Aaron Judge finished the first half of his first full Major League Baseball season looking like an unstoppable force. The New York Yankees outfielder put on an amazing show during the 2017 Home Run Derby and was hailed as the new “Face of Baseball.” Now, just five weeks later, Judge is in a major slump and it’s easy to see why.
On Tuesday, ESPN Stats and Information broke down some of the numbers associated with Judge’s slide and compared him to that incredible first half. After reading through the analysis and doing some additional digging, it’s obvious where Judge is truly struggling. What follows is a breakdown of Judge’s big slump and why it’s come when it has.
*All of the numbers shown below are through Monday’s games. Judge went 0-for-3 against the Blue Jays Tuesday night with two walks and two strikeouts after this piece was compiled.
Comparing the raw numbers
Judge finished the first half hitting .329, with 30 home runs, 66 RBI, a .448 on-base percentage and an utterly absurd OPS of 1.139. He also had 61 walks against 109 strikeouts. Since the break, his numbers have fallen off a cliff.
In the second half, the 25-year-old is hitting just .182, with five home runs, 12 RBI, an on-base percentage of .333 and an OPS of .710. He also has 18 walks against 35 strikeouts.
What has changed?
So what’s changed? The first place we have to look is at Judge’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In the first half he was hitting .426 on balls in play. As the ESPN piece points out, that was set to be the highest mark in the live ball era (since 1920). Babe Ruth’s mark of .423 from 1923 is the current standard, and Rod Carew is second at .408 in 1977. So it’s fair to say Judge was never going to continue on that pace.
So far in the second half, Judge’s BABIP is down to a pedestrian .237. That’s a drop of nearly 200 points. How did this happen? Well, it’s instructive to look at what kind of balls he’s putting in play. In the first half, Judge had a fly ball rate of 37.5 percent. In the second half, that has jumped to 51.2 percent. His ground ball rate has gone from 38 percent in the first half to 30.2 percent in the second, and his line drive rate is down to 18.6 percent from a high of 24.5 percent in the first half.
Perhaps most shocking of all, Judge’s home run per fly ball rate of 41.7 percent in the first half, has plummeted. In the second half it has dropped to 22.7 percent. The 41.7 percent mark would have been the highest HR/FB ratio since the stat began being recorded in 2002, so it was bound to drop off. But falling nearly 20 points is shocking.
According to Fangraphs, Judge’s percentage of hard hit balls has also dropped precipitously. A whopping 49 percent of his contact in the first half qualified as “hard” while that has dropped to 27.9 percent since the break. But it’s not just about weaker contact, his strikeout rate has jumped from 29.8 percent to 36.5 percent.
Pitchers are adjusting
OK, so we get it, he’s making softer contact and hitting more fly balls. Now the question is, why? Well, if you look at how he’s being pitched the answers appear to be straight forward.
In the first half, 46 percent of the pitches Judge faced were fastballs, and just 30 percent of those were in the upper half of the strike zone. That 30 percent was the lowest number in all of baseball. As a result, he swung and missed on just 17 percent of the fastballs he faced and was hitting .341 on fastballs, with 22 extra base hits. All of those numbers have changed in the second half.
So far since the break, 53 percent of the pitches he’s faced have been fastballs and 52 percent of those have been in the upper part of the zone. He clearly doesn’t like those pitches, because he’s swinging and missing on 31 percent of the fastballs he faces. He’s hitting just .196 on fastballs in the second half and he has just three extra base hits.
Additionally, Judge is facing more sliders in the second half. Pitchers threw sliders just 22 percent of the time against him before the break, that number is up to 28 percent now. In the second half, Judge has faced 119 sliders and swung at them 56 times. He’s missed on 36 of those swings and has no hits and 20 outs against them.
On the season, Judge is hitting just .158 against sliders, so it’s not like this is anything new. His batting average against four-seam fastballs is now down to .281.
So what does all that mean? Basically, pitchers have finally figured out where the holes in Aaron Judge’s swing are. He doesn’t like fastballs up and sliders are his Kryptonite.
This is likely the new reality for Judge. He’s going to face fastballs up and more sliders until he shows he can adjust. This isn’t some crazy occurrence, most guys in their first full season have slumps once pitchers figure out their holes. The guys who succeed are the ones who recognize the issues and find ways to adjust.
Aaron Judge made baseball look really easy for the first three months of the 2017 season. Now he’s realizing how difficult this game can be. He’s too talented to stay down for long though. He’ll almost certainly figure things out, but we may never see him doing what he did in the first half of the year.