Judge's 40-game stretch rates among all-time greats

Yankees slugger has a 1.439 OPS since May 3

June 18th, 2024

Remember when Aaron Judge started off the season on a month-long cold streak?

We barely do either, because over the past six weeks, the Yankees’ captain hasn’t just been on a “good run.” He hasn’t just been on a “hot streak.” Those phrases, while impressive, don’t begin to describe what he’s been doing – even by the high standards of a man who already has a 62-homer season and three top-three MVP Award finishes to his name.

Over the first 33 games of the season, culminating with an 0-4 performance in a 7-2 loss to the Orioles on May 2, Judge hit just .197 with a .725 OPS. It was the worst start of his career. He was, perhaps unbelievably now, booed by the home crowd on his own bobblehead day in April.

The next day, he reached twice against Detroit. Then he reached three times the day after that, and three more the next day as the Yankees finished off a sweep, and he’s basically never stopped since.

In the 40 games since his season bottomed out against the O's – who, of course, will be arriving in Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for a three-game set with first place in the AL East on the line – Judge has hit .387/.503/.937, good for a 1.439 OPS. He's been nearly three times better than the average hitter. He's been worth nearly 5 WAR in just six weeks.

If that all sounds like fake, made-up, video game numbers, they essentially are. In May, Judge slugged .918, merely the 10th-best slugging month in Yankee history, mostly behind a couple of guys named Ruth and Gehrig. Of his 69 batted balls, 51 were considered hard-hit, making him the first hitter in Statcast history to post a 70% or better hard-hit month.

“I’m trying not to take that for granted,” manager Aaron Boone said during the team’s recent trip to Kansas City, “but I mean, it’s a lot of fun to witness and to watch what he’s doing on a nightly basis. It’s pretty special.”

But as good as May was, June has been equally as good, with a 1.371 OPS so far. This isn’t a good month, it’s a 40-game heater of epic proportions – it is, after all, essentially a full quarter of the season where he’s been going like this. That’s not just good luck, though assuredly it’s a little of that, too. It’s a run of dominance that’s gone on long enough that, given the break between the Boston and Baltimore series, means it’s time to see just where this stacks up in history.

It is, you will be unsurprised to learn, a historically notable stretch. During Judge’s 40-game run, he’s stepped to the plate 177 times. He’s reached base in more than half of them, for that .503 OBP, and he’s got 37 extra base hits. If we look at all 177-PA stretches in AL/NL history, and rank them by Weighted On-Base Average – or wOBA, which is similar to OPS, except it weights on-base and slugging more appropriately – you will find some of history’s all-time greatest legends.

You will also find Aaron Judge -- and look how many of these began as the weather started to heat up.

Any list, we think, that has Babe Ruth occupying the top two spots – and four of the top six – is a pretty good one. We’re just two weeks away from the 100-year mark since Ruth’s 1924 heater began, where starting on July 3, he posted a hardly-believable .486/.578/.951 (1.529 OPS) in his next 40 games. It was, somehow, merely his fifth-best season according to Wins Above Replacement.

Which, if anything, should put into context how different the baseball world is now. Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Gehrig, and Harry Heilmann played an entirely different sport, one that was mostly played during the day and never west of St. Louis; one that didn’t feature endless relievers throwing 98 mph heat and nasty sliders; one that, with rare exceptions in DiMaggio’s final years, still excluded many of the best players due to segregation.

Ruth, for example, in 1924 got to face a starting pitcher the fourth time through nearly as many times (125) as he did the second time through (136), and he was 273 points of OPS better the fourth time than the second time. Judge, in his entire career, has faced a starter the fourth time through only 18 times, and not even once this season.

In the last 85 years, then, only Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas have had a run anything like this over a similar length of time, but even setting aside the obvious controversies that Bonds brings, baseball even 20 years ago was considerably different than it is now. In part, that’s about changing pitching usage and strategies, but it’s also because it’s just harder to hit today. So far, 2024 is shaping up to be the weakest offensive season since 1972, while Thomas, in 1997, got to play in one of the best post-war hitting environments.

No matter how you slice it, Judge is on a run that almost no one alive has seen, given how long ago most of the non-Bonds/Thomas seasons on that list were. He might even have a shot at the elusive 400 total base season.

Back after that last Baltimore game, Judge felt he knew there was a turnaround coming, whether it was to convince us or himself. “Right now, when I’m getting that pitch to hit, I’m just missing it or hitting it right into the ground,” said Judge. “I’m going to make a couple of adjustments and we’ll be right there.”

He has, though it’s almost foolish to go through the changes, given that pretty much everything has to go right for a stretch like this to persist. (If you’re interested, comparing the bad start to the 40-game run: He cut his strikeout rate from 26% to 18%; he upped his hard-hit rate from 62% to 70%; he cut his grounder rate from 40% to 27%; he’s become one of the five least-likely hitters to chase outside the zone. He’s also got a .432 BABIP; he’s doing and finding all of the things you’d expect a locked-in hitter to be doing.)

It’s not likely that Judge will continue hitting at this level, just because barely anyone in the last 100 years has been able to do so, and it was only six weeks ago that Boone had to field questions about whether he’d consider moving Judge down in the lineup.

On the other hand, compare Judge’s 2024 line to his 2022 MVP season …

  • 2022 – .425 OBP / .686 SLG / 1.111 OPS / 210 OPS+
  • 2024 – .425 OBP / .686 SLG / 1.110 OPS / 210 OPS+

… and there’s nothing about this that’s out of the ordinary, other than the highs and lows. He’s done this before. He’s doing it now. This might just be who he is – which is a generationally great hitter.

“Somebody’s going to pay, big time,” Boone said after that May 2 loss to Baltimore. “He’ll get it going, and look out when he does.”

Prescient words, that.