July 14, 2017
Aaron Judge is Out of Control
Back on May 10, with a little more than one month of the season in the books, I wrote about the seven hitters—five of them big surprises—who had out-produced their 90th percentile PECOTA projections by at least 200 points of OPS. They were—along with the less surprising Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman duo—Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Thames, Aaron Judge, Yonder Alonso, and Zack Cozart.
A few interesting things have happened to that group since then.
First of all, four of those five surprise hitters were chosen for the All-Star game (along with Harper). Zimmerman made it back for the first time since 2009, while Judge, Alonso, and Cozart were each first-timers. Thames missed out, in large part because the NL is stacked at first base with Zimmerman voted in as the starter and Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto serving as the reserves. Thames ranks fifth among NL first basemen in OPS, behind the three aforementioned All-Stars and Freeman, who a) would have been an All-Star if not for an injury knocking him out for much of the first half, and b) might be a third baseman now.
As you’d expect following relatively out-of-nowhere monster first months, all five surprise hitters saw their OPS go down after May 10. Thames continued to display huge power and draw tons of walks, but he hit just .193 (with a decent .330 on-base percentage and .435 slugging percentage) in 48 games since May 10. Zimmerman is at .275/.328/.428 in 48 games since May 10, which is still better than the Nationals were counting on from him coming into the season and very similar to his combined .262/.324/.448 line from the previous five seasons.
Cozart, who was perhaps the most surprising of the five surprise hitters, dealt with a stint on the disabled list and still managed to hit .293/.360/.524 in 37 games since May 10. His overall OPS (.941) is 267 points higher than his career mark (.674) coming into the season. Alonso’s batting average has plummeted, but the approach changes meant to add power that he talked about during spring training didn’t stop working, as he hit .255/.365/.478 with nine homers in 48 games since May 10. To put that in context, his home run total in 48 games after his monster first month equals his previous career-high for a full season.
And then there’s Aaron Judge. Oh man, is there Aaron Judge.
He hit .317/.413/.760 with 13 homers in 29 games through May 9. Since then he’s hit .335/.465/.655 with 17 homers in 55 games. So yes, technically that means his OPS is slightly lower since May 10—1.173 vs. 1.120, for a drop of 53 points—but holy shit .335/.465/.655. Comparing pre-May 10 and post-May 10, his Isolated Power declined 28 percent (to a still-incredible .320) and his strikeouts rose 19 percent. Yet his overall production since May 10 was arguably just as good because Judge drew more walks and became a ball-in-play deity when not launching mammoth home runs over fences.
His batting average on balls in play was a robust .339 during the first month, but since May 10 his BABIP is an absurd .476. As of May 9, his average exit velocity was 93.6 mph, which ranked ninth-best in MLB. He was crushing the ball. It turns out, that was nothing for Judge. His average exit velocity since May 10 is 97.7 mph, which leads baseball by a massive margin. In fact, during that stretch no other regular has an average exit velocity above 93.0 mph. The gap between Judge (97.7 mph) and the next-highest average exit velocity (92.7 mph) is the same as the gap between no. 2 (92.7 mph) and no. 152 (87.7 mph).
Judge walked a lot during the first month, but his souped-up 18.4 percent walk rate since May 10 is a mix of strong plate discipline and putting the fear of god into pitchers. During the past month, Judge has seen MLB’s lowest percentage of pitches inside the strike zone. No one wants to throw him anything hittable when the average ball is leaving his bat at 98 mph. Also, have you seen him? Judge’s worst totals in any of the season’s four months are a .303 AVG, .411 OBP, .642 SLG, and 1.084 OPS. He started out as merely one of the hitters wildly out-producing their 90th percentile projection; now he stands alone.
Here’s an updated list of the hitters out-pacing their 90th percentile PECOTA projections by the most points of OPS (minimum 250 plate appearances):
Thames dropped off the leaderboard, but the other familiar May 10 names remain and they’re joined by Marwin Gonzalez (a similar surprise breakout) and Justin Turner (who more closely resembles Freeman and/or Harper from the initial group). None of them are anywhere near Judge, however. He’s still beating his 90th percentile projection by 188 points of OPS—56 points higher than anyone else. And here’s the kicker: PECOTA had a crush on Judge to begin with, projecting him to be one of MLB’s top rookies with a strong .256/.352/.481 line and giving him an MVP-caliber 90th percentile projection of .295/.397/.554.
In the span of less than four months Judge has gone from a good but not great prospect who struggled as a 24-year-old in his first taste of the big leagues to one of the brightest stars in baseball as a 25-year-old rookie. He leads the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, homers, walks, and WARP, and Judge solidified his status as a household name by putting on an amazing show in the Home Run Derby. It’s a remarkable story, and the fact that he’s now getting an endless amount of media coverage doesn’t make that any less true.
Here, via the indispensable Baseball Reference Play Index, is how Judge ranks in OPS+ among all 25-year-old rookies since 1950 (minimum 350 plate appearances):
Judge will surely come back down to earth at least somewhat in the second half—no one has cracked a .410 BABIP since the 1920s; he's at .426—but he has the “best 25-year-old rookie hitter” title well within reach. There just aren’t many instances of an elite hitter getting his first extended chance in the majors at 25 and thriving for a full season, particularly (as opposed to Cuban greats Minoso and Oliva) under what would be considered "typical" circumstances. And so perhaps it’s silly to compare Judge only to the limited number of great 25-year-old rookies.
Here’s how he ranks in OPS+ since 1950 among rookies, of any age, with 350 or more plate appearances:
Abreu was two years older than Judge, but like Minoso and Oliva he arrived from Cuba. Trout was 20, so there’s not much room for a comparison there (Judge, at 20, was a sophomore slugging .458 for Fresno State). In terms of age and path to the majors, Fisk is probably the closest comp in that group, but he was also a former no. 4 overall draft pick with quite a bit of hype attached. Anyway, you get the idea. Judge is producing at an insane level right now, and he’s doing so at an age/experience combination rarely seen.
Just in case you’re curious, here’s the same list as above, but since 1990 rather than since 1950:
Finally, let’s also toss the whole “rookie” qualifier out, and compare Judge to all 25-year-olds since 1950. Looking at first halves, Mickey Mantle in 1957, Harmon Killebrew in 1961, and Lance Berkman in 2001 are the only 25-year-olds to carry a higher OPS than Judge's mark of 1.139 into an All-Star break. Looking at full seasons, here's how Judge ranks in OPS+ among all 25-year-olds who qualified for the batting title:
See, now that’s a list. Sandwiched between Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron is a helluva place to be for a 25-year-old rookie, and Judge has plenty of room to fall until he’s “only” in Bonds/Pujols/Thome territory. There's not enough hype in the world for what he's doing.