Few things scare scouts off a hitter more than high strikeout totals. We’re trained to look past the numbers and to see just the player, rather than be swayed by, for example, gaudy numbers in an extreme hitting environment or against inferior competition—or the reverse. But high strikeout totals are one number that can set off scouts’ alarms. Even the most successful minor-league hitters can, and usually will, struggle when they get to the majors if they have extreme swing-and-miss issues. As George Springer showed this year, a hitter with extreme strikeout tendencies can still be productive; that production might just come with a painfully low batting average.
A few weeks ago, I talked about how predetermined biases about a player can affect the evaluation process, especially with prospects for whom expectations play a large part. In the case of Yankees outfield prospect Aaron Judge, however, even if we can strip away all of the background information, forget about his success in college and forget that he was selected in the Yankees in the first round, we can’t ignore that he is a tremendously large human being. I mean, he’s just massive.
We know certain things that are generally pretty true about tall hitters. They typically hit for more power than their shorter counterparts, and at the same time, they generally swing and miss more. Part of that is due to the aforementioned propensity for power (as powerful swings tend to bring whiffs), but part is due to physics. Taller hitters have longer arms, and long arms make for long swings. The longer a swing, the more holes in it.
Below is a graph showing the correlation between batter height and swing-and-miss percentage:
For the comparison’s sake, the dot on the far left is Jose Altuve, and outlier in the upper right-hand corner is Giancarlo Stanton, the shortest and tallest hitters in the league, respectively. Based on qualified hitters in 2014, there is a .40 correlation between height and swing-and-miss percentage, giving it a moderate correlation. It’s not cut and dried—of course there are little guys who swing and miss and big guys who don’t have major issues—but the general trend shows that the taller the hitter, the more swinging strikes he’ll produce.
So upon first glance at Judge, who is at the extreme end of player heights, I had a general profile in mind. Without ever having seen him swing a bat, I expected a good amount of power coming from a longer swing that would also produce a fair number of whiffs. I wasn’t alone in that thought process.
In the series in which I watch Judge for the first time, he faced a pair of lower-velocity starting pitchers on the first two nights. But on the third night, the opposing pitcher was Cardinals pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins, who can reach the mid-90s with his fastball. “Let’s see how the big guy handles a little velocity tonight,” a scout who had been there the entire season told me. Despite a strong showing to that point in the series, there were still questions about how he would handle velocity, simply because of his profile.
One of the ways tall hitters make up for the length of their swings is to “cheat” on fastballs. They get their swing started early in order to reach higher velocities on the inner half, a location where they are most easily able to produce power. While it does help them produce the desired homer-hitting result, it leaves them susceptible to pitches on the outer half, thus causing more swings and misses and higher strikeout rates. As you can see below, some of the tallest hitters in the game swing and miss considerably more on pitches on the outer half. These are normalized whiff rates, so 300 percent means a whiff rate triple the league average.
Even a player like Alex Rios, who doesn't whiff all that much overall, begins to show problems on pitches away:
These are the types of hitters Judge to whom will be compared by many scouts, with the Stanton comparison leading the way. But after scouting Judge in person, I concluded that, despite the similarities in stature, he will be a much different hitter.
Judge takes to his at-bats with the approach of a much smaller player. While others his size tend to sell out for the power that is expected of them, Judge employs an up-the-middle approach, using the whole field and looking for line drives. Like most tall hitters, his swing can get long, but he does a good job of keeping it as short as his long arms will allow. His bat stays through the strike zone for a long time, giving him good plate coverage and the ability to handle pitches on the outer half that selling out for power would leave him exposed to. As you can see from the heat map and distribution chart below, Judge does a good job staying up the middle.
Heat map and location breakdown c/o MLBFarm.com
The approach isn’t going to limit his power, however. Because of his tremendous size and strength, Judge is still going to run into his share of power. By focusing up the middle, Judge ends up driving the gaps when he squares the ball up, resulting in strong doubles and home run totals. He might not sell out for his power, but he doesn’t have to. His size and strength make up the difference, and balls that wouldn’t carry over the fence when hit by a normal-sized man clear it with ease when hit by Judge. His approach may keep him from being a 30 home run hitter, but there’s no reason he can’t still hit 20 in a season multiple times.
This was my assessment of Judge after sitting in on him for an entire series—that despite his size and length, his ability to keep his swing relatively short and his up-the-middle/line-drive approach would save him from racking up a ton whiffs, thus keeping his strikeout totals at a respectable level. I was surprised, then, to see at the end of the season that he had fanned 131 times on the year, exactly once per game.
Stats don’t change my scouting report, but they don’t lie either, so seeing something like that causes me to go back and reevaluate my notes and what I saw. Was my scouting report wrong? That’s certainly a possibility. Scouts are wrong all the time and it’s not false modesty to admit that I miss plenty. But in this case, I don’t think a high strikeout total necessarily negates my evaluation that he won’t have swing-and-miss issues. A strikeout per game would concern me with many minor-league hitters, but with Judge, I’m still not worried.
And there’s one more stat that helps ease my concern.
Judge also offers a patient approach at the plate, one that helped lead to 89 walks on the year. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many, it’s safe to say that at least some of his 131 strikeouts were the product of this patient approach, rather than his long arms. Patient hitters tend to work deeper counts and take more pitches, both of which lead to more strikeouts.
Hitters with big strikeout totals who don’t walk much tend to have higher than average swing-and-miss rates, but high strikeout totals when paired with high walk totals don’t necessarily indicate the same. In fact, the correlation between strikeout-to-walk ratio and swinging and missing is even stronger than that of height and swinging and missing:
There is a .424 correlation between K/BB ratio and swing-and-miss percentage, showing with a moderate correlation that hitters who control the strike zone better (have a better K/BB ratio) don’t swing and miss as much.
This correlation helps me feel better about my assessment of Judge and jives with my original report. Taking a K/BB ratio from High- and Double-A and extrapolating it out to the majors isn’t exactly a scientific comparison, but just as a matter of context, his 1.47 K/BB ratio this season would have put him 29th out of 147 qualifiers if he had done it in New York. No one with a K/BB ratio in that range or better had a swing-and-miss percentage of more than 17.1 percent. Again: Nobody in their right mind would assume that Judge would have had this ratio in the majors this year, or will ever have a ratio this good in the majors. Some top prospects improve their ratios as they age and move up; some maintain those ratios; but even more see the ratios get worse. But in layman’s terms, hitters who control the strike zone the way Judge showed he’s capable of rarely have major issues making contact. That percentage will likely rise with his level of competition, but he has established a strong basis for controlling the strike zone that will serve him well as he moves forward.
So while Aaron Judge is among the tallest hitters you will ever see, and tall hitters swing and miss more than their shorter counterparts, my eyes tell me that he won’t have the same issues. He might accumulate relatively high strikeout totals in the majors, but thanks to his patient approach at the plate, that’s not the red flag for his development it would be for many prospects, especially ones who fit his profile.