Something is different with Judge in '19

August 10th, 2019

There is something strange going on with this season.

It’s not that he hasn’t been productive. Despite a left oblique strain that kept him out of action for two months between late April and late June, and a slump that has struck over the past two weeks, the Yankees right fielder still owns a stellar .271/.398/.475 batting line in 61 games through Friday. His park-adjusted 130 wRC+ puts him far above the league average (100), and combined with his strong defense, he has been worth roughly 3 WAR in limited action.

This is more about how Judge has produced those numbers.

Consider his home run spray chart. Remember, Judge is not a left-handed batter.

That backward-looking image is a good representation of Judge’s odd 2019. He’s crushing the ball to the opposite field as effectively as anyone. On the other hand, he’s not pulling the ball with authority.

The end result is a Judge that is still a force -- but not quite the dominant one who was the American League Rookie of the Year, and MVP runner-up, two years ago.

It’s nitpicking, but what exactly is going on with the 6-foot-7 slugger? Here are some trends to keep an eye on as the first-place Yankees head down the stretch and gear up for October.

He’s left left field behind

Judge didn’t just start bashing balls to the opposite field this year. In his first two full seasons (2017-18), his 1.025 oppo slugging percentage ranked second in MLB behind J.D. Martinez, and his 26 home runs in that direction ranked third behind Martinez and Khris Davis.

Statcast divides each hitter’s batted balls into three groups: pulled, opposite field and straightaway (encompassing the middle third of the field). In 2019, Judge is hitting as well as ever to the latter two parts, but his production on pulled balls has plummeted.

Judge’s SLG by batted ball direction
2017: .936 to oppo/straightaway, 1.144 to pull
2018: .840 to oppo/straightaway, .828 to pull
2019: .912 to oppo/straightaway, .458 to pull

More than 250 batters have generated at least 20 extra-base hits this season. Only Marlins catcher Jorge Alfaro has pulled a lower share than Judge (14.3%), who is also the lone player to have launched at least 10 home runs without pulling any.

When Judge directs the ball toward center or right field this year, he’s still one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. When he pulls it, his slugging percentage sits in the bottom 8% of MLB -- ranking below Dee Gordon. It’s a surprising development from the guy who has hit some truly monstrous homers to left field in his young career, including one that left his bat at 121.1 mph, and another than flew a projected 495 feet.

That lack of pull power has helped drop Judge’s overall slugging percentage from a high of .627 in 2017 down to .475, which is not among the top 100 marks in the Majors this year (minimum 250 PA).

It’s not just about pitch location

On July 16, Judge was facing Rays lefty Colin Poche in the eighth inning when Poche delivered a 3-2 fastball to the lower-outside corner. Judge sliced a shot toward Yankee Stadium’s right field foul pole, but it veered just foul. On the next pitch, Poche tried the same pitch in the same location, and Judge kept this one fair, flipping it into the inviting right field seats for a go-ahead two-run homer.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff low and away,” Judge said afterward. “I try to hit the pitch where it's pitched. If it's away, I'll go away. If it's in, I pull it. Just depends on the pitch.”

So perhaps Judge’s batted ball tendencies are simply a result of pitchers’ tendencies against him. After all, “going with the pitch” is something hitters are told to do. But it’s not that simple.

About 36% of pitches to Judge this season have been to the inner third of the zone or inside, well above average (about 32%) for a right-handed batter. About 47% of pitches to him have been to the outer third of the zone or outside, compared to the average of 50%.

Some of his homers, like the aforementioned shot off Poche, have been examples of going with an outside pitch. Others have not. Judge has gone deep six times against pitches over the middle of the plate and twice against those over the inner third.

That includes a solo shot Judge sliced into the right field seats at Yankee Stadium this past Sunday night off a David Price fastball that bored in on the inside edge. No pitch that a righty has turned into an opposite-field homer this year has been further inside than that offering, which touched the inside edge of the zone. Judge used his immense strength to inside-out it into the seats.

The Yankee Stadium factor

One surprising thing about the direction of Judge’s power this season is that overall, the distribution of his batted balls hasn’t changed that much. He’s pulling the ball about 35% of the time, hitting it straightaway about 36% and sending it oppo about 29% -- all of those numbers being within about two percentage points of what he did in 2018.

But let’s address the elephant in the room. Yankee Stadium has the “short porch,” and its right field seats make for a tempting target. Righties have hit far more most oppo homers over the past five years there than at any other ballpark.

Judge’s opposite-field rate at Yankee Stadium is higher than it is on the road, and seven of his 11 oppo extra-base hits have come in the Bronx. So it may well be that Judge is especially primed to shoot the ball the other way when the short porch looms in right field.

But that doesn’t fully explain Judge’s utter lack of pull power this year, even on the road, where he is pulling the ball only slightly less than ever.

He’s been grounded

Judge is hitting the ball harder than ever this year, and harder than anyone else. He easily leads the Majors in average exit velocity (97.1 mph) and hard-hit rate (58.6%).

Those numbers are only slightly lower when Judge pulls the ball, but that’s not the issue. What does stand out is that Judge has hit about 71% of his pulled contact on the ground -- much more than in previous seasons and among the highest rates in the Majors.

Yet when Judge hits the ball up the middle or to right, he has put it on the ground only about 30% of the time, below the MLB average.

Grounders, even those hit exceptionally hard, stand little chance of turning into extra bases. And so if Judge isn’t lifting off when he pulls the ball, that certainly helps explain his directional splits.

Yet there is rarely just one factor.

Perhaps the oblique injury from earlier this year has had some lingering effect. Judge’s directional output could also be tied to the way he has crushed fastballs this season (.605) and struggled against offspeed and breaking pitches (.309). Or it may be a blip that will work itself out over the next two months.

Whatever is going on with Judge, it has implications for a Yankees lineup that has fellow sluggers Edwin Encarnacion, Gary Sanchez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luke Voit on the injured list. Judge can help make up for those absences, but a renewed ability to drive the ball to all fields would help.