For all that’s been made about his bat this season, Aaron Judge has quietly remained one of the best right fielders in baseball.
This wasn’t exactly a secret going into the season; Judge was a finalist for the Gold Glove in 2018, losing out to all-world defender Mookie Betts. Despite an oblique injury altered his summer, the 6-foot-7 outfielder stays sharp in the outfield.
What he does in the field is amazing. He’s 6-foot-7 yet moves like a player a foot smaller. He covers balls from the right-center field gap to the foul line and plays Yankee Stadium’s right field like what it is: his home.
And his arm. What an arm! His throws from right field look effortless, yet they get to their target in a heartbeat. There is nothing extreme in his motion. He just naturally gets plenty of power under him, just as he does at the plate.
Ronald Guzman beat that throw and just overslid the back, but Judge fielded the ball perfectly and his throw was on line and a bullet. When a batter hits a liner off that wall, one immediately thinks Judge is going to gun them down at second. He just has that gravity.
Judge rates just as well on publically available fielding metrics as he does on the eye test. He doesn’t qualify with his innings total in the outfield so far this season, yet he still leads right fielders with a 12.5 Ultimate Zone Rating. His 26.0 UZR/150 is best among all outfielders in baseball.
When you break out UZR to its various components, Judge still fares well in each category. His arm runs are second best among right fielders to Yasiel Puig — not bad company! — and his range runs are tied for fourth with Bryce Harper, trailing just Max Kepler, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts.
It’s not just UZR that likes Judge this season. He’s posted 16 Defensive Runs Saved, tied with Lorenzo Cain for the fourth best among outfielders and one ahead of fellow Bombers outfielder Mike Tauchman.
Statcast’s defensive metrics also have a positive view of Judge, albeit more tepid than UZR, likely as it doesn’t factor an outfielder’s arm. He’s been worth four Outs Above Average this season, tied for 27th among outfielders. With an expected catcher percentage of 89 percent, he’s actually caught 91 percent. Tauchman, for reference, is seventh with 9 OAA thanks to a catch percentage percent better than expected.
While UZR has its defensive components, Statcast gives you both directional outs above average as well as an outfielder’s jump and route. According to Statcast, Judge is especially proficient going back on a ball and is merely average going in on flyballs. We see that time and again when Judge handles the short porch at the Stadium with aplomb.
Statcast says Judge doesn’t do as well getting a jump on a batted ball with a slow reaction and initial burst. He was actually one of their worst outfielders by those metrics in 2018, ranking in the fourth percentile in baseball, though he was average in 2017. This season, he’s become an efficient route runner, tied for seventh in Statcast’s route metric, and that’s helped make up for below-average jumps.
You can take the defensive metrics with a grain of salt if you’d like. I often do. If you had the team’s in-house metrics or tracking numbers, you’d get a clearer picture than what’s publically available.
With defense, I find visual aids to help, so I cherrypicked some plays he made in last week vs. Texas. Here’s an example of him charging a ball well to his right.
He’s obviously positioned towards right-center to begin with, but he beats the speedy Gardner to this spot and makes a strong read on the ball.
Here’s one of him going back on a ball from the night before:
Again, he’s positioned well. The Yankees’ analytics group seems to do a good job in that regard. But he has a good measure of how close he is to the wall and handles a ball slicing away from him.
The combination of the stats and the eye-test paint a clear picture: Judge is an effective outfielder, one who has improved from a sub-par 2018. He might not be the best outfielder in the game as UZR would suggest, but he’s an asset for the Yankees before you factor in his impressive bat.