The Yankees sustained a record number of injuries in 2019, but none felt like a bigger blow than the one that came on the afternoon of April 20. That, of course, was when Aaron Judge hurt his oblique. Although they defeated the Royals 9-2 that Saturday, steadying their record at .500, all still felt precarious. I mean, this was a graphic that circulated on Twitter that night:
Times were tough. But even amid that overall onslaught of injuries, Judge’s felt different. That was not just because he was hitting .288/.404/.521 (144 wRC+) with a 16% walk rate, though that didn’t help matters, not was it just because it was yet another in a long line of IL stints. It was also because he is the Yankees’ steadying hand and a constant amid all of the noise; even with Gardner and Sabathia still on the team, Judge was the closest player the Yankees had to a captain in 2019.
All told, the Yankee right fielder would miss eight full weeks with the oblique injury, returning exactly two months after his first game on the IL, on June 21. Even with the missed time, he hit .272/.381/.540 with 27 home runs, logging 4.6 fWAR. Only 18 players who stepped to the plate 400 times or more were worth more to their team in 2019 per FanGraphs; accounting for ties, he ranked 26th on the site’s WAR leaderboard. This despite the fact that everyone else ranking in the top 50 played 120 or more games. Judge played 102.
Let’s get right into Judge’s 2019 campaign as we hope that next year becomes his first fully-healthy season as a Major League player.
Exit Velocity Darling
Judge’s imposing 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame lends itself to hammering the baseball. It was the basis of dreams when he was a prospect, and indeed, Judge has never disappointed in this regard. In fact, it’s literally true that nobody has hit the ball harder than him since he blasted his way to superstardom back in 2017. Here is the Statcast leaderboard for average exit velocity among the 205 players who have put the ball in play 750 or more times since then:
- Aaron Judge: 95.1 mph
- Nelson Cruz: 93.6 mph
- Giancarlo Stanton: 92.7 mph
- Matt Olson: 92.3 mph
- Matt Chapman: 92.3 mph
Clearly, Judge has a unique skill to hit the ball hard. That he hits the ball 1.5 mph harder on average than the closest behind him simply underscores the point that there are few on the field capable of what Judge does. He is just different. Batted ball data isn’t everything, but, thankfully for the Yankees, it’s translated into real results: his 106 home runs over the period ranks 8th in baseball despite the missed time.
Anyway, 2019 was more of the same for Judge. Here is the same leaderboard, this time for 2019 and for the 281 batters with 200 or more balls in play:
- Aaron Judge: 95.9 mph
- Miguel Sanó: 94.4 mph
- Nelson Cruz: 93.7 mph
- Franmil Reyes: 93.3 mph
- Christian Yelich: 93.1 mph
Yet again, Judge demonstrated his raw power in 2019. There was a sizable gap between him and second place, with balls flying off his bat 1.5 mph per hour faster than it did Sanó’s, just as it has throughout his career. For the third year in a row, Judge punished the ball when he made contact.
For the fun of it, this was the hardest hit ball of Judge’s season, coming at 118.1 mph:
A force out! How exciting. That’s a good reminder that exit velocity is useful but not everything. With that said…here was the hardest hit home run of Judge’s season, coming on July 20 in Tampa:
Now that is what I call a home run. It’s one of those home runs that feels like only Judge can hit it, even if it’s not true: a straight missile to dead center field that left the Stadium in the blink of an eye. That right there is the product of Judge’s skill set and folks, I love to see it.
Lack of Pull Power
There was another interesting element to Judge’s season as it relates to power: he did not pull many home runs this year. Remember that conversation? Judge just didn’t pull as many balls this year. Here’s his spray chart:
Only five pulled homers all year. The first didn’t come until August 20 in Oakland, but boy was it a beauty. It traveled 467 feet. Check it out:
Now that is just beautiful. Anyway, he’d pull four more homers in the final five weeks of the season, effectively putting that to conversation to bed, but it was interesting. It was a real talking point back then. I remember Judge being a bit irritated by the conversation, too, which is unusual for him. He even showed it in interviews. As for me, I think it’s very possible that Judge’s oblique injury–a serious one for batters–was still hampering him even though he returned.
I think it’s a fair bet that he was still hurt. In the four weeks prior to that home run, Judge hit just .224/.350/.388 (98 wRC+) with two home runs. From August 20 through the end of the season, though, he hit .288/.369/.712 (176 wRC+) with 15 home runs, including five pulled. That’s more like Aaron Judge. My best guess? He wasn’t healthy and then got healthy as he got further and further away from the injury. Seems pretty standard.
In 2019, Judge again provided great defense. I highlighted most of this in a post I wrote on his incredible ALDS performance last month, so check that out if you missed it. The long and short of it, though, is that Judge is a tremendous defender who possesses all of the tools needed to succeed in the outfield.
I don’t really buy defensive metrics, to be honest, but they all rate Judge well. I think that’s at least worth sharing. Here is a sample:
- UZR: 12.9 (3rd out of 172 outfielders with 200 chances)
- UZR/150: 24.2 (1st)
- Outs Above Average: 6 (24th out of 92 qualified)
- Fielding Runs Above Average: 8.3 (4th)
Those are different metrics from three different sites–FanGraphs, Statcast, and Baseball Prospectus, respectively–and they all tell the same tale: Judge is an above-average defender at the very least, if not one of the very best. This is a familiar story from 2017 and 2018, too. It’s not an outlier.
Overall, in 2019, Judge was one of the best fielders in the outfield. I do think some prominent plays in the postseason have helped shine a light on this part of his game, and I sure do hope so–it’s worth noting that he did win Defensive Player of the Year for right field, too–because our guy is one hell of a defender. He deserves praise for this skillset. He’s so much more than a simple hack-and-slash offensive player. He’s the real deal.
Judge In Context
All in all, I truly believe that Judge is one of baseball’s most underrated players. It feels preposterous to say about the most prominent player on a contending New York Yankees team, but it’s true: his full value feels under appreciated. I highlighted this in the ALDS post I linked above, but it feels worth spelling out again. Here are Judge’s rankings in key rate stats since his 2017 season:
- Walk Rate: 16.5% (2nd)
- BABIP: .361 (2nd)
- wOBA: .405 (3rd)
- wRC+: 157 (3rd)
- On-Base Percentage: .401 (4th)
- Slugging Percentage: .572 (4th)
- Isolated Power: .293 (4th)
- Home Runs: 106 (8th)
All of this was on display again in 2019, and it should go without saying: Aaron Judge is one of baseball’s best players. He’s certainly the best player on the Yankees. What a special player, and we all saw why in 2019.
Hopefully a fully healthy season. He hasn’t had one of those yet as a big league player, which is really the only knock against him so far. He was hurt for most of the second half in 2017, broke his wrist in 2018, and suffered the oblique injury this year. Judge’s career has been filled with big moments and a huge amount of success. He’s one of the game’s most dynamic players, but it’s past time for a fully healthy season, don’t you think? Sure would be nice.
Anyway, Judge’s really cheap years are behind him. He is now in his first year of arbitration, which means that we can start to seriously consider an extension for him. The Yankees did so last year with Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino, remember, and it only feels appropriate that they’ll do the same with Judge. We’ll flesh that out in the weeks ahead, though.
Until then, we can all feel confident that one of baseball’s very best players will again be leading the Yankees on their quest to bring home World Series number 28 in 2020.