The 2020 season was the perfect encapsulation of Aaron Judge’s career. It is clear that the Yankee right fielder is one of baseball’s best players. It is also clear, unfortunately, that the big slugger has issues staying on the field. He got hurt after hitting a home run against the Atlanta Braves on August 11, returned briefly on August 26 for a few innings in Atlanta before re-injuring himself, and then came back for good on September 16. All in all, he played in just 28 of the Yankees’ 60 regular season games. It was not what you want.
Let’s dive into Judge’s season, which was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, shall we?
A Torrid Start
The start of the Yankees’ season this year was a blast, and Aaron Judge was a big reason why. In his first 68 plate appearances, carrying him through the August 11 calf strain, Judge hit .290/.343/.758 (190 wRC+) with a ridiculous 9 home runs. As expected, he was a key reason why the Yankees jumped out to an 11-6 start, logging a +0.93 WPA in just 17 games. He singlehandedly won a turbulent game in Baltimore, which put the Yankees back on track after a little mini-skid out of the gate. I’m sure you remember this, but here’s the video:
Just three days later, Judge was at it again in a Sunday night matchup against Boston. It was my favorite game of the season, personally, and this absolutely gargantuan blast is why. It was so predictable, which made it so much more fun:
That, my friends, is what I like to call “extreme 2017 Aaron Judge energy” right there. He kept it up for another week. Nearly half (44%) of balls he hit over the period registered as “hard-hit” per Statcast, meaning they left the bat at over 95 miles-per-hour. Of those, 17% were barrels, meaning he coupled that high velocity with the ideal launch angle. This was a function of laying off bad stuff (just a 26.9% rate of swinging at balls) coupled with absolutely pummeling balls in the zone (67.4% contact rate in the zone). It was a joy to watch.
It is important to remember all of this, given the next section: Judge is, without a doubt, one of baseball’s most talented players. There are no two ways about it. When he is clicking, he is actually as good as it gets. It was short-lived in 2020, sure, but we saw it in full force at the start of the season.
An Equally Bad Finale
Unfortunately, it would not last. As I said, Judge got hurt – on a home run, cruelly – a few days later, on August 11. He would not return until mid-September, in large part because he rushed back from injury (more on that in a minute). And even though he returned in theory, Judge was far from himself in practice.
Judge would play in just 10 games before the start of the playoffs, and he looked very, very bad in the process. He hit just .194/.386/.222 (65 wRC+) in the 43 plate appearances afforded him over that stretch. His exit velocity, while still impressive (91.4 miles-per-hour), was down, for him, and at no point did he hit the ball authoritatively into the air. In fact, he had just one extra-base hit (a double against Miami) in those ten games.
If there was good news, it was that Judge’s trademark patience and discipline at the plate remained as strong as ever. He walked 16.3% of the time and continued to lay off the junk (24% chase rate). The reality is that he was probably not fully healthy, nor did he get a chance to actually ramp back up to game speed if he ever was given the lack of MiLB rehab options.
Worse, those struggles continued into the postseason. He was a true boom-or-bust hitter in October, registering some memorable home runs but little other production. Because this section is depressing me – though there is no use in weighing just 10 games, of course – here is one of those memorable home runs:
That is more like it.
Aaron Judge, in Full
As I said, I am not worried about Judge the player. He is exceptional, and a rough few weeks to close out 2020 will not change that. I mean, the man is hitting .269/.372/.543 (141 wRC+) since the beginning of 2019, which totals 561 plate appearances. That is elite production.
But there is a catch: it is just 561 plate appearances. That is far too few. He has now suffered a major injury in each of his four complete seasons in the majors. That is enough to be worried, I think, even if some (notably 2018) were not his fault at all. Worse, Judge exemplifies the hyper-masculine attitude of playing through whatever injury he has – no matter how serious.
Remember the collapsed lung situation at the beginning of the year? Had [gestures broadly] all of this not happened, Judge would not have been ready to play for weeks in a normal season. And after he got hurt in August, he rushed his way back, possibly lying about his physical condition in the process, immediately got hurt again, and missed several more weeks. I am the farthest thing from a professional athlete, so I will not pretend to understand the drive Judge has. But I do know that Judge’s insistence that he is fine, even when he is very not fine, is counterproductive. It seems to keep him off the field more than it keeps him on it.
That said, Judge is a truly exceptional player. His offensive production is obvious, but he is also a plus defender in right field and a leader on and off the field. The Yankees are lucky to have him, warts and all.
The Yankees will return to Tampa in two months (hopefully) for the start of the 2021 campaign. They are expected to be a title contender, but many of their hopes will rest on Aaron Judge’s shoulder – if they’re healthy enough to withstand the weight, that is. When he’s healthy, there’s no doubt that Judge can lead the Yankees to greatness. We all just have to hope that 2021 is the year that bucks the recent trend.