Todd Helton, Vinny Castilla. Never before has the fun of Coors Field been matched with a straight-up fence-swinger like Reynolds, whose early-career exploits blossomed at Chase Field, a.k.a. Coors Light.

Today, Reynolds is the Rockies’ first baseman, a minor league contract gone extremely good. He’s hitting .314/.392/.586. His 17 home runs have gone an average of 421 feet. While he showed signs last season of excellence in Colorado, this season Reynolds may well be on his way to the first All-Star appearance of his 11-year career.

It’s been a better one than most realize. Yes, he is the pure embodiment of the proliferation of strikeouts in baseball, portending the era with three consecutive 200-strikeout-plus seasons, including the major league record of 223 in 2009 (which is well on its way to being destroyed this year by Chris Davis, who is on pace for nearly 250 punchouts). Reynolds also has more than 250 home runs, and that number should swell, seeing as he’s just 33.

Whether it’s in Colorado is unclear. One GM once said he’d love to run the Rockies because they could shuttle in new hitters every year, build up their value and trade them. Reynolds doesn’t exactly fit the Rockies well long-term, and yet it’s difficult to deny his production, especially with their was-gonna-be first baseman, Ian Desmond, struggling. Even with newfound pitching depth, the Rockies needed all the runs they could get when …

4. Tyler Anderson was on the mound. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Rockies pitcher is Reynolds’ equivalent: the hardest-hit in the big leagues. And this isn’t average exit velocity — that belongs to Phil Hughes, at 90.6 mph — but longest home runs allowed.

Of the 59 pitchers this season who have allowed at least 10 home runs, Anderson’s have flown the farthest, matching Reynolds’ average of 421 feet — a large part of the reason he may well be getting Wally Pipped by Jeff Hoffman as he’s on the DL.

That Brett Eibner mention earlier? Anderson’s doing, all 465 feet of it. And lest you think this is Colorado’s fault, nine of those 13 home runs Anderson allowed have been on the road.

That’s where the longest one of the year before Judge’s came. By the time it landed …

5. Jake Lamb had hammered the ball 481 feet. Lamb is one of the most underappreciated players in baseball, perhaps because he needs to string together two halves of a season to make an argument that he truly is elite.

Considering most All-Star “snubs” aren’t really snubs at all, Lamb had a legitimate beef last season when he didn’t make the National League team despite hitting .291/.371/.612 at the break. This year, he’s about the same: .276/.372/.560 with a NL-leading 57 RBIs, which, yes, are a function of the excellent offense around him but also reflect his .323/.423/.708 line with runners in scoring position.

At 39-26, the Diamondbacks are the biggest surprise in the NL, and Lamb gets an immense amount of credit for an offense scoring more than five runs a game. His 16 home runs lead the team, and they’re just a pair behind …

6. Joey Votto, the NL leader and still as good a hitter as ever. It’s time to start talking about Votto’s Hall of Fame case, frankly, because even if this does turn out to be the finest power season of his career, he’s bringing an awfully compelling case to the table.

OPS+ — weighted on-base plus slugging — is the easiest digestible metric without diving into a pure wonk festival. Votto’s career OPS+, which is adjusted for era, with 100 average, is 157. Here are the other players with a career OPS+ of between 155 and 160: Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Albert Pujols, Willie Mays, Dick Allen, Frank Thomas, Tris Speaker, Hank Greenberg, Johnny Mize and Stan Musial.

Now, that number almost assuredly will go down. After 11 years, Pujols’ was at 170, and it’s now 155. His plate discipline cratered, though. Votto’s is better than it’s ever been. He has 44 walks and 32 strikeouts in 223 at-bats this season, an upside-down number for this era. Only seven others have such an inversion: Buster Posey (27/18), Anthony Rizzo (39/31), Mookie Betts (30/24), Robbie Grossman (34/30), Dustin Pedroia (23/18), Aaron Hicks (33/31) and Anthony Rendon (35/34).

Votto is so good that not even …

7. Justin Smoak has a better OPS than him this year, and that’s saying something, because Justin Smoak — yes, Justin Smoak — has been one of the best hitters in the American League. If not for Judge, Smoak would be leading the AL with 18 home runs.

There’s this idea in baseball of a post-hype breakout — that a guy like, say, Aaron Hicks, who was a top prospect coming up, can fail, eventually resurface somewhere and look like the player he always was supposed to be. Smoak is post-post-hype. He was the linchpin of Texas’ huge deal to get Cliff Lee. Seattle waited five years to see something from him and ended each sorely disappointed. Toronto did the same for one season, brought him back and seemingly inexplicably extended him for two years last July.

The last laugh is the Blue Jays’. Smoak has been a savior to an offense in desperate need of a jolt. A career .232/.298/.383 hitter from the right side, he is at .386/.451/.682 in limited opportunities against lefties this season. And his left-handed stroke has produced 14 home runs, pushing him to the cusp of a career high barely a week into June.

Big power surges are de rigueur for 2017, though …

8. Marwin Gonzalez’s comes with an interesting twist. Now let it be said: A home run is a home run. A Pesky Pole hugger counts every bit the same as one that goes 495 feet. And yet of all the players this season to hit at least 10 home runs, none has done so with the meagerness of Gonzalez.

Again, a 378-foot home run — that’s Gonzalez’s average distance — is a whole lot better than an out hit at least 400 feet (of which there have been 74 this season). Gonzalez’s first home run of the year went 359 feet, and the next 369, and the one after that 349, and part of the issue with these short home runs is the dimensions of Houston’s ballpark, what with the Crawford Boxes poison to some longer shots.

Gonzalez certainly can hit the ball far, with one shot off Nick Martinez landing 424 feet away, but then …

9. Gary Sanchez’s average home run going into Sunday landed 427 feet away, and then he happened to hit his 10th home run of the season 450 feet, longer than any of the previous 29 he’d hit in his career.

It would be easy to compare Sanchez to the glittering start of his major league career last season, and yet that’s not necessary, because what Sanchez has done this season speaks for itself. He does not hit home runs. He clobbers them. Look at this register: 426, 448, 428, 429, 440, 434, 421, 412, 409, 450. That looks more like Bartolo Colon’s month-by-month weigh-ins than a list of home run distances.

Here’s what we can say with a fair bit of certainty now: Last year was no fluke. Sanchez is no Kevin Maas. The Yankees have developed a franchise catcher, one of the hardest things to find in baseball, and in the same lineup they trot out …

10. Aaron Judge, another product of their player-development system. The giddiness in the Bronx today isn’t so much about what the Yankees are this year, which is good enough to win the AL East, particularly once infielder Gleyber Torres arrives and they grab another starting pitcher at the trade deadline.

No, it’s the idea of a future with Aaron Judge in the middle of the lineup. He is a rookie, remember, just 25 years old, and he is hitting .344/.450/.718 with 21 home runs and 47 RBIs. He leads all three Triple Crown categories, and though that should not automatically ensure anyone of winning the MVP, Judge is just that in the AL right now.

He may struggle. He may swoon. He is not 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds of perfection. Flaws will be found. Judge’s ability to adjust is what’s most frightening. He looked lost during his stint in the big leagues last season, and now he is doing what no rookie before ever has.

Pujols hit .329/.403/.610, and Ted Williams hit .327/.436/.609, and Shoeless Joe Jackson went .408/.468/.590, and, yes, the player Judge surpassed atop the hypothetical midseason MVP ballot, Mike Trout, put up more than 10 wins above replacement. Judge may not reach that, but his power surge is like McGwire, only better.

So keep watching and enjoying. One of these days, a ball is going to fly off the bat of Judge at 120 mph-plus, at just the right launch angle, in just the right sorts of conditions, and it’s going to land so far away the number starts with a 5. That’s when it gets into historic territory, into all-time talk, into the sort of place with each passing day, each passing at-bat, Aaron Judge seems destined to find himself.

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