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Aaron Judge was baseball’s biggest first-half surprise, blasting 30 home runs and hitting .329 over the first half of the season over 84 games. He was selected to the Home Run Derby and voted an All-Star. He seemed to have the Rookie of the Year award all but tied up, and was leading the conversation for Most Valuable Player. Thirty-eight games through the second half, that has all changed. Judge has hit just .188 with only seven home runs.
How did Aaron Judge go from one of the most productive and valuable hitters in baseball, to a player that is now playing at a below-average offensive level? How can we put this performance into league context? Who exactly is Aaron Judge and what is his value?
An interesting trend is that offense in Major League Baseball is at its highest point in the last 10 years, especially in terms of increased power. Players are also striking out at a higher clip than any other year in baseball history, but this trend has been consistent over the last 10 years.
Why does this matter? It matters because Aaron Judge is the archetype of a new type of player that embodies these trends. Similar to Adam Dunn (49.9 percent of career plate appearances resulted in a home run, walk, or strikeout), Judge’s at bats result in an extremely low number of balls in play (only 56.1 percent this season). Dunn and Judge both weigh nearly 300 pounds and are 6’6” and 6’7”, respectively. Their body types are similar, but Judge seems to be more athletic and agile than Dunn was throughout his career.
Dunn ended up a highly successful player, slugging 462 home runs through fourteen major league seasons. Granted, he was a liability both as a fielder and on the basepaths — two aspects of playing that Judge is surprisingly competent in.
Dunn had a head start, but his age-24 season is highly comparable to Judge’s current, age-25 season so far. Dunn slashed .266/.387/.569 with 46 home runs in 681 plate appearances, and Judge has slashed .283/.414/.587 with 37 home runs through 537 plate appearances. Given the downward trend, it is likely that Judge’s final statistics will reflect Dunn’s season.
Judge’s dramatic rise and subsequent slump can likely be attributed to a couple things: luck and adjustments. Judge’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a staggering .426, significantly higher than any season he had seen in his minor league or major league career. Post All-Star Game, his BABIP has been just .269, which is equally low compared to his career norms. BABIP should be consistent among years, and it can be used to discern whether a possibly outlying time period is a true change in performance or based on random chance. Judge’s BABIP’s from this season seem to indicate that he will regress from his first half performance. Still, his second half performance would be too much of an overcorrection to assess his true performance level.
On a less scientific explanation, one should note that pitchers often make adjustments in how they pitch to rookies after a certain amount of time, and it is possible that coaches, pitchers, catchers, or front office members have found weaknesses in Judge’s swing and are now exploiting it. If this is the case, Judge must make his own adjustments to counteract the changes by pitchers. It may not, however, be enough to completely get back to his previous performance level.
I think it is likely that Judge will regress towards the mean, and prove to have a strong career even if he does not sustain his first-half levels of production. Looking at Adam Dunn once more, who proved to be an extremely valuable and competent player over the course of his career, I don’t believe that Judge will be a superstar, however I do see him being a productive player. Then again, he’s still only 25.