Was Aaron Judge a One-Half Wonder?

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28 days ago, I proudly advocated for Yankees rookie Aaron Judge as the American League’s Most Valuable Player. At the time, he looked like the best hitter in baseball by a wide margin, as he tore his way to 30 home runs and, at one point, held the league lead in every Triple Crown category. Since then, though, things have changed a little.

At that point of the season, Judge was a strikeout victim in thirteen straight games. The streak, at the time, was interesting but not necessarily newsworthy; Judge had struck out in just over 30% of his plate appearances and that number was the only serious hurdle to look past when examining his season. He had been utterly dominant in just about every other important offensive category and his high strikeout numbers came with the territory.

But again, things have changed significantly.

Since the All-Star break, one in which Judge won the Home Run Derby, hit the Marlins Park roof, and broke NASA, he is hitting just .169 with seven home runs in 155 plate appearances. And about those strikeouts? He’s now broken the MLB record for consecutive games with a strikeout with a grand total of 37. The previous record was held by the Expos’ Bill Stoneman for his own dubious strikeout streak in 1971. The problem here is that Stoneman was a pitcher.

Remember when I stumped for Judge to win the MVP? Well, even on July 24, his strikeout rate was a serious problem. It’s always been a major characteristic of his that you would have to reconcile before voting for him to win a major award. And, as precedence has demonstrated, his high strikeout total may preclude him from reaching new heights.

To prove that, I’ve created this handy-dandy chart of every MVP winner since 2000 along with their strikeout rates. On this table, there are two pitchers (denoted with asterisks), plenty of players who probably shouldn’t have won the award, and more Human Growth Hormone than I previously thought you could pack into one table. When you read this, keep in mind that Judge’s strikeout rate is 32.1%:

Year League Player K%
2000 NL Jeff Kent 15.4
  AL Jason Giambi 14.5
2001 NL Barry Bonds 14.0
  AL Ichiro 7.2
2002 NL Barry Bonds 7.7
  AL Miguel Tejada 11.7
2003 NL Barry Bonds 10.5
  AL Alex Rodriguez 17.6
2004 NL Barry Bonds 6.6
  AL Vladimir Guerrero 10.9
2005 NL Albert Pujols 9.3
  AL Alex Rodriguez 19.4
2006 NL Ryan Howard 25.7
  AL Justin Morneau 14.1
2007 NL Jimmy Rollins 10.9
  AL Alex Rodriguez 16.9
2008 NL Albert Pujols 8.4
  AL Dustin Pedroia 7.2
2009 NL Albert Pujols 9.1
  AL Joe Mauer 10.4
2010 NL Joey Votto 19.3
  AL Josh Hamilton 16.6
2011 NL Ryan Braun 14.8
  AL Justin Verlander* N/A
2012 NL Buster Posey 15.7
  AL Miguel Cabrera 14.1
2013 NL Andrew McCutchen 15.0
  AL Miguel Cabrera 14.4
2014 NL Clayton Kershaw* N/A
  AL Mike Trout 26.1
2015 NL Bryce Harper 20.0
  AL Josh Donaldson 18.7
2016 NL Kris Bryant 22.0
  AL Mike Trout 20.1

A couple of thoughts:

  1. Say what you want about Barry Bonds, but he won four MVPs after the age of 35. And before you call him a juicer who wouldn’t have been successful without the help of steroids, remember that he averaged 189 walks and 60 strikeouts per year in the four consecutive seasons he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. For his career, he averaged 1.66 walks for every strikeout. My apologies as we get back to the matter at hand.
  2. While there are some aberrations, it’s very hard to win the MVP with a strikeout rate much higher than 20%. And even to get down to Trout’s 2014 strikeout rate, Judge would need to go without striking out in his next 119 plate appearances. So he probably won’t come away with the MVP this year.

To bookend the Most Valuable Player discussion, I would say that my front-runner for the award right now would be Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale, who is currently first in baseball in Wins Above Replacement; in fact, Sale is a full win better than the second-place player (Jose Altuve).

But even if he can’t come away with hardware this year, can Aaron Judge return anywhere close to the form he showed in the first half of the season?

For starters, if Judge sustains his current strikeout rate, he would come in the top fifteen qualified hitters of all time in strikeout percentage. Out of the players ahead of him on that list, none hit higher than .261 (Tim Jordan, Jake Stahl) or had more than 194 career home runs (Russell Branyan). This is a problem that many of us (including me) likely ignored in the first half of the season because, at that time, his strikeout rate was just below 30%, he hit 30 home runs before the All-Star break and he hadn’t yet broken any ignominious, long-standing baseball records. This is also to say nothing of the fact that he looked like baseball’s best rookie hitter since Ichiro.

Here’s something else we ignored: in his 366 plate appearances during the first half of the season, Judge had a wild, and possibly unsustainable, .426 batting average on balls in play (BABIP, for short). This was unsurprisingly tops in the league for the first half of the season, but it becomes slightly suspicious when you consider that a league-average BABIP is .300. Obviously, the best hitters in the league naturally have higher BABIPs because they make better and harder contact, but because Judge is still a rookie, we didn’t know for sure if his hard contact was sustainable.

And, in possibly the least surprising news ever, Judge’s BABIP has dipped to a meager .233 in the second half. His true BABIP talent is likely somewhere in between his first half and second half performances, but it’s far from shocking that he couldn’t sustain the ability to convert nearly 43% of his contact into base hits. That is something no hitter has done for a full season since 1900 and you had to know that Judge wouldn’t be able to sustain that success.

As for what the future holds, it should have everything to do with Judge’s strikeouts. If he can corral his K habit and get his strikeout rate down to somewhere between 20 and 25%, then he has a real chance to be one of the league’s best players.

But if he doesn’t, you can expect more results that more closely mirror his last 35 games than his first 84.

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