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Aaron Judge’s Historic Season Keeps Rolling — Even When His Teammates Fall Flat

As on 25 or so other occasions this season, Aaron Judge had himself a week. Sunday afternoon, in the first inning of a series-capper against the Tampa Bay Rays, Judge saw a fastball — in but not in enough — and swept his bat through the zone, buzzing the left foul pole with a leadoff home run. (The run would prove decisive in New York’s 2-1 victory.) In a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Twins on Monday, Judge came to the plate four times, walking once, doubling once, and cracking another homer. Across a Tuesday doubleheader, he tacked on still another long ball — his fourth in as many games, bringing his seasonlong and team-record-threatening total to 55 — and five more walks. Last night, in a 4-3 loss, he went 2-4 with a walk and a double.

Over the past couple of months, Judge’s incessant racking up of big numbers has been about all that’s gone right for an otherwise cratering Yankees club. Whatever your benchmark is for Something Special — Babe Ruth’s 60, Roger Maris’s Yankee-best 61, Sammy Sosa’s 66 — some good old cross-multiplication gives you all the analytics you’ll need. (Fifty-five divided by 138 times 162 spits out 64.6 home runs in 162 team games, putting Judge within a short-porch Yankee Stadium shot of Sosa.) But at the turn of September, a three-game losing streak helped whittle what had been a 15.5-game lead in early July to just four. “That’s hopefully one of those rock-bottom situations, where you should be pissed off and embarrassed,” manager Aaron Boone groused after one 9-0 drubbing.

In its way, the recent fritziness of the franchise has helped to clarify the career year of the franchise player. Baseball is built to throw even league-leading teams into existential crisis; losing your stride and finding it again make up the basic rhythms of the sport. But the most remarkable thing about Judge is not his long-evident power, but rather the new and airtight consistency with which he’s managing it. He’s playing like someone who’s got the game, and himself, well and truly solved.

Back in mid-July, when he had 33 home runs — the same number AL second-place-holder Shohei Ohtani has right now — Judge spoke with The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler about his game-prep approach. “My main objective is to try to drill a line drive at the second baseman’s head every single time I get a pitch to hit,” Judge said of his batting-practice sessions. “That’s usually what I focus on the first couple of rounds, but there’s always a round or two where you see where the power is at and let it eat.”

Control and power, savvy and strength — the former girds and boosts the latter. Since he burst on the scene with 52 homers in his 2017 Rookie of the Year campaign, the only non-injury-related problem Judge has had is how best to optimize his gifts. His superscaled frame — 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, officially — allows him to send pitches seemingly to whichever directions, altitudes and distances he likes, but it also cursed him with a strike zone the size of a picnic blanket. His at-bats are percentage plays. Does he swing at the fastball at his kneecaps — or an inch or two below, where umpires still tend to call strikes out of spatial habit — or bet that something better is coming? Take his chances on the breaker or wait for heat? At what point on the multi-axis chart of aggression versus patience and power versus contact does the best version of Judge lie?

This year, Judge has offered a pretty good answer. His walk percentage is up and his strikeout rate is the second-lowest of his career — numbers that by themselves would account for a minimizing of empty at-bats if not necessarily a maximizing of damage. But Statcast’s Swing/Take metric tells us even more. The stat charts pitch location and assigns a run value to every outcome (hits and outs, but also strikes and balls, etc.), and Judge’s cumulative score of 69 leads the majors, 8 points clear of second-place Paul Goldschmidt. 

Most revealing of all is how Judge has built his score. While 30 runs of his value come from spoiling, laying off or hitting “chase” or “waste” pitches far from the plate, his work on competitive pitches at the edge of being strikes — within the “shadow zone” in Statcast parlance — has him at minus-five, nowhere near Freddie Freeman’s half-swinging artistry. By being discerning with stuff at the margins, though, Judge has forced, and then positively wrecked, offerings in the heart of the plate. His plus-44 run value is 21 points clear of Austin Riley, MLB’s second-most-effective meatball masher. (Last season, Judge graded out at plus-11 in the same area.)

A series of at-bats against a new-in-town nemesis has made for a useful case study. In a late-July matchup with the New York Mets, Judge struck out three times against Max Scherzer sliders: low and away, biting at 55 feet, not much to be done. What followed was a parable of patience. When the Mets came to the Bronx a month later for the rematch, Judge finally saw a ripe fastball in the third inning — “I was just trying to get something over the heart of the plate and do damage,” he’d say mantra-like in postgame — and, with that big arc of a stroke, skied it over the opposite-field wall. Like every hitter has to, Judge concedes perfection to opposing pitchers. The difference, this year, is that anything less than perfect tends to end up 450 feet away.

For evidence of how hard this is — not only to attain your best level but to hold onto it, for the half-year of an MLB season — you can look more or less anywhere else on the Yankees’ scuffling roster. The hitters who paced New York’s red-hot start, to the tune of a .753 teamwide OPS and nearly five runs a game through the end of June, have cooled across the board. Since July 1, Jose Trevino (.637 OPS) has turned back into the light-hitting catcher he’d historically been before an All-Star breakout this year. Josh Donaldson and DJ LeMahieu (.665 and .717) are suddenly looking all of their 36 and 34 years, respectively. Over those same two-plus months, though, Judge has gotten on base at a .467 clip, slugged .762 — putting his seasonlong OPS at a baseball-leading 1.092 — and amassed more wins above replacement than anyone else in MLB.

The question over the back half of the Yankees’ season is a straightforward one: how can they be playing this lousy when their biggest star is playing this well? The answer is that most of the Yankees are baseball players in the conventional and recognizable sense, prone to streaks and slumps, hampered by innate and uncorrectable weaknesses. Judge used to be one of those, too. Now he’s something else.

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Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.


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