Strikeouts have been a part of Aaron Judge’s game throughout his professional career. The whiffs have always been tolerable thanks to everything else he contributes, though. In spite of a career 31.4 percent strikeout rate entering the 2021 season, Judge also owned a lifetime 151 wRC+ on a .272/.390/.558 triple-slash. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to complain about his propensity to swing-and-miss when he absolutely mashes the ball otherwise.
With more than 1,800 plate appearances under his belt coming into the season, I think most people accepted that Judge would never become a contact hitter. Yet, this season, the star right fielder has done just that, relatively speaking. He’s dropped his strikeout rate to 24.1 percent in 245 plate appearances in 2021, which is exactly the MLB average this year. Remarkably, Judge has done this without sacrificing his power (.255 ISO) or on-base percentage (.396). This is a pretty incredible development.
Bobby noticed this phenomenon back in April and highlighted Judge’s vastly improved contact on pitches outside the strike zone. It seemed unsustainable at the time, and yet, it’s June 10th and Judge is still making a good deal of contact against pitches off the plate. Per Statcast, his out-of-zone contact rate sits at 48 percent, easily a career best. That’s still shy of the league’s 55 percent mark, but who cares. Judge swinging-and-missing far less often against non-strikes is a big deal.
That said, Judge has whiffed against pitches off the plate a bit more lately. The good news is that it hasn’t hurt his strikeout rate all that much.
His O-Contact rate will probably continue to trend downward as the season goes on, but I don’t expect sustained stretches around or below 30 percent like in prior seasons.
Aside from more contact on pitches off the plate, Judge has also been more aggressive early in the count. He’s swung at the first pitch of an at-bat 37.6 percent of the time this season, way up from 27.2 percent last season and his career high of 34.7 percent in 2019. League average is 29 percent, by the way. Going after the first pitch is another way to make sure you don’t strike out as often.
With that quick note about first pitch swings out of the way, I want to go back to the discussion on Judge’s hacks on pitches off the plate. Generally speaking, you don’t want hitters to go after balls. They’re harder to hit and typically don’t yield good results. That is, unless you’re 2021 Aaron Judge.
As you can see, he’s made significant improvements to his xwOBA on contact against pitches off the plate. It’s not like he’s going after these pitches simply to avoid strikeouts: he’s also looking to be productive in the meantime. It’s really a beautiful thing.
Even though that’s a hanging curveball, it’s still off the plate and not exactly an easy pitch to turn on. And yet, Judge pulls his hands in and yanks it into the left field seats. Impressive. Alright, so what’s next?
Looks like Dylan Cease was trying to freeze Judge for a called strike three with a fastball on the outside corner, but missed his spot off the plate. But instead of taking it for ball two, Judge slaps it into right field for a hit. Next:
Another beautiful piece of hitting on a 1-2 count. Fleming tries to get Judge swinging on a changeup down and away, and though Judge obliges, he also knocks it into center field for a hit. Now, moving on to one final video:
Slider moving off the plate and away from Judge? No problem. Another base knock.
You may have noticed that these examples are all two-strike pitches. I can’t help but wonder if Judge has tweaked his approach a tad in these situations. Based on some of these swings, it looks like he’s just trying to put the ball in play rather than take his usual power swing. Considering how hard he hits the ball in the first place, he may not need to swing as hard as he usually does anyway to make good contact. Seems to be working, no?
Ultimately, while it’s reasonable to expect some regression in his strikeout rate, what he’s done to date doesn’t look like a fluke. We’re now more than a third of the way through the season and for the most part, Judge has maintained these improvements in plate discipline. Additionally, there may be an underlying adjustment to his two-strike approach. There’s an apparent recipe for success here rather than pure luck.
Like his teeth, Judge has filled a gap in his game (I’m sorry). Most impressively, he’s done it without sacrificing the two things that made him great in the first place: his patience and power. This improvement, along with remaining on the field (he’s played in 59 of 62 team games), has been wonderful to watch.