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Notes on the New Wave: Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees

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Yankees outfield prospect Aaron Judge is a 6'7" physical specimen, an inordinately polite and well-mannered young man, and a fearsome opponent for the pitchers of the AAA International League. Here are my non-authoritative notes on what I saw on video from Judge over the course of multiple games. I haven’t seen him in person, so here’s a WARNING NOT A SCOUT label right off the bat.

You can read more about Judge here in Wayne Cavadi’s interview with the Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders radio broadcaster John Sadak. What Sadak says about Judge’s fielding seems especially notable.

With the Yankees in a pennant push in these dogging days of August, trying to fight off a Blue Jays team turbocharged by deadline trades, Judge could be called up to the majors shortly, joining Luis Severino and Greg Bird in the new wave of talent in the Bronx. Or, the Yankees could decide to give him a gold star for the season, and bring Judge to spring training with the hope of making the club or being called-up only a few weeks in, with the team gaining a year of service-time as the Cubs did with Kris Bryant this spring. Whether Judge’s actually ready for the majors now, though, is the real question.

The first to thing to note about Judge: truly titanic power, which is of course in keeping him with his obvious attributes as a huge human being (See the photo above making Reggie Jackson look undersized). He’s extraordinarily athletic, and reminds many of Giancarlo Stanton, the most impressive player in term of pure physique in all of baseball. Reggie Jackson himself mentioned Winfield, Stargell, and McCovey in comparing Judge’s tools, all of legendary stature.

Going beyond the loud tools to examine the skills, Judge’s natural feel for hitting stands out, a trait that goes back to his college days at Fresno State. His swing has generally clean mechanics, generating major bat speed with a tightly wound, direct correlation between hands and hips as they load and uncoil.

He’s selective, too—taking pitchers deep into counts, generally looking for a fastball to clobber. There have been fluctuations in his walk-rate, but I think he has the basic framework to develop on advanced approach, though probably not with a ton of walks.

What different about Judge from when was drafted in 2013? His swing has been altered, it seems to me, to add more loft, probably from a Yankees directive to maximize his power. His college swing was more line-drive oriented, possibly prevented him from tapping into his raw power (Ivan Drago, Hercules were the comps during the broadcasts I saw) into game power.

So, what are the results this season? An overall line of .265/.338/.473 with 20 dingoes and 24 dodos (Doubles, for those of you uninitiated into animalian statistical shorthand) between AAA and AA, with 129 strikeouts in 111 games. In AAA he’s hit .238/.322/.414 in 181 at bats. From what I’ve observed, he’s had many bouts of ‘feast or famine’ from one game to the next in AAA.

Where are the holes in production coming from, then? Breaking balls, put simply. And if there’s a hole in his swing, it’s down and in, the typical location of difficulty for tall players to get their long arms in the millisecond needed. And although I saw him gaveling the baseball to warp speeds on anything left up in the zone, he looked like he was still cheating for the fastball at times.

Why this might be happening? I have a conjecture: it’s the way he’s using his legs as a rocking device. Many players have used a rocking from back to front foot with success (Jim Edmonds comes to mind). It’s a way of maximizing power by storing it on the backside before the transfer of the swing onto the front.

Judge’s version of the rock, however, has a hitch and extension of his front leg and ankle, which makes the timing of the swing similar to a high leg kick. There are few high leg kicks in majors anymore; it’s notoriously susceptible to the change of speed in breaking pitches. The extension of the leg and ankle could also be making it more difficult to hit the pitch down and in, leaving him closed off on his front side.

Judge’s splits are notable in that that he hasn’t had much trouble with lefties. Although still early for certainties on splits, I think righties can exploit this down and in weakness even more, since, if my layman understanding of the physics involved is correct, the ball doesn’t have to travel over the pitcher’s body, and thus the extra plane in the visual field of the hitter’s eyes when facing an opposite handed hurler.

Generally, these developments are consistent with the habits and tendencies that come with asking a player to add more uppercut to his swing and emphasize his power numbers. Not that adding power and loft is a bad thing in itself, but I expect he’ll have to adjust his current approach to hit in the majors, and find his true potential. Smoothing out the actions of his legs will go a long way to help him time the ungodly breaking stuff in The Show. Plus, Judge has so much raw power that he need not overswing in order to hit the ball out of the yard. He’s not having enough consistency in AAA, as it is.

With some form of re-correction toward what he was like in college, a line-drive and higher average hitter, with season totals around 40 doubles and 25 to 30 homers, Judge can be an all-star, a middle of the order hitter, and most importantly, the type of winning ballplayer who straddles the demarcation of talent and skill.