How Aaron Judge transforms into Babe Ruth in May

May 30th, 2024

There has been a lot to like about the first two months of the Yankees' season.

They entered Wednesday with the third-best record in baseball at 37-19 and on top of the AL East. They lead the Majors in home runs (82), OPS (.770) and ERA (2.80). The starting rotation is on a run that is unprecedented in the Modern Era. And that's without reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole, who has yet to pitch this season due to injury. However, one Yankees pitcher is doing his best Cole impression right now.

Offensively, Juan Soto's first season in pinstripes has been a smashing success. Second-year shortstop Anthony Volpe has a 21-game hitting streak. And Aaron Judge is pacing the big leagues in slugging percentage (.622), OPS (1.029) and wRC+ (186).

However, Judge's current numbers belie his rocky start to the year.

Back on April 20, the Yankees' captain was booed by the home fans amid a four-strikeout afternoon in a loss to the Rays at Yankee Stadium. His average stood at .179. He had just three homers through 21 games. And he understood the frustration of the faithful in the Bronx.

“I’d probably be doing the same thing in their situation," he said.

Manager Aaron Boone said after that game: “He’s going to come around. It’s just a matter of time."

Judge hasn't just come around; he's become the best hitter in the sport.

He did start to break out of his funk in April, launching three homers over his final seven games of the month. But he has followed that with an absolutely astonishing May.

Judge's statistics in May 2024
Batting average: .376
On-base percentage: .495
Slugging percentage: .906
OPS: 1.401

That slugging percentage is 147 points better than any other hitter this month with a minimum of 50 plate appearances. His OPS is 117 points clear of anyone else in the field. The last player (minimum 50 PA) who finished May with a .900 slugging and a 1.400 OPS was the Dodgers' Andre Ethier in 2010. Since then, only one other player has completed any month with a .900/1.400 line: Shohei Ohtani, who boasted a .952 slug and a 1.444 OPS in June 2023.

What sparked this massive turnaround? Here are three reasons why Judge is crushing this month -- and why a May like this is both unique and familiar for him.

Stats updated through Tuesday

A barrel full of barrels

The simplest way to sum up Judge's monster May is that he's just making much better, more damaging contact than he did in April.

Judge recorded 37 ground balls and popups from Opening Day on March 28 through the end of April, his second-most in any monthly split. This month, that total has fallen to 17, his fewest in any month (min. 50 batted balls).

So what happened to those former grounders and popups? Most of them turned into barrels, which are batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle. Judge registered 10 barrels out of 79 batted balls through April. In May, he has tripled that total to a record-setting 30. That is, by far, the most barrels in a single month during the Statcast Era (since 2015). That's more barrels than the Reds and Nationals, who each have 27 this month.

Most barrels in a single month
1. Aaron Judge, Yankees: 30 in May 2024
2-T. Shohei Ohtani, Dodgers: 24 in March/April 2024
2-T. Matt Chapman, Blue Jays: 24 in March/April 2023
4. Aaron Judge, Yankees: 22 in September/October 2017

It took Ohtani 32 games to amass those 24 barrels between March and April this season. Chapman needed 27 games. Judge passed them on May 24 -- his 22nd game of the month -- and he did so in style, blasting a no-doubter off of Padres right-hander Yu Darvish.

Barrels typically result in extra-base hits, and Judge’s 23 extra-base hits in May (12 doubles, 11 homers) are the most by a Yankee in a single month since Bobby Murcer had 23 in August 1972. The last Yankee with more extra-base hits in a single month was Joe DiMaggio (31, July 1937).

Even with a rough April, Judge's barrel rate for the season (28.4%) is once again the best in the league. He paced MLB in that stat in 2022 and 2023. With 30 barrels out of 62 batted balls this May, his 48.4% barrel rate this month is easily the highest during the Statcast Era. He claimed the top spot on that list over ... Aaron Judge, who had a 40.4% barrel rate in May 2023. And in third place is ... Aaron Judge with a 36.1% rate in September/October 2017.

Feasting on fastballs

When it comes to certain pitch types, Judge hasn't discriminated this month: He's hitting all of them. He has homered off of five different pitch types. Of the nine pitch types he has seen in May, he has a .500 or better slugging percentage on everything but the sweeper, which has been thrown his way only 32 times.

However, how he has rebounded this month against fastballs (four-seamers, sinkers and cutters) is worth highlighting.

The 32-year-old has long been one of the game's best fastball hitters. His career slash line against fastballs entering this season was .321/.424/.670. That slugging percentage and his .453 wOBA is the highest from any player in the Statcast Era (min. 1,000 PA ending on fastballs).

And then this season began ...

Judge vs. fastballs, March/April 2024
Batting average: .219
On-base percentage: .338
Slugging percentage: .422
wOBA: .336
Barrel rate: 12.2%

Maybe there was a mechanical issue with Judge's swing. Maybe he was just missing hittable pitches (more on that in a minute). Perhaps he wasn't quite up to speed after missing some time in Spring Training with an abdominal injury. Maybe it was bad luck or a combination therein. Regardless, Judge was not hammering heaters like he always has.

Judge vs. fastballs, May 2024
Batting average: .439
On-base percentage: .540
Slugging percentage: 1.049
wOBA: .643
Barrel rate: 73.1%

Judge has put 26 fastballs into play this month and 19 of them were barrels. All but one of those 26 came off his bat at 95 mph or faster, giving him an absurd 96.1% hard-hit rate.

Don't throw it there

“I’m just missing the pitch. When I get a pitch in the zone, I’ve got to capitalize on it. I don’t get too many. That’s what it comes down to: Don’t miss your pitch when you get it.”

That's what Judge said after he heard the boos from Yankees fans on April 20. To be fair, his zone rate through April was 46.5%, which is a little higher than his career in-zone rate (44.7%). He just wasn't doing a ton with those strikes, batting .239 with a .312 wOBA (league average wOBA on in-zone pitches is .310).

But what about pitches not only in the zone but in the "heart" of the zone? These are pitches more than one baseball's width inside the strike zone. Flinging the ball basically over the middle of the plate to Aaron Judge seems like a terrible idea. However, pitchers were kind of getting away with it early on.

Judge vs. pitches in "heart" of zone, March/April 2024
Batting average: .207
On-base percentage: .207
Slugging percentage: .448
wOBA: .279
Barrel rate: 15.2%

The league is hitting .300 with a .520 slug and a .350 wOBA on pitches in the "heart" of the zone. But, as you may have guessed by now, Judge has flipped the switch and is commonly annihilating those pitches this month.

Judge vs. pitches in "heart" of zone, May 2024
Batting average: .429
On-base percentage: .420
Slugging percentage: 1.122
wOBA: .642
Barrel rate: .56.1%

Judge is getting his pitch and he is not missing it.

All rise for the May king

Judge is having a very special May. But also a fairly familiar one. Although he has recorded an OPS better than .900 in every month from April through September, this is the month when he traditionally does the most damage. By wOBA, the two best months of his career and four of his top 10 have been May months (min. 50 plate appearances in a single month). He has logged about a season's worth of games in May and it probably won't surprise you that his numbers are eye-popping.

Judge in May, career
Games: 152
Batting average: .325
On-base percentage: .427
Slugging percentage: .698
OPS: 1.125
Home runs: 56
RBIs: 124

There is only one player with a better career slugging percentage and OPS in May (min. 500 PA). That is Babe Ruth, who registered a .702 slug and an 1.167 OPS. Besides Ruth and Judge, the only other player with an 1.100 career OPS in May is Ted Williams.

It's fair to call Judge one of the best May performers in the history of baseball. However, no one will be calling him "Mr. May," especially in New York, where that moniker has a rather negative connotation. But what he's doing this month is quite different from April and already has the Yankees dreaming about what could be come October.