Yankees stock watch: Aaron Judge cutting strikeout rate; two under-the-radar keys to August surge

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Five months into the 2021 season, the New York Yankees are 76-55 with a plus-51 run differential. They’ve won 20 of their last 26 games to surge from two games behind the second wild card spot to two games up on the first wild card spot. Their recent 13-game winning streak was their longest since Sept. 1961, if you can believe that.

Two weeks ago we looked at New York’s closer problems and two emerging arms who made their MLB debuts as a result of the team’s recent COVID-19 outbreak. Now here are three new notable Yankees trends.       

Judge cutting down on strikeouts

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Despite being a big name Yankees player, Aaron Judge’s all-around excellence sort of flies under the radar. We’ve all seen the monster home runs, and they’re certainly a huge part of his game, but Judge is also a superb defender (second only to Mookie Betts in defensive runs saved among outfielders since 2017) with tremendous innate hitting ability. A career .277 batting average despite a career 30.1 percent strikeout rate is a testament to Judge’s raw hitting talent.

Judge is a massive human (listed at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds) with long arms, so strikeouts and swings and misses will always be part of his game. He has a large strike zone and it’s difficult to have a compact swing at that size. That’s just the way it is. This year though, Judge owns the lowest strikeout (25.6 percent) and swing-and-miss (11.8 percent) rates of his career, and it’s not close either. His previous career lows in a 162-game season were 30.5 percent strikeouts in 2018 and 13.1 percent swings and misses in 2017.

Aaron Judge has cut down on his strikeouts significantly in 2021.
FanGraphs

There are three explanations for Judge’s improved strikeout rate. First, this is his fifth full season in the big leagues, so he has more experience. Talent plus experience often leads to improved results, and in Judge’s case, the improvement is (in part) showing up in his strikeout rate. Second, Judge has been a little more aggressive early in the count. He’s seen 4.20 pitches per plate appearance this year, a career low and south of his 4.33 pitches per plate appearance rate from 2017-20.

And three, Judge is doing a better job fouling away pitcher’s pitches. His swing rates have held remarkably steady over the years. He’s swinging at pitches in and out of the zone at the same rate, though his contact rate on pitches out of the zone is way up, from 32.2 percent from 2017-20 to 45.5 percent in 2021. Instead of swinging through pitcher’s pitches off the plate, Judge is fouling them away, and keeping at-bats alive. This at-bat from this past weekend is a pretty good example:

Sean Manaea went after Judge with changeup after changeup, and the 1-0 changeup that went for a called strike on the outside corner forced Judge to protect against the 2-2 changeup that was just off the plate. Rather than swing through that changeup and strike out, Judge fouled it off, kept the at-bat alive, then socked a three-run home run on the next pitch, when Manaea finally caught too much of the plate with one of those changeups intended to be just out of reach.

Judge remains the game’s premier exit-velocity hitter. He led baseball in average exit velocity in 2017 (94.9 mph), 2018 (94.7 mph), and 2019 (96.0 mph), and he’s doing it again in 2021 (95.7 mph mph). When Judge connects, he hits the ball very hard, and good things happen when you hit the ball hard. Now that Judge is striking out less often, he’s having his best season since his historic rookie year in 2017. As good as he’s been throughout his career, this is the best version of Judge we’ve seen since that rookie season.

“I feel like this year — and obviously he’s been pretty hot lately — but he’s had less stretches where he carries us and less of those couple weeks where he really struggles,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, this past weekend. “I think he’s probably playing at his best right now. He’s physically in a good place. Really focused from a game-planning standpoint. He has a really good idea each and every day of what he’s looking for in the box. I feel like he’s executing his plan in the box. He’s playing really well.”  

The Green Light Yankees

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In this very space two months ago, we chronicled the base-running misadventures that plagued the Yankees during their disappointing start. At the time they ranked dead last in stolen bases, stolen base attempts, extra-base taken rate, outs on the bases, advanced base-running metrics, you name it. If it quantified baserunning, the Yankees were truly terrible at it earlier this season.

Much like the rest of their season, the Yankees have turned things around on the bases in the second half, and not by a little bit either. They’ve been one of the best base-running teams in baseball since the All-Star break. It’s a shocking turnaround. Here are a few base-running numbers:

Stolen bases

20 (30th in MLB)

34 (4th)

Stolen base attempts

25 (30th)

41 (4th)

FanGraphs baserunning

minus-12.0 runs (30th)

plus-3.0 (6th)

The Yankees took the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) only 30 percent of the time when we last checked in on their baserunning on June 8. They’ve since raised their season rate to 36 percent, which is still comfortably below the 40 percent league average, but is much better overall. The Yankees are over 40 percent since June 8.

The second half stolen base total is partly a function of personnel. Nineteen of those 34 steals belong to Tyler Wade (nine), Greg Allen (five), Andrew Velazquez (three), Estevan Florial (one), and Ryan LaMarre (one). Wade is the utility infielder who was pressed into duty when Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela got hurt earlier this month. The other four were Triple-A call ups to help cover during the team’s injuries and recent COVID-19 outbreak, and all but Velazquez have since been sent back down.

Those fill-in players have inflated the stolen base total, undoubtedly, but they’re not the only Yankees stealing bases. Torres went 6 for 7 stealing bases after the All-Star break before going on the injured list Aug. 8 (he jammed his thumb sliding into second on a steal attempt, ironically enough). Even Judge is stealing bases. He is 5 for 6 since the All-Star break.

“I love it,” Wade recently told reporters, including Greg Joyce of the New York Post, when asked about the increase in stolen bases. “It’s a different part of the game that we’re used to playing, but anytime I can do that, or whether it’s [Brett Gardner] or Andrew, even Judgy now stealing some bases. So yeah, it’s been fun, that’s for sure.”  

Not every stolen base leads to a run, but several did during New York’s recent 13-game winning streak. Most notably, Wade stole second and moved to third on a throwing error in the eighth inning of a tie game against the Athletics last Thursday. He then scored the go-ahead (and ultimately game-winning) run on Judge’s two-out single.

That run — and maybe even that win entirely — does not happen without Wade stealing second and forcing the issue. Stolen bases weren’t part of the Yankees’ arsenal in the first half, but based on how much they’re running now, it seems the Yankees have made a conscious decision to push the envelope more. What else could explain Judge and Torres suddenly running so much?

The Yankees are not and never will be a stolen base team. They’re all about pounding the ball for extra-base hits, so if they’re going to steal bases, they have to be smart about it. You don’t want to risk a runner getting thrown out when first base is scoring position given all the power they have in the lineup. Just because you can steal a base doesn’t mean you always should.

That said, the Yankees were far too station-to-station earlier in the season. It wasn’t just that they didn’t steal bases. They were terrible at running the bases and actively hurt themselves. Their baserunning was a negative. Now the Yankees have a new weapon and a new way to create runs. The in-season base-running turnaround has been remarkable.

“It’s definitely a different dynamic,” Boone told reporters, including the Associated Press, about the team’s improved baserunning earlier this month. “It’s a different element at times we haven’t had. We try to take advantage and (Wade) has done a really good job of that.”

Elevate and celebrate

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For much of the first half the Yankees were a below average offensive team, mostly because they self-sabotaged so many rallies with double plays and bad baserunning. They are built to bang, but too many ground balls stifled the offense. Ground balls equal fewer home runs than expected and also led to the incredible amount of double plays.

“I think, early on, some of the narratives around us [involved] the strikeout. The biggest issue for us the first months was probably hitting too many balls on the ground,” Boone told reporters, including Dan Martin of the New York Post, this past weekend. “[The ground balls] could be the result of trying to put the ball in play too much. You get outside yourself and expand a little bit with runners on base, so we were hitting the ball on the ground more than we were accustomed to.”  

Over the last two months the Yankees have gotten back to doing what they do best, and that’s hit the ball in the air. Hit the ball in the air and good things will happen, especially when your lineup is loaded with exit-velocity monsters like Judge, Joey Gallo, Gary Sánchez, and Giancarlo Stanton. That goes double when you call Yankee Stadium and the hitter-friendly AL East home.

The Yankees have cut down on the ground balls the last few weeks and the result is a drastic decline in double plays. The numbers:

April

43.5%

1.42

0.92

May

48.3%

0.89

1.00

June

44.7%

1.69

1.12

July

41.6%

1.00

0.83

August

40.5%

1.39

0.61

MLB average

43.0%

1.21

0.67

From April through June, the Yankees posted a 45.5 percent team ground ball rate, leading to 1.33 home runs and 1.01 double plays per game. In July and August, it’s only a 41.0 percent ground ball rate and 1.22 homers per game, but with a much more palatable 0.71 double plays per game. Maintaining a similar home run rate (the difference between April through June and July through August is roughly one homer every 10 games) with a drastically reduced double play rate is significant.

The decline in ground balls stems from the addition of Gallo, one of the game’s most extreme fly ball hitters, and also a return to normalcy for several other hitters in the lineup. Stanton and DJ LeMahieu in particular hit too many ground balls earlier this season, leading to a lot of ground balls and also much less power than expected in LeMahieu’s case.

“That’s a big part of who we are,” Boone told Martin about the recent fly ball surge. “The heaviness and toughness of at-bat to at-bat. When you’re doing that over time, you’re gonna fall into more mistakes. We have a lot of guys capable of doing damage on mistakes of late.”

For much of the first half the Yankees were on pace to threaten the single-season double play record (174 by the 1990 Red Sox). They are well off the pace now (they’re on pace for 145 twin killings, a total a handful of teams reach each year) and especially over the last two months. Most importantly, the lack of double plays has led to more multi-run homers and more offense in general. The Yankees saw too many rallies snuffed out by bad baserunning and double plays early in the season. That is no longer the case.