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Judge for Triple Crown? He's making a case

Approach, plate discipline are keys to Yankees slugger's fantastic season
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Fans have been arriving early for games at Guaranteed Rate Field, wanting to see the Yankees take batting practice.

Specifically, they're coming to see Aaron Judge take batting practice.

View Full Game Coverage

CHICAGO -- Fans have been arriving early for games at Guaranteed Rate Field, wanting to see the Yankees take batting practice.

Specifically, they're coming to see Aaron Judge take batting practice.

View Full Game Coverage

Judge hasn't disappointed, mashing the ball to all fields. He's launched some epic blasts, the kind that wind up being mentioned during game telecasts. One or two landed onto the concourse above the outfield seats. One cleared the hedges that serve as the batter's eye in center field. Jim Thome territory, in other words.

Video: NYY@CWS: Judge clobbers a BP home run onto concourse

But Judge has saved his best work for the times that matter.

In the first three games of a four-game series against the White Sox, the Yankees' right fielder was 3-for-8 with a home run (a 418-foot shot into the left-field bleachers off reliever Jake Petricka on Wednesday) and six walks in 14 plate appearances. He scored four runs and drove in three despite having the full attention of everyone whenever he steps into the batter's box.

As much fun as it had to be for Judge to answer a group of heckling bleacher fans with the long homer, his power hitting may not be the most impressive part of his game. It's the quality of each at-bat, one after the other, that has impressed opposing managers and scouts this season.

After all, this is a guy who looked like an easy out when the Yankees promoted him last August. Judge batted .179 last season with 42 strikeouts and nine walks in 95 plate appearances, leaving his status for 2017 in question.

It's hard to believe the same guy has a good shot to lead the American League in the Triple Crown categories at the All-Star break.

Judge entered Thursday batting .333 with 27 homers and 62 RBIs. He was leading the AL in all three categories after Tuesday's games, but the Rays' Corey Dickerson went 2-for-5 on Wednesday to move fractions ahead of Judge in the batting race.

When Judge hit .303 in April, you could diminish that by pointing to the small sample size. But then he hit .347 in May and, with only two games left, .344 to this point in June. Something's clearly going on here.

Video: Judge leads the way in AL All-Star Ballot update

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been asked about his slugger a million times at this point. He's got his answer down when he's asked about the keys to Judge's consistency.

"I think his discipline, his ability to recognize pitches, [especially] breaking balls that are up in the zone that he jumps on," Girardi said. "Being in a better position to hit and learning from last year. Those are the keys."

What did Judge learn?

"I think he learned he has to make adjustments," Girardi said. "Some of the things he was doing weren't going to work at this level. He made some slight adjustments, and they've worked."

In trying to best utilize his large frame (6-foot-7, 282 pounds), Judge has frequently made changes to his mechanics. He wasn't a power hitter in his freshman or sophomore years at Fresno State, hitting only six homers in 389 at-bats, but he found something his junior season that led to a 12-homer season and made him the Yankees' target with the 32nd overall pick in the 2013 Draft.

Judge arrived in the Bronx with a large leg kick to start his swing. He worked this winter to cut it down or even eliminate it altogether. He used an abbreviated leg kick on Wednesday when he homered on the 2-0 changeup from Petricka.

Judge crushed that pitch, as he has many others. He has an average exit velocity of 95.8 mph -- the best in the Major Leagues according to Statcast™ -- which has contributed to a Majors-leading BABIP of .422, far better than second-ranked Tim Beckham's .387.

Video: Judge makes Statcast™ history with 2017 HR velocities

One of the little-noticed factors to Judge's success is the improved plate discipline that allowed him to get to the 2-0 count against Petricka.

When Judge flopped in 2016, he showed the overaggressive tendencies that come with wanting to impress when facing a new level of pitching. He got himself out as often as pitchers simply beat him with good pitches.

Judge chased 30.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, while taking strikes 37.2 percent of the time that pitchers located inside the strike zone, per Statcast™. He's made a huge adjustment in that department this season.

Judge is taking strikes only 32.5 percent of the time and, more importantly, swinging at only 21.7 percent of pitches that are thrown outside the strike zone.

Judge has the 22nd-lowest chase rate in the Majors among 145 hitters who have faced at least 500 pitches outside the strike zone. The list of guys who have been more disciplined is topped by Joey Votto, Anthony Rendon and Matt Carpenter, and is heavy on 30-somethings and other veterans.

In the age-25-and-under category, only Mookie Betts and Corey Seager rank ahead of Judge. Plate discipline generally comes slowly in the Major Leagues, with overall awareness improving as a hitter learns the pitchers and his own strengths and weaknesses.

So maybe the most impressive thing that Judge is doing comes before the monster home runs. It's putting himself into the counts to get pitches he can drive long-distance.

Summer's here, so the time has passed to lean on small sample size and the randomness of an inflated BABIP to take away from Judge's stunning start. He is on to something with staying power, and nothing shows it more than his .333 batting average.

Does Judge have a Triple Crown run in him?

He's still one more slump-free month away from that becoming a major storyline. But when you watch him closely, you're left with only one question.

Why not?

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

New York Yankees, Aaron Judge