Low called strikes may have altered Aaron Judge’s approach

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It’s no secret that Aaron Judge hasn’t been quite himself this season. The overall numbers are still very good, but they’re certainly a far cry from his first two years in the league. Much has been made about his opposite field approach and his health of late, but it’s also worth considering a factor not totally in his control: the umpires.

As we know by now, Judge gets hosed on pitches below the strike zone quite often. It’s frustrating, but he’s had plenty of success in spite of it throughout his young career. But this year, a few things have changed that appear to be a consequence of called strikes below Judge’s knees.

Before getting into Judge’s numbers, allow me to specify what part of the strike zone I’m going to discuss first. It’s the “lower shadow” of the zone, or sections 17, 18, and 19 from below:

(Baseball Savant)

With that out of the way, let’s look at some simple trends.

(Baseball Savant)

Opponents are attacking Judge down a tad more often, but the leap from 19.9 percent to 21.2 percent isn’t drastic. Still, it does signify an attempt to exploit umpires’ weakness when Judge hits. Further, Judge has offered at this particular subset of pitches much more often than before. Judge has gone after 6.5 percent more lower shadow offerings compared to last season. At first glance, that screams of Judge trying to mitigate the umpires’ negative effect.

Whether intentional or not, this strategy hasn’t worked for the right fielder. He’s done nothing but pound these pitches straight into the ground. Granted, it’s not quite as easy to lift pitches that are on the lower edge, but Judge has had a harder time doing so this year.

Metric, Lower Shadow201720182019
Ground Ball Rate55.1%48.5%77.8%
Exit Velo91.591.189.8
Launch Angle8.98.2-2.9

Why Judge is faring worse on pitches in this location is a separate issue. It could be a mechanical, it could be a lingering oblique issue, or something else entirely. Whatever the case may be, the fact that he’s swinging much more often at these low pitches is compounding his difficulty handling them in 2019. So overall, it’s no wonder he has a career high 44.3 percent ground ball rate.

Let’s move up a bit in the zone to boxes 7, 8, and 9 per the first chart, which are over the heart of the plate but still down. These are pitches that Judge should be able to handle with ease. This year (and last season!) that hasn’t been the case.

Metric, Lower Heart201720182019
Percentage of all pitches7.3%6.4%8.3%
xwOBA0.5410.4370.423
Launch Angle10.66.912.9

The key thing to look at here is his xwOBA, which is way down. I can’t put my finger on why it’s so low, though. He’s not having trouble lifting those pitches and his exit velocity against that location hasn’t faltered either. So, it’s…weird. Clearly though, it seems like low pitches have become a weakness (relatively speaking) for Judge.

For sake of completeness, I also took a look at pitches down the middle and up. As one might expect, Judge has been excellent at crushing those pitches this season. In zones 1 through 6, Judge’s xwOBA is .541, which is better than last season’s .493 mark though lower than the ridiculous .674 he recorded in his rookie campaign. So yeah, what’s holding back Judge really seems to be what he’s done against low pitches.

I can’t help but think that much of this is a result of the umpire’s expanded zone when Judge hits. Whether he’s changed his approach consciously or not, it’s reasonable to believe that Judge feels the need to be more aggressive on pitches around his knees or lower. Unfortunately, it’s resulted in far more grounders than anyone would like.

On the bright side, Judge seems to be lifting the ball more lately:

Hopefully that’s a sign of better things to come. Interestingly enough, the start of his launch angle downturn earlier in the season coincides with when he returned from the injured list. That would lend credence to the theory that his oblique hampered him even after his return. Perhaps now that his launch angle is on the rise, he’s feeling better. This is all coincidental speculation, but I think it’s reasonable.

Despite his recent woes, Judge still has a 126 wRC+ this season. Of course, that’s not the Judge we’re accustomed to, but it’s still pretty darn good. There’s still plenty of time for Judge to get back on track, and with such a cushy division lead, why worry? Judge has a history of diligently working to improve, and I have no doubt that he’ll right the ship as long as he’s healthy.

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6 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    I wonder if teams ever have offline conversations with MLB to try and nicely point out situations like this where one player might be getting hurt by consistently bad calls. Umpires now have three-plus years of data on Judge. They should know that close pitches on the lower end of the strike zone are likely balls.

  2. Brian M

    Judge was pretty awful this series against the lowly O’s, so logic dictates that he’s going to rake against Cleveland’s dominant rotation.

  3. Heard on the broadcast last night that Judge has been working on a tweak in his mechanics and Boones mentioned that Jusge was “almost there”. With any luck that’s all awe’re seeing here and the reward will come in the form of a torrid Sept/Oct.

  4. Mr.Bootleg

    I really think Judge ought to consider swinging earlier in the count. He doesn’t get much to hit later in counts and if he’s looking to hit more for average or to take advantage of the short porch(he hasn’t) at the sacrifice of power, then he might want to consider hitting pitches better, earlier in counts.

    • RetroRob

      What makes you think the pitches earlier in the count are better and also not lower? If he gets called on strike one or two on low pitches just on the strike zone or even below it, it doesn’t change the dynamic discussed here. What you’re suggesting is he swing at those low pitches immediately. Not sure how that will help.

  5. Good stuff Derek.

    Before reading this, I was pretty sure Judge was playing hurt, oblique or something else.

    The fact that he hasn’t pulled a HR this year points to a change in approach. Like most things in life it’s probably a combination of things.

    I would still bet we hear at the end of the season (hopefully after a parade down the Canyon of Heros), that he was playing hurt and was trying to compensate for the poor strike zone called against him.

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