Amazing! Awe-inspiring! Historic!
Those words - among many - were used to describe Aaron Judge's 2017 Rookie of the Year season. Somewhat surprisingly, we can add "room to grow." Judge understands this and has succeeded in this fashion already.
Despite discouraging results at the major league level in 2016 - Judge struck out in 42.2 percent of his 95 plate appearances in a 27-game cameo - the Yankees pitted him against Aaron Hicks last spring training with the winner set to claim the starting role in right field. Hicks made the decision difficult, but Judge prevailed. It is a vast understatement to say the Yankees made the correct call.
Based on his minor league resume and the small sample size in 2016, Judge delivered more than anyone expected in his first full season in the majors, hitting a rookie-record 52 home runs while compiling a .284 batting average, .422 on-base percentage, and .627 slugging percentage (171 OPS+). He scored an American League-high 128 runs, drove in another 114, and stole nine bases.
Judge is hardly an all-offense player as he delivered +9 in defensive runs saved in right field. He won the AL Silver Slugger Award, and was runner-up in the AL Most Valuable Player balloting.
And I'm telling you there is room for improvement?
Instinctively, you may believe that I'm going to languish over Judge's MLB-high 208 strikeouts last season. The strikeouts are an issue, however, I'm not sure there is an enormous amount of room for growth in that area. Judge's strike zone is exceptionally large, which clearly played against him both in called strikes and swinging strikes as he worked to adjust to some umpires' strike zones. This may not change in 2018.
However, Judge must alter his approach when pitchers change theirs on him quicker than he did in 2017. With a year of experience under his belt, he should have gained knowledge on how pitchers will try to contend with him, and recognize when hurlers are shifting their methodology again. Judge can improve his overall game by making adjustments in real time.
Teams will certainly try to take advantage of perceived flaws in Judge's swing, approach, and his simply dealing with a massive frame. Just as pitchers believed they would be ahead of Judge from 2016 to 2017, he has had plenty of time to be ready to offset their intentions at the outset of this season.
Judge's exceptionally good eye at the plate - he walked in 18.7 percent of his plate appearances last season - will continue to aid his abilities to get on base. The difference will be how long it takes Judge to change his process midseason when pitchers change their game plan again. Judge's ability to adjust quickly could be the difference between striking out 208 times and 178. He can wreak serious damage with 24 extra balls in play and six more walks.
Besides the fine batting eye, another aspect working in Judge's favor in 2018 is that the mostly young lineup around him has another year under their belts. Furthermore, MLB's 2017 home run leader, Giancarlo Stanton, is now a Yankee. With a difficult-to-navigate cast around him, Judge may see more balls over the heart of the plate.
There is one adjustment Judge, who will play most of 2018 at 26 years old, will have to make that has nothing to do with the pitches being thrown his way. He may not play in the field everyday. With Stanton aboard, the Yankees have discussed splitting time between the two gargantuan right fielders with time at designated hitter. There may also be some starts in left field for the pair.
Judge demonstrated in 2017 that he is a team player, so when he is asked to shift from right field on occasion, he'll smile and gladly do his part. At issue is whether he is capable of adapting to hitting while sitting on the bench between innings, or while learning a new position.
Holding Judge to his rookie season metrics as a standard is unfair, but dreaming on building from it is not necessarily far-fetched because of what he has already demonstrated. We must acknowledge that it is completely realistic that Judge settles in around 40-45 home runs in 2018, yet turns in a better overall season (think more runs created and a higher OPS+).
It's also plausible to suggest Judge may fail to reach 40 home runs and regresses across the board. Understand that a "regression" for him can resemble a .270/.390/.560 slash line with 35 homers, 100 runs and 100 RBI. How could anyone be upset with that?
I'm optimistic Judge will remain a strong contributor to the Yankees offense in 2018, and for years to come. Judge's key to equaling, or somehow surpassing, his 2017 measures is completely dependent on how and the speed to which he makes adjustments throughout the season.
If Judge stays ahead of pitchers, he can avoid a sophomore slump, but being realistic means a 60-homer season is far from a guarantee.