Stop me if you heard this one before: New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge hit a home run. Yes, another one, this one an eighth-inning bomb against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Monday. As of Tuesday morning, Judge leads the American League in all three Triple Crown categories, with a .347 batting average, 23 home runs and 49 RBI.
If you didn’t see Judge’s breakout rookie season coming you aren’t alone. Despite being a first-round pick in the 2013 June draft and MLBPipeline.com’s No. 17 overall prospect, the preseason projections had him batting .238 with 21 home runs for the entire season. Those have since been upgraded to account for his latest power surge, and the 25-year-old slugger is now projected to hit .295 with 45 home runs by year’s end.
No matter what the end-of-season numbers look like, Judge’s rookie season in the majors has been a huge success. But there is reason to wonder if he can sustain this starlike output beyond 2017, or even the rest of the season.
Since MLB implemented its leaguewide drug-testing policy in 2006, there have been 12 rookies, age 25 or older, to produce runs at a rate that was at least 30 percent higher than average after adjusting for league and park effects for an entire season. Five of those managed to do it with a strikeout rate higher than 20 percent: Chris Carter (2012), Tyler Naquin (2016), Chris Duncan (2006), Garrett Jones (2009) and Jose Abreu (2014). Judge is producing runs at more than double the league average rate (210 wRC+) and strikes out in 28.3 percent of his plate appearances.
You’d be forgiven if the only name you recognize on that list is Abreu, who was named the AL Rookie of the Year that season. But even Abreu has struggled to live up to the expectations of his 2014 campaign. His wins above replacement declined in each of the two years since and he is on pace to produce half as many in 2017 as he did three years earlier. And that’s with a reduction of his strikeouts, which account for 16.7 percent of his plate appearances this season.
Naquin finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting last season after finishing with a .296 average and .886 OPS, but this year an injured back has limited his production, which has fallen to .235 and .572, respectively.
Carter reached his peak in 2014 (2.0 fWAR) but is expected to be worth less than one win above replacement this year for the Yankees. Duncan played just three more seasons in the majors after his breakout and Jones never reached the heights of 2009 (2.7 fWAR) in any of the six seasons he played after that.
Perhaps you think Judge is going to be the one to buck this trend, and he could, but you would be unwise to believe he can sustain his current success to the end of the 2017 season.
Judge is producing an absurd .437 batting average on balls in play. That’s significantly higher than the league average (.297) and, if sustained, would be the highest BABIP by a hitter qualifying for the batting title since Hugh Duffy posted a .433 BABIP in 1894 for the Boston Beaneaters. The highest BABIP this century over a full season was by Jose Hernandez in 2002 (.404) and the highest since 2006 is .396 by Austin Jackson in 2010.
Over the past decade, eight batters have managed to enter the all-star break with 300 or more plate appearances producing a BABIP over .400 and all saw their BABIP decline by season’s end. Just one, Joey Votto in 2012, was able to keep it above the .400 mark.
Aaron Judge on balls in play to right-center and right field
AVG: .653 AVG (32-for-49)
— SportsInfo Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) June 13, 2017
The approach of opposing pitchers should factor in as well. Judge is seeing a fastball — a pitch he is crushing — nearly half the time (49.6 percent). At some point, pitchers will grow tired of Judge’s .360 average against the heater and use off-speed pitches and breaking balls to keep him off balance. Opposing pitchers would also eventually utilize the lower part of the plate more, which, for the 6-foot-7 Judge, is below the knees, making it difficult for him to get solid contact on the ball.
Judge could flirt with the Triple Crown for most of the season. And he looks to be a runaway favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award, with perhaps some consideration for most valuable player if the Yankees can remain in contention for the AL East title. But enjoy this phenomenal run while lasts, because this might be the best we ever see from him.