Aaron Judge is good. Some might say he is great. The front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year and MVP is the face of MLB for 2017, but the face of MLB for the future? Unfortunately, maybe not.
It’s hard to find something negative to say about the New York Yankees right fielder, but in order to play devil’s advocate and not get our hopes up too high about Aaron Judge, just in the event that he has a down season, I was able to find some rather unflattering comps for the slugger.
First, there’s his minor-league career. Aaron Judge was a pretty good prospect ranking first in the Yankees’ system in 2015 and 17th in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. However, just because a prospect is ranked highly does not mean they are without flaws. Judge would strike out in at least 21 percent of his plate appearances in all levels in the minor leagues. This article from 2016 even identified Judge’s proficiency to strikeout:
Judge’s Triple-A debut at the end of 2015 did not go well. He slashed .224/.308/.373, well below both his career levels and expectations. More alarming, he struck out a career high 28.5-percent of the time (74 times in 260 plate appearances). [The 2016 season] has been more of the same. His batting average is a bit deceiving sitting at .284 (heading into this weekend), considering he currently has a nice .354 BABIP compared to last seasons .289. His plate discipline is troubling.
Perhaps the lofty expectations of Judge have him pressing. You simply can’t overlook the fact that his strikeout rate is nearly identical to the small sample size of last season’s Triple-A numbers (27.2-percent). It has to be at least a slight bit worrisome that this is a trend and not a slump. His walk right is dropping daily to a new career low (6.8-percent or eight walks in 103 plate appearances).
The article seems to point to his plate discipline as his main flaw — as other evaluators have — but is overall positive with his prospect status. But his strikeout tendency should not be overlooked. He has failed to improve on that statistic in his short major-league career, where he has struck out in 32 percent of his plate appearances between his call-up in 2016 and now. However, because he also takes his walks, his walk percentage is rather high, which puts him in exclusive company.
Since 2000, there have only been four players with at least 300 plate appearances who have struck out in over 29 percent of their plate appearances and walked in at least 16 percent of them: Jack Cust (2007, 2008, 2010, 2011), Ryan Howard (2007), Adam Dunn (2012), and Aaron Judge (2017). All of these seasons resulted in wRC+ well above 100, which means that they were productive players; however, these player were known to be the embodiment of the “three-true-outcome” hitters. Dunn had five consecutive seasons of 40 or more home runs, but also led the league in strikeouts four times; Cust led the league in walks once and strikeouts three times; and Howard led the league in home runs twice and strikeouts twice. Admittedly, these comps are not encouraging. Although these players were not horrible in the simplest definition, their careers were short-lived and their production sharply declined. For Cust and Dunn, it forced an early retirement, and Howard a well-publicized and sad end to an illustrious career.
But it’s not just Aaron Judge’s strikeout and walk percentage — it’s also his raw strikeout numbers. Judge is on pace to strike out over 200 times this season. While it’s already been established that he is strikeout-prone, it does not serve him justice that the 200-strikeout threshold is upon him. No player who has struck out 200 or more times in a season has had a very high average. As the legendary Pete Rose noted, the highest single-season average for a player with 200 or more strikeouts was .262 (Chris Davis holds that honor). The short list of 200 single-season strikeout players is a whopping five players long: Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, Chris Davis, Chris Carter, and Drew Stubbs. Kris Bryant had 199 in his rookie season (he was called up late to the bigs due to service-time considerations, so it’s likely that he would have joined this club), and Ryan Howard had 199 twice and Jack Cust had 197 once. Dunn, Howard, and Cust again…
I love Aaron Judge, and I love 500-plus foot home runs, but we also have to be realistic and rational in our love and praise for the slugger. The worst thing that the New York sports world can do is rattle this kid if, and when, he goes from being an All-Star to the 25th man on a roster. There is nothing I want to see more, as a Yankees fan and a baseball fan, than Judge succeed; it’s good for the sport. But I also don’t want to get my hopes up too high, because nothing stings more than a player of his caliber going down the path of Adam Dunn, Jack Cust, or Ryan Howard.
The first baseball game I went to was Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and I've been hooked ever since. Follow me on Twitter: @yankeestar4life