In what I was hoping would be a brief, albeit much needed, escape from the frustration of Giants baseball, the All-Star break proved to be anything but.
Following Aaron Judge’s incredible performance in the homerun derby (and the entire 1st half of the season for that matter), many Giants fans took to social media, bashing the organization and its front office for, amongst other things, failing to draft Aaron Judge. Several alluded to “Judge being in their backyard” (referring to the ability to scout him more than other teams being that he spent 3 years at nearby Fresno State), and “the Giants being incompetent, and blind to Judge’s athleticism.” Let me first remind fans that every team, including the Yankees, passed on Judge at least once in the 2013 draft, suggesting that it wasn’t perhaps as cut and dry as fans make it out to be now that he’s a superstar.
I had the opportunity to coach against Aaron Judge while he was at Fresno State for 3 seasons, so a significant amount of what I dive into will be based on 1) seeing him play in person, 2) how we approached him as an opponent, and 3) relatable experiences through the minor-league process as a player. And let me get this out of the way first in stating that I (like so many others in college and professional baseball) NEVER saw this type of production coming. Judge’s power has always been rare, but to watch him develop this quickly and to this extent has truly been remarkable, especially given the path he’s taken to get here.
As a coach/recruiter/scout, one of the biggest hurdles involved in evaluating hitters like Judge and his projectability lies in the drastic divide that exists between college and professional baseball. Everything from the mechanics, to the mental approach, to the equipment is different in college versus the pros, providing almost an apples-to-oranges comparison despite the apparent similarities. And as if making those projections weren’t difficult enough (for evaluators), imagine having to do so with as many as 3-5 total swings (in a game) as a baseline for analysis (often times, scouts will travel hours to see a hitter take only a couple good swing with which they’re hoping to determine value). The question has never been as to whether or not Aaron Judge has enough power, that answer was provided all the way back at Linden High School. The determining factor for Judge was as to whether or not his power potential could translate to Major League pitching (given the holes in his swing that accompany his massive size and expanded strike zone). As former MLB-player Tony Clark said of tall hitters, “it is widely assumed, if not widely accepted, that hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult things you’re going to do in any sport. At that size, there are more challenges than if you are a foot shorter.”
When comparing talent evaluation in baseball versus other mainstream sports, I’ll always remember talking to longtime friend and voice of the San Francisco 49ers, Ted Robinson, about the jump from quarterbacking in college to quarterbacking in the NFL. He would always say that amongst other things (system, verbiage, adaptability, etc.), the toughest adjustment QBs have to make is that in college, they simply throw to the open receiver whereas in the NFL, you have to throw your receivers open (suggesting that the NFL is based more on anticipation due to smaller windows to throw). Outside of the differing offensive systems and playbooks around the league, however, the fundamentals of quarterback play are relatively similar between college and the NFL (as evidenced by more “Pro Style” offenses taking shape in college).
The same goes for basketball. Systems and skill level may be different, but the fundamentals of passing, shooting, and defense remain strongly correlated between the college and professional game.
Baseball, on the other hand, is completely different. For one, the equipment for hitters isn’t remotely similar. Simply swapping out a wood bat for a metal bat is like swapping an NFL football for a nerf turbo (ok, maybe not to that degree, but you get the idea).
Metal bats separate themselves in one significant way – they possess the ability reward bad swings and poor mechanics. Wood bats, however, are unforgiving. They expose inefficiencies in a swing, regardless as to whether the issues are mechanic-based, rhythm based, or timing-based. It’s precisely why scouts put such an emphasis on Cape Cod Baseball League (or other elite level wood-bat summer leagues) performance – because it’s the closest test to professional baseball these plays have.
Another player I coached against, Gio Brusa (now with the San Jose Giants), is a perfect illustration of how highly scouts think of the Cape and wood-bat performance. Over his 4 seasons at the University of Pacific, Brusa hit only .286 over 185 games (as a primary 1st baseman) and didn’t hit more than 4 homeruns in a season until his senior year. However, Brusa excelled in his 2 summers in Cape Cod, combining to hit .306 with 14 homeruns over 65 games. As a result, Brusa was selected in the 6th round – an extremely high selection given his mediocre collegiate career.
This is just one of the many hurdles scouts have to leap in terms of evaluation and projectability.
And that brings me to Judge. Now that he’s the frontrunner for the MVP and fresh off one of the most jaw-dropping performances in homerun derby history, an overwhelming number of non-Yankee fans (who don’t have the luxury of having Judge on their team) share the sentiment “how dumb can you be to miss on this guy!?!” And I’m here to say that if you’re one of those who claim they saw this type of performance coming (outside of just hoping), you’re lying.
How do I know this?
Simple – because nothing in Judge’s past suggested that this type of production was possible (at least in the short term), especially given the level of his competition.
Here are my 10 reasons as to why nobody could have predicted Aaron Judge to develop this quickly…
1) Judge wasn’t drafted until the 31st round out of high school
Jermaine Clark, the Oakland A’s area scout who followed Judge at Linden High, referred to Judge as an “untapped monster” and that he was “bigger and more athletic than any guy he’s around.” Clark also said, however, that Judge’s “(body) frame was so long that things didn’t look so fluid.” It was clear to Major League organizations and Judge that it was in his best interest to take the college route in hopes of developing his game.
2) Judge was a good college player, but by no means was he great
Judge was a 3-time all-conference selection (2x Western Athletic Conference, 1x Mountain West Conference), but that was about it. Judge was a career .345 hitter over 3 seasons at Fresno, to go along with 16 homeruns and a .529 slugging percentage. Compare that with DJ Peterson, who was drafted just head of Judge from the University of New Mexico (also the Mountain West Conference), who hit .381 over his 3 seasons with 41 homeruns and a .691 slugging percentage while earning All-America honors.
3) Judge’s swing in college was severely flawed
Back when Judge was at Fresno State, the scouting report on how to pitch him was simple – throw fastballs inside early to set up breaking balls off the plate away. Given how tall and long he was while working with a disconnected swing, there certainly were holes where you could pitch him without being overly susceptible to the homerun ball. This pitching approach to Judge was executed perfectly in this video that was taken while Judge was in Cape Cod. In a simple 3-pitch sequence, you could see how much head movement and stiffness Judge has, making both pitches almost impossible for him to recognize, rending his power almost useless.
4) Just Performed Just “Okay” in the Cape Cod League
In his first experience competing in Cape Cod, Judge turned in a mediocre campaign. He hit .270 with 5 homeruns (8 HR behind fellow Yankee 1st rounder Eric Jagielo) and 11 behind the league-leader. Judge also struck out 33 times in 32 games. He was not selected to the All-Star game, nor did he provide scouts any information besides what they had already known about him.
5) Every team (including the Yankees themselves!) passed on Judge in the 2013 draft
Despite being selected in the 1st round, Judge was passed up by every team before being selected 32nd by the Yankees. Just 6 picks prior, the Yankees took Jagielo with the 26th pick, meaning that every team passed on Judge at least once.
6) Judge was a career .278 hitter in the minor leagues and averaged 1 homerun for every 23+ at-bats
Interestingly enough, Judge’s performance level actually decreased at every minor-league level. Judge hit .333 in A-Ball, .284 in Advanced A-Ball, .283 in Double-A, and .252 in Triple-A. Additionally, the most homeruns Judge ever hit in a minor-league season was 20 (in 2015) while hitting only .255 in the process.
7) When Judge was promoted in 2016, he was completely overmatched
Judge got a taste of the Big Leagues last season where he hit .179 over 84 at-bats with 4 homeruns (1 homerun per every 21 at-bats) and 6 total extra base hits. Perhaps the most telling, he struck out in 45% of his at-bats (42 in 94 total plate appearances)
8) Judge’s swing progression hadn’t adjusted from college pros
Although Judge had made some mechanical tweaks during his first few years into the minors which carried him to the Big Leagues, the overriding issue of pitch recognition still plagued him. When you watch video (posted below) of Judge, you catch a glimpse of why his size makes hitting so tough – it’s hard to keep everything moving freely and easily while working in unison.
Last season (as seen in the photos below), Judge was much more upright, and while that helped him stay behind the ball better (thus allowing for a better hitting position), his eye-level was never consistent, making it also impossible to recognize breaking pitches, as evidenced by his .125 batting average against sliders in 2016. Judge still doesn’t hit sliders well (.203 average), but the difference is that he isn’t swinging at them with near the frequency, suggesting he’s recognizing them better and laying off them all-together.
9) Going into the final week of spring, Judge wasn’t even a lock to break camp with the Major-League team
All throughout spring training, Judge and Aaron Hicks were competing to break camp with the Major League team. On March 29th, just before the rosters were announced, it appeared as though Hicks would win the job and Judge would be sent back to AAA for a 3rd season. However, the next day, the Yankees and Joe Girardi chose Judge, suggesting that “getting sent down could be bad for a young player’s mind state. “
MLB Comparison – Nobody!!!
10) Limited track record for tall hitters, especially one’s of Judge’s size
Judge is most often compared to fellow slugger Giancarlo Stanton, but as massive as Stanton is, even he doesn’t match up to the likes of Judge. Stanton is 2 inches shorter than Judge, and a whopping 40 pounds lighter.
Jared Diamond of the Wall St. Journal said it best when he wrote…“Other than Judge, only 10 position players in major-league history have stood 6-foot-7 or taller, according to Stats LLC, and none have been taller than 6-foot-8. Six of the 10 lasted fewer than 200 big-league games. Only three managed to compile more than 307 career hits: former Yankees and Mets first baseman Tony Clark, two-time All-Star Richie Sexson, and Frank Howard…”
Clark later commented “It is widely assumed, if not widely accepted, that hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult things you’re going to do in any sport. At that size, there are more challenges than if you are a foot shorter.”
Judge’s former coach at Fresno State, Mike Batesole, added “When you’re that big, there are a lot more holes…There’s a lot more ways pitchers can take advantage of you, and it shows up the higher level you go, because guys can throw it where they want to.”
So what was it that transformed Judge from a free swinging, 1-dimensional power hitter ala Chris Davis, into one of the most well-rounded hitters in baseball?
1) He finally was able get his upper and lower half working together without impacting his ability to recognize pitches.
As I touched on earlier, one of the biggest challenges a hitter of Judge’s size faces is the inability to sync up all the moving pieces. As a result, the single most important part of hitting a baseball, your eyes, is impacted. If you look at the video’s of 2017, it’s clear that while Judge changed his stance and leg-kick approach to the ball, the real result is that it allowed him to consistently maintain a strong hitting position without moving his head. There was a segment done a couple of weeks ago by A-Rod and Nick Swisher on the mechanical adjustments Judge has made, and while it is 100% accurate, the adjustment in it of itself isn’t what’s providing the benefit. Intstead, it’s the position this pre-swing process put him into, that ALLOWS his to utilize his strength and hand-eye coordination on a consistent basis.
After having seen the mechanical adjustments in the video above, now compare the photos below which show how each have limited the amount of head movement throughout Judge’s swing. In the photo on the left (2016), Judge is more upright with a high leg-kick. The photo on the right is from 2017 where Judge eliminated the leg kick and has much more knee-bend as the video alluded.
If we fast-forward to the heel-plant, or the phase just before the hands begin to fire, we notice how far the head has travelled throughout the process of the swing.
Last season, Judge’s eye-level not only changed on a vertical plane, they went towards the ball on a horizontal plane whereas this season, Judge starts the swing in the same “window” as in the setup.
The rule of thumb for hitters is that the more your eyes dance on a vertical plane, the harder it is to recognize pitches. The more they move forward on a horizontal plane, the harder it is to establish plate coverage on the ball way (as the head comes forward, the ball outside seems further away than it actually is). Having said that, it’s easy to see why Judge struggled so much with pitch recognition and sliders away in 2016, and why he’s able to hit for power and average in 2017. It’s hard to understate the importance of “settling your eyes” as a hitter!
2) He’s the perfect hitter for Yankee Stadium
Now I will be the first to give Judge all the credit in the world for successfully making these adjustments. These are not easy transformations to make for your average hitter, let alone someone 6’7”. But if you think there isn’t a distinct advantage to playing at Yankee Stadium for over half the games, you’re crazy. Longtime MLB veterans Starlin Castro, Aaron Hicks, Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, Didi Gregorious, and Brett Gardner are just a few who have seen their offensive numbers catapult since playing at the new Yankee Stadium.
To put this ballpark advantage into perspective for Giants fans – let’s compare Brett Gardner and Brandon Belt, both of whom have similar stat-lines in 2017. Belt has 1 more homerun and 4 more RBIs whereas Gardner has 2 more hits. However, according to Statcast, Brett Gardner’s average exit velocity is 2 miles per hour slower than Belt, his average distance per ball in play is 18 feet shorter than Belt, his average launch angle is 7 degrees less than Belt, and the average height of balls in play is 8 feet lower than Belt – yet their power numbers are equal. It would be logical to assume that someone who hits the ball significantly harder and further with more consistency would have the power numbers to back it up – but thus is the difference between hitting at Yankee Stadium vs. AT&T Park.
The advantage of playing in NY also lies in Judge’s home/road splits. He hits a ridiculous .377 with 21 homeruns and an .834 slugging percentage at home versus .280, 9 homeruns, and a .547 slugging percentage on the road (in 1 fewer at-bat). Judge’s 9 road homeruns put him in a group with the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr, Curtis Granderson, and Hunter Renfroe. His .280 average is in line with Kevin Pillar, Tim Beckham, and Aaron Altherr, and his .547 slugging percentage sits just ahead of Mookie Betts and J.T. Realmuto.
This data isn’t here to devalue Judge’s accomplishments, it’s simply to prove that he is perfectly suited to the park he plays whereas someone like Belt (or any Giant for that matter), performs in spite of their park (which is precisely why the Giants are built on pitching).
Aaron Judge is a rare talent and is likely just scraping the surface of his potential as a 25-year-old. But for those Giants (or other) fans who are angry that the front office missed on a “can’t-miss” prospect, nothing could be further from the truth. Judge deserves all the credit in the world for adjusting so quickly to the Big Leagues, and the Yankees deserve all the credit in the world for finding a player whose weaknesses as a player are masked by the ballpark he plays in.
On a somewhat unrelated note, I just came across this video of Judge three games ago against Milwaukee – it makes me like him that much more. For all the discussion on pace of play, here’s a rare instance of a hitter who isn’t fiddling around with batting gloves or batters box routines – he’s in the box and ready to hit (Judge ended up walking in the at-bat).