Was Aaron Judge a One-Half Wonder?

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

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.

The 100-Game MLB Awards

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The Major League Baseball season is 162 games long and lasts for six months; what happens in the last three months is far more important than what happens in the first three. However, the first 100 games of the season can give us a snapshot of what’s to come and which players are the best in both leagues. In this article, we’ll take a look at the award winners for both leagues over the course of the season’s first 100 games of the season. It’s been a fun year, one that has already broken records and captivated fans.

In this post, we’ll look at numbers both traditional and advanced to pick out the very best in both leagues. I’ll explain some of the more advanced statistics when we get to them; basically, I’m trying to weed out fairly useless stats such as RBI and pitcher wins in order to get to the bottom of who the best players in baseball really are.

So here we go. These are, through about 100 games of the season, the award winners in both the American and the National League. We’ll start in the AL.

American League

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees

Stats (AL Rank)

AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RE24 wRC+ WAR
.310 (10) .434 (1) .649 (1) .1083 (1) 32 (1) 41.54 (1) 182 (1) 5.4 (1)

All rise!

The production of Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge speaks for itself. He is first in baseball in wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) to this point of the season, first in OPS, first in slugging percentage, first in home runs, first in RE24 (run expectancy for the 24 base-out states), and first in walk percentage. Judge has been the most productive player in the American League this season, which means that you’d probably be surprised to hear that I kind of struggled with this one.

Consider this: in the category of Win Probability Added, a statistic that is exactly what it sounds like, Judge is sixth in the American League. He also strikes out in 30.1% of his plate appearances, the sixth-highest rate among qualified hitters in the AL. Ultimately, I looked past those numbers because Judge has been so dominant in just about every other mainstream and sabermetric offensive category. However, this isn’t the runaway that everyone thinks it is, with players like Jose Altuve, Chris Sale (more on him shortly), and George Springer nipping at his heels.

Honorable Mentions: George Springer (Astros), Jose Altuve (Astros), Chris Sale (Red Sox), Khris Davis (Athletics)

Cy Young Award: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox

Stats (AL Rank)

IP ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 RA9-WAR
141.1 (1) 2.48 (1) 0.89 (1) 12.74 (1) 1.97 (1) 2.52 (1) 30.30 (1) 5.6 (1)

I’m going to get in trouble for using some of these stats if I don’t explain them, so here goes.

SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) is an attempt to answer just what makes a certain pitcher successful. It rates ground balls as more valuable than fly balls and getting strikeouts as the most valuable skill of all. FIP (fielding-independent pitching) takes the defense behind the pitcher out of the equation and rates his performance independent of that. RA9-WAR is the pitching equivalent of Wins Above Replacement except that it uses runs allowed per nine innings as its barometer of success. RE24 is the same for pitchers as it is for hitters, and a higher number means that a certain pitcher is negatively affecting the other team’s run expectancy over the course of a game.

Got all those stats down? Good, because Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale is the American League’s best starter in every one of those categories. He’s also first in ERA and strikeout rate; in fact, in his last start, Sale became the fastest pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts in a season in MLB history. Sale is on pace for over 300 strikeouts on the season and has been the American League’s most dominant pitcher so far this season. This is a no-brainer if I’ve ever seen one.

Honorable Mentions: Corey Kluber (Indians), Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays), Luis Severino (Yankees)

Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge, RF/New York Yankees

See American League MVP above.

Honorable Mentions: Trey Mancini (Orioles), Jordan Montgomery (Yankees), Ben Gamel (Mariners), Jacob Faria (Rays)

Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch, Houston Astros

The Houston Astros are having the best season in the American League and are on pace for 107 wins. Hinch, the one-time Stanford psych major, has undoubtedly been part of the Astros’ success so far this season. He has managed through injuries to ace Dallas Keuchel and shortstop Carlos Correa and, all the while, has led Houston to a whopping 17-game lead in the AL West. You could go with someone like the Twins’ Paul Molitor in this spot, but I’m going to take the manager of the best team in the American League, and that man happens A.J. Hinch.

Honorable Mentions: Paul Molitor (Twins), Joe Girardi (Yankees), Kevin Cash (Rays)


National League

Most Valuable Player: Bryce Harper, RF/Washington Nationals

Stats (NL Rank)

AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RE24 wRC+ WAR
.336 (3) .441  (2) .634 (1) .1075 (1) 25 (T-4) 46.67 (1) 172 (2) 4.8 (2)

Bryce Harper is second on his own team in Wins Above Replacement to Washington’s third baseman, Anthony Rendon. That said, he’s still the MVP of the National League to this point in the year.

Harper ranks first in the National League in RE24, Win Probability Added, and slugging percentage. He’s also second in wRC+ and on-base percentage. Harper is in the top five of just about every significant offensive category. His all-around greatness shouldn’t be taken lightly, and it’s become clear that he’s the best player in the National League right now. Through 100 games, he’s been the most valuable player in the National League, even if he (technically) isn’t the Most Valuable Player on his own team.

Honorable Mentions: Anthony Rendon (Nationals), Joey Votto (Reds), Justin Turner (Dodgers)

Cy Young Award: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Stats (NL Rank)

IP ERA WHIP K/9 FIP SIERA RE24 RA9-WAR
141.1 (1) 2.04 (1) 0.88 (2) 10.70 (3) 2.94 (2) 2.91 (2) 31.10 (1) 5.9 (1)

To be honest, my initial inclination was to give this award to Max Scherzer. However, in the interest of statistical research and analytical thinking, I decided to go with Kershaw by a very slim margin. Here’s why.

Kershaw pulls in ahead of Scherzer in RA9-WAR, RE24, and ERA. RA9-WAR is the important one here, as it is an exact quantification of a pitcher’s value to his team to this point in the season. ERA is also extremely important, as Kershaw is allowing fewer runs than Scherzer per nine innings. It is easy to give this one to Scherzer and you could justify doing that here. Instead, I’m going to take Kershaw, even though he’s about to go to the disabled list with a recurrence of back stiffness.

Honorable Mentions: Max Scherzer (Nationals), Gio Gonzalez (Nationals), Kenley Jansen (Dodgers)

Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, OF/1B/Los Angeles Dodgers

Stats (NL Rank Among Rookies)

AVG OBP SLG OPS HR RE24 wRC+ WAR
.269 (13) .352 (6) .617 (1) .969 (1) 27 (1) 26.34 (1) 146 (2) 2.6 (1)

If this seems like it’s too easy for you, guess what: it is.

Bellinger is first among NL rookies in OPS, home runs, RE24, WAR, and slugging percentage. He actually gets something of a surprise run in some of these categories from his own teammate, catcher Austin Barnes. Don’t kid yourself, though: to this point, Bellinger has been the National League’s best rookie and his heroics have helped the Dodgers to one of the best 99-game starts in MLB history. Even in the most stacked lineup in Major League Baseball, the rookie first baseman has stood out.

Honorable Mentions: Austin Barnes (Dodgers), Kyle Freeland (Rockies), Josh Bell (Pirates)

Manager of the Year: Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers

Is this a boring choice? Probably. Is it the right choice? Yes.

Roberts has anchored the Dodgers as they’ve won nearly 69% of their games to this point in the season. The team is currently on pace for a staggering 111 wins, and Roberts has played no small part in their early-season success. Roberts won the award last year, and while voters may be fatigued of voting for the same person they did a season ago, Roberts is clearly the best choice for Manager of the Year.

Honorable Mentions: Bud Black (Rockies), Torey Lovullo (Diamondbacks), Craig Counsell (Brewers)