Is a lingering oblique injury contributing to Aaron Judge's slump?

NEW YORK — Despite being mired in an awful slump, New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge says he’s fine physically.

“It doesn’t affect me at all,” Judge reiterated Thursday to Yahoo Sports of the oblique injury that cost him 54 games earlier this season.

Yet something is clearly wrong.

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Because when No. 99 is on, he’s one of the best players in the world.

And right now, he’s off.

Over his last 21 games, the 27-year-old is hitting .148/.266/.235 with one homer, four doubles, 12 walks and 31 strikeouts in 94 plate appearances.

During that span, he’s hitting .040 against four-seam fastballs (1-for-25, compared to .285 for his career), according to brooksbaseball.net, while posting a groundball percentage of 48.

Sure, he’s still hitting the ball hard, but he hasn’t been driving it consistently. And no, umpires constantly calling incorrect low/outside strikes on the 6-foot-7 slugger hasn’t helped either.

Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is currently in the midst of a slump. (USA TODAY Sports)
Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is currently in the midst of a slump. (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s all added up to a rather pedestrian (for Judge, anyway) .252/.382/.445, 12-homer, 32-RBI stat line in 2019.

“He’s not right, and it could be the injury,” one baseball insider told Yahoo Sports of Judge. “When you’re a little bit off, you get exposed, and right now he’s getting exposed.”

In Thursday’s 19-5 blowout loss to the Indians, Judge recorded the Golden Sombrero, striking out four times while going hitless in five at-bats. Overall, he hasn’t homered since Aug. 4.

“I don’t really feel like I’m in anything,” Judge replied when asked about the slump. “It’s just baseball. A couple of days ago [against the Orioles] I hit a few balls hard and had nothing to show for it, so it’s part of the game. I’m not really too worried about it.”

Judge’s track record — and unwavering positivity amidst past struggles in this game of failure — make it hard for anyone to bet against him.

Two years ago — in the midst of an MLB rookie-record 52-homer campaign that earned him AL Rookie of the Year honors — Judge struggled with a shoulder issue after the All-Star break, posting a .179/.346/.344 slash line in 44 games from July 14 to Aug. 31 before regaining his health and dominance in September.

Still, Carlos Beltran — who suffered a similar injury while playing for the Yankees in 2015 — said earlier this season that Judge might never get back to 100 percent in 2019.

“I don’t think so,” said Beltran, now a special assistant to GM Brian Cashman. “If he gets to 100 percent, then that’s great. At least in my case, I never got to 100 percent. I felt it through the end of the year.”

Judge, though, dismissed those comments, telling the New York Times recently that his issues are mechanical — referring specifically to his top hand.

“It’s an issue, missing your pitch — especially in the big leagues,” said Judge, who has unsurprisingly continued to play terrific defense in-spite of his offensive woes (though he nearly injured his wrist while making an admirable diving attempt on Thursday).

“Usually, I get pitched on the corners — or a little bit off — and very rarely get one over the middle, and when I do I got to make sure I do damage on it. And when your mechanics or timing is a little off you miss those. So it makes it a tough battle. But I have to keep grinding. It sucks right now, but we’ll get through it.”

The most staggering stat of all when it comes to Judge is the fact that he hasn’t pulled a homer in an official game since the 2018 AL wild-card game, when he blasted a two-run shot to left in the first inning off Oakland A’s opener Liam Hendriks. After posting pull slugging percentages of 1.043 in 2017 (22 homers) and .822 in 2018 (10 homers), Judge is down to .423 in 2019 (0 homers).

During a recent segment on MLB Network, analyst Mark DeRosa speculated two reasons for this: 1. Judge is still hurt or 2. He’s developed bad habits in trying to constantly drive the ball to right-center, where he’s had a ton of past success.

Regardless, Yankees manager Aaron Boone won’t be dropping Judge, who took early batting practice before Thursday’s game, from his customary No. 2 spot in the order.

“No, no,” Boone said. “Just some pitches he normally puts in play with authority he’s fouling off right now. I thought he took some close pitches that kind of didn’t go his way on a couple of them and [he’s grinding] through it right now. I know he had some good work before the game.

“As I said last night, the game’s hard. Over the course of the season, it gets the greatest of players, which certainly Judgey is. I’m confident he’ll grind his way through it, and hopefully soon.”

In the meantime, Judge’s teammates have more than managed to pick him up. The Yankees being 39 games over .500 has also helped ease the scrutiny. And further reinforcements could be on the way in the form of Luis SeverinoDellin Betances and Giancarlo Stanton.

Yet who knows if Gio UrshelaDJ LeMahieu and Mike Tauchman — as incredible as they’ve been to date — will be able to keep it going when the stakes are at their highest. Judge has proven himself to be just that type of big-game playoff performer — both in 2017 (four homers) and in 2018 (three homers), after he overcame a wrist injury.

The Yankees desperately need him to be that guy again — the guy who posted a .925 OPS and homered off Justin Verlander in his first 20 games of the 2019 campaign before going on the injured list.

If the past is any indication, he’ll do just that.

“It’s a long season,” Judge said. “I’ve done this for a couple years and I know how baseball works. You’ve got a couple weeks where you’re hot and they ask you what’s going on and why are you so hot? Then there are times when somebody’s slumping, [and they ask] what’s going on?

“It’s just part of the game. I’m focused on doing my job and making sure the team keeps winning.”

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