In the nine seasons of recorded such history, no player has hit the ball harder than the way Aaron Judge is crushing it this year. By a lot. His average exit velocity of 97.2 mph blows away the previous high of 96.1 mph by Giancarlo Stanton in 2015.
That statistical nugget is just one small piece in a mountain of evidence that proves Judge’s historic 2022 season was not some anomalous career year, but the likely booster phase to a career surge. Hard as it might be to believe, but in the year after hitting 62 home runs Judge in many ways is even better.
The encore to history is amazing in its own way. What we are seeing is the continuation of changes he made last year to his setup (especially the placement of his hands), load (less rotational) and approach (hitting the ball more out front). Those changes closed the hole Judge had on inside fastballs and turned him into a different hitter: a pull monster with elite zone discipline.
After missing only five games last year, Judge has missed 12 games this year, including Sunday night in Los Angeles after he injured his toe crashing into the bullpen fence at Dodger Stadium while making an outstanding catch. No word yet whether he will return Tuesday night against the White Sox.
Even with the missed games, he is on pace for 50 home runs, but in many other ways is better than ever:
Judge Rate Statistics, 2023
First pitch swing
Fly ball rate
The mid-career adjustment to his approach that began last year goes like this:
1) Force pitchers into the zone by cutting your chase rate.
2) Once you get them in the zone, be more aggressive.
3) When you do swing, move your contact point slightly farther out front to exploit pull-side power.
4) Get the ball in the air.
How important are fly balls for someone who hits the ball harder than anybody else in the past eight years? Eighteen of his 45 fly balls have been home runs, which means when the ball goes up off his bat it’s going out of the park 40% of the time. Even more astonishingly, when he gets the ball in the air to the pull side it’s a home run 64% of the time! (Nine of 14).
Encore years tend to be difficult. Roger Maris is the classic case. After Maris hit 61 in 1961, he wrote a book called Roger Maris at Bat. An excerpt ran in Look magazine called, “I Couldn’t Go Through It Again.” He complained about the press invading his privacy and asking dumb questions.
Writers kept asking him the next spring how many home runs he expected to hit and what kind of year he was going to have, until one day he had enough. “When I came down here,” Maris said in Fort Lauderdale, “I had made up my mind I would try to answer every question, no matter how silly, as best I know how. So what happens? I pick up a paper and I see where I’m uncooperative and unfriendly. The people read this trash and believe it. I don’t blame them. The booing I got made me feel terrible.
“So, no more interviews. The writers are going to rip me if I talk or if I don’t.”
Maris went silent. The New York press called him “Rude Roger.” Jimmy Cannon called him “The Whiner.” He was quoted by Cannon as saying, “I can’t wait to get out of this business.”
A slow start and the treatment from the New York press combined to turn fans against him. By midsummer, fans in the Yankee Stadium bleachers threw objects at him in right field. Maris picked up a golf ball and heaved it so far back into the stands that it sailed through an exit in the third deck. The crowd booed him and waved white handkerchiefs.
After the game, Maris said, “I’m through trying to win friends and influence people. I don’t give a damn. It’s the least of my problems.”
Teammate Johnny Blanchard said the fans were so cruel to Maris, “They tell him his wife is running around while he is gone and personal stuff ... It’s enough to make your skin crawl.”
Then still only 27, Maris finished with 33 homers and drove in 100, down from 61 and 141 in the same number of at bats. He never again hit more than 26 homers.
Judge had his historic season last year at age 30. He posted the greatest OPS+ at that age ever (211). Just about all the players like Judge who posted a career-best OPS+ at age 30 regressed in the next year. (Judge is at 193). There is one exception: Willie McCovey, who followed his 1968 breakout (174 OPS+) with an even better ’69 (206).
Like McCovey, Judge might defy the gravity usually associated with career seasons because he became a different hitter last season. He is proving those changes are sustainable. Here are some of the lessons that opponents should have learned by now about Judge 2.0.
1. His hole on inside fastballs no longer exists.
The mechanical changes Judge made last year closed that hole. What was a weakness has become a strength, which is why pitchers don’t venture in there as often as they once did.
Judge vs. Inside Fastballs
2. Don’t challenge Judge with fastballs—ever.
Throwing fastballs in the zone to Judge is the equivalent of throwing him BP. He slugs 1.017 when pitchers throw him a four-seamer or sinker in the zone. His average exit velocity on fastballs in the zone is a ridiculous 101.6 mph. Most of the damage Judge has done this year comes from fastballs in the zone, even though they account for only 22% of the pitches he sees.
Every team should post this chart on the dugout wall as a reminder:
Judge 2023 by Pitch Type
vs. fastballs in zone
vs. all other pitches
And if you happen to fall behind in the count to Judge, never—repeat, never—give in with a hittable fastball. Judge’s batting average on those challenge fastballs is .765 (13-for-17). Don’t even think about it. Better to just walk him.
3. Defend the pull side.
Judge established himself in the big leagues as a hitter who loved to hit the ball deep in the hitting zone. Like Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, he loved shooting fastballs to the opposite field. Starting last season, that hitter no longer exists.
Look at his hit spray charts from the past three seasons and note how his hits to the right side of the field have shrunk to almost nothing:
Judge Yearly Hit Spray Charts
Here is another way to interpret that change:
Judge Opposite Field Singles
Judge has traded line drives to right field for fly balls to left field. His only opposite-field single this season is a softly hit bloop inside the right field line. Judge is trying to make contact out front and get the ball in the air, not scorch line-drive singles to right the way he once did.
4. Don’t play the platoon advantage game with Judge.
Bringing in a righthander reliever to face Judge purely on gaining the platoon advantage is a mistake. Judge hits righthanders better than lefthanders—always has, but especially so this year. Judge has posted the second-best right-on-right career OPS (.989) of any hitter since 1961. Only Mike Trout (1.015) is better at defeating that platoon advantage.
Judge Platoon Splits by OPS
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP||Diff.|
But managers keep matching up right-handed power relievers to try to pound sinkers in or four-seamers up against Judge, which is based on the outdated scouting report. He has only 38 plate appearances this season against lefties (.160, 1 HR). His 18% platoon advantage (vs. LHP) is a career low.
5. Let somebody else beat you.
Over the past two seasons, Judge is slugging .670 in late and close situations. The next best clutch slugger (min. 100 plate appearances) is Yordan Alvarez at .655. Judge has 13 homers in those late and clutch spots. Nobody else has more than nine. His OPS (1.115) is virtually the same in big spots as overall (1.103) in these two seasons.
But let’s not limit Judge’s clutch gene to the past two seasons. That’s one aspect of his game that always has been part of his hitting DNA:
Highest Career OPS in Late and Clutch Situations
(Since 1972, when full records are available; min. 500 PA)
1. Barry Bonds
2. Aaron Judge
3. Mark McGwire
4. Lance Berkman
5. Vlad Guerrero Sr.
6. Edgar Martinez
With his plate discipline at a career best and the way he barrels up baseballs more than ever, Judge is earning himself the Bonds Treatment from pitchers: With the game in the balance, avoid pitching to him at all costs.