Big ticket: Judge's impact goes beyond power numbers

Yanks' rookie sensation striving at plate while also impressing in outfield

May 10th, 2017

CINCINNATI -- It is impact that has come both in beautiful blasts but also more subtle strides. 's raw power broke both a rookie record with 13 homers in his team's first 26 games and an unsuspecting flat-screen TV, and his surname has inspired a litany of legal-themed groaners.

But don't let the big power or the bad puns distract you from the small means by which he has become the most valuable player on the surprisingly unstoppable Yankees.

Judge -- a player whose ceiling had seemed somewhat limited (ironically) by his tall body, ample strike zone and huge strikeout rate in his small big league sample last season -- has had as large an individual impact as any player in the Majors in the first month of action. And though Statcast™ tells us he has had nine batted balls with an exit velocity of 115 mph, while the rest of MLB has just 16 combined, his Major League-leading 2.5 Wins Above Replacement mark, per Baseball Reference, isn't based on dinger distance.

No, Judge has been brilliant on both sides of the ball, to say nothing of the immeasurables that have led Yankee personnel and pundits to throw out Derek Jeter comps.

"Very, very poised individual," Yankees bench coach Rob Thomson said. "We saw it last year when he was striking out in close to half his at-bats. He walked into the clubhouse with his chest out and chin up every day. You really get a feel for people when they're not playing well."

Judge had a .179/.263/.345 slash line in his first 95 plate appearances in the bigs, striking out 44.2 percent of the time. This was nowhere near as serious an issue, but he also had negative defensive metrics (-1 defensive runs saved) in 216 innings in right field.

All that time, Judge wasn't fretting his early foibles but learning from them.

"I'm not afraid to fail," Judge said. "You can't have all the good without the bad. That's how sports work and how life works."

Example: When Judge got to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2015, the Yanks' coaches talked to him about implementing some mechanical changes to improve his timing. But they wanted to wait until the offseason to address them because they didn't want to affect his rhythm in what was, at the time, a strong offensive season.

"I told them, 'Hey guys, I'd rather work on it now than in the offseason,'" Judge said. "'Let me struggle now so I can come into '16 and do better.' It's constant growth."

Judge's growth this year is in his drastic minimization of his chase rate (from 33.6 percent to 24.2 percent, per FanGraphs) and improvement of his contact rate (from 60.2 to 70.5).

"He had such a big strike zone in the Minor Leagues," said a National League scout who saw Judge regularly in Double-A and Triple-A. "It was always about whether he was going to recognize breaking balls and sliders. But he's stayed inside the ball very well and gotten the barrel to the ball on some good fastballs that I thought might tie him up at the big league level. He's also done a good job of recognizing that breaking ball, which has gotten him into some good counts."

The scout admitted he's shocked at how quickly Judge has made this adjustment. But when told Judge has been worth six defensive runs saved (the most of any right fielder and the most of any outfielder not named ), he was less surprised.

"This guy's an athlete," the scout said. "He's not just a big guy, he's an athlete -- a coordinated athlete that gets decent jumps on the ball."

The Statcast™ catch probability metric tells us that Judge has made 100 percent of one-star (91-95 percent probability of being caught), two-star (76-90) and three-star (51-75) plays. He's made two of five four-star (26-50) plays, the ninth most of any player with at least five chances.

"He has such grace for such a big man," said Thomson, who works with the Yankees' outfielders. "He covers a lot of space, has a lot of wing span, attacks groundballs well, is an accurate thrower with a plus arm. But the biggest thing about Aaron is he works at it. Works at it in batting practice, reading balls off the bat. I tell our outfielders that is the best drill you can do, and he does it religiously."

Judge's knees are currently dealing with the effects of this catch in the Fenway stands and dives like this in the outfield grass. That's why he sat Monday at Great American Ball Park.

Such soreness, though, is a badge of honor.

"The pitcher is working his butt off and trying to make pitches to get guys out," Judge said. "The least I can do is give 110 percent trying to make an extra play for him."

Do you see now why the Yanks love Judge? The homers are fun, the puns are funny (well, some of them). But the dedication is what will allow this early-season star to stick.