If all you saw was the stat sheet and the highlight reel -- Aaron Judge's new slate of elite offensive numbers and superhuman home runs in 2018 that have followed up his historic rookie campaign -- you might miss it: Judge has vastly improved in the area that was his
If all you saw was the stat sheet and the highlight reel -- Aaron Judge's new slate of elite offensive numbers and superhuman home runs in 2018 that have followed up his historic rookie campaign -- you might miss it: Judge has vastly improved in the area that was his biggest weakness last season.
It's a simple but stark turnaround. After struggling heavily against breaking balls -- sliders and curves -- in 2017, the Yankees' star slugger has been one of the Major Leagues' best hitters against those same pitch types in 2018.
Aaron Judge against breaking balls, 2017 vs. 2018
Breaking balls: sliders + curveballs, classified by Statcast™
2018 rankings through Sunday, May 13
2017: .205 (MLB rank: Tied for 134th of 201 hitters, minimum 100 at-bats vs. breaking balls)
2018: .364 (MLB rank: Tied for 8th of 152 hitters, minimum 30 at-bats vs. breaking balls)
2017: .425 (MLB rank: Tied for 75th of 201)
2018: .659 (MLB rank: 10th of 152)
Weighted on-base average (wOBA)
2017: .315 (MLB rank: Tied for 59th of 201)
2018: .476 (MLB rank: 4th of 152)
Last year, Judge hit .205 against curveballs and sliders, going 41-for-200 across the regular season and postseason, with a .425 slugging percentage. He struck out 103 times, a 44.2-percent rate. Judge's struggles reached their most severe in the American League Division Series, when the Indians exploited him on curves and sliders down and away. In the series, Judge went 0-for-12, with 11 strikeouts, in at-bats decided on breaking balls.
In 2018, the difference has been dramatic. Judge's batting average against breaking balls has shot up to .364 (16-for-44), and he's raised his slugging percentage to .667. Both are top-10 marks in the Majors. He has a lower strikeout rate against curves and sliders, 35.2 percent, and a higher walk rate (18.5 percent in 2018 vs. 13.4 percent in '17).
Judge has had some big hits off breaking balls -- his tiebreaking seventh-inning single against the Red Sox last Tuesday came on a Joe Kelly slider -- and he's homered three times, most recently a moonshot on Saturday off of an Andrew Triggs curveball that backed up inside.
"I think I've kept my same approach," Judge told MLB.com. "The biggest thing is, you don't hit the good sliders, you just hit the mistakes. That's what my thing has always been: Just keep hunting mistakes.
"Because you never hit a good slider. If someone throws you a good slider, you're not going to hit it. You've got to always hunt those ones that kind of pop up or hang thigh-high or up."
Even if Judge's approach is the same, the execution has been significantly better. He's chased fewer of those unhittable breaking balls and has been more selective in attacking the ones he can get to.
"One thing Aaron is doing, he's just trying to get ready to hit early," said hitting coach Marcus Thames. "When he gets ready to hit early, he can recognize the baseball better. If you're late, you're not going to recognize the pitch and you might go out of the zone. He's getting in the strike zone a lot earlier with his barrel, so he's giving himself enough room for error."
Statcast™'s detailed strike-zone mapping shows where the change is taking place. On curves and sliders that are non-borderline balls -- clearly outside the zone -- Judge has cut his chase rate from 16.6 percent to 11.1 percent. On those that are low or away, his chase rate has dropped from 15.3 percent to 10.0 percent. And on the ones that are both low and away, Judge's chase rate has dropped from 12.8 percent to just 3.3 percent. On the 60 clear low-and-away breaking balls he's seen this year, he's swung only twice.
By eliminating those bad chases and bringing his swings toward the strike zone, Judge has become all the more dangerous. Even he can't hit a go-fish pitch. But on a breaking ball in the zone, even one closer to the borderlines, Judge's sheer size and plate coverage give him the ability to do damage.
"That's the one that he can still drive," Thames said. "If the ball is way off the plate, you can't. I mean, even if you do something with it, it's going to be a weak out. We're trying to eliminate weak outs. Aaron has done a really good job at it so far."
If Judge is staying close to the zone, he can power the ball out even if he's fooled. On his homer against Josh Tomlin on May 4, for example, Judge got a curveball that was just below the zone -- but not outside -- and stayed with the pitch just long enough to flick it into the left-field seats at Yankee Stadium. It's the type of home run only someone like Judge can hit.
"He can get away with certain things that some guys can't," Thames said. "He's 6-foot-7 and he's got long arms. But at the same time, I want him to be a good hitter. Not just swinging at it just because you can hit it. Get another pitch. If there's two strikes you've got to battle, but if it's early in the count, if I can't drive it? Don't swing at it."
When Judge isn't fooled and he gets a breaking ball he can drive with authority, look out. Judge has tremendous opposite-field power -- his 25 homers to the right side of the field since 2017 are second only to J.D. Martinez's 31 -- so if he's looking for a breaking ball away, even if it's a pitcher's pitch on the edge of the zone, he can take it deep.
"My approach is always center to kind of oppo[site]," Judge said. "Always having that mindset of trying to drive something that way kind of keeps me on that pitch and through the ball a little better."
Then, you get home runs like the one Judge hit off Andrew Cashner on April 5. In the sixth inning of a scoreless game in the Bronx, Cashner spotted a slider on the low-outside corner. Judge was looking for it. He crushed it 105.5 mph and nearly 400 feet to the right-center-field seats.
"I just knew what he was trying to do that night," Judge said. "The whole night, he was working two-seamers that were coming back on the outside corner, plus little slider/cutters on the outside corner. I knew that he wasn't going to come in, so I could really hunt something out over. So that's what I decided to do."
Baseball is full of examples of star players making necessary improvements to stay great. Michael Trout has worked to erase his weakness at the top of the strike zone, and he gets more disciplined every year. Bryce Harper implemented a toe-tap "B hack" in tandem with his signature leg kick, simplifying his approach in tougher situations at the plate and getting excellent results. Judge could be joining them.
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.