Yankeemetrics: Rising Legend of Aaron Judge (May 1-3)

(AP)
(AP)

Blue Jays at home in the Bronx
Looking to get back on track after dropping the final game of their weekend set against Baltimore, the Yankees were hardly thrilled to see the Blue Jays as the next opponent on their homestand this week.

After beating the Yankees 7-1 on Monday night, Toronto improved to 13-7 in the Bronx since the start of the 2015 season, the only visiting team with double-digit wins at Yankee Stadium over the last three years.

Luis Severino was coming off the finest performance of his career — seven shutout innings vs. Boston last week – but he produced his worst outing of the season on Tuesday, an unsurprising result given the opponent. Severino entered the game with a 5.89 ERA vs. the Blue Jays, his highest against any team he’d faced more than once, and that mark grew to 6.38 after he allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings.

The Yankees were down only a run through five frames, but the Blue Jays broke the game open with a three-run sixth inning that included the rare 2-RBI sacrifice fly, on an acrobatic catch by Jacoby Ellsbury near the wall.

This was just the fifth time since the statistic was first tracked in 1954 that the Yankees had surrendered a multi-RBI sac fly in a game. The others: Sept. 16, 2014 vs Rays (also the last time it happened in MLB and also involving Ellsbury); July 24, 1990 vs Rangers; May 15, 1983 vs White Sox; July 9, 1961 vs Red Sox.

(AP)
(AP)

Aaron Judge, probably human?
The Yankees first losing streak since the opening week of the season ended nearly as quickly as it began thanks to an easy 11-5 win on Tuesday night, snapping their mini-two-game skid.

The Bronx Bombers lived up to their famous nickname, scoring those 11 runs on 16 hits, including five homers. This was their second five-homer game in 2017 (also on April 28 against Baltimore), making it the first season in franchise history that the Yankees produced multiple five-homer games within the team’s first 25 contests.

The homer barrage was led by the starting outfielders, with Aaron Hicks contributing a solo shot while Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner belted two homers each. It was just the second time in the last 50 years that two Yankee flycatchers each hit multiple homers in the same game. The only other instance was when Mel Hall and Jesse Barfield went deep twice on May 27, 1991 against the Red Sox.

(Newsday)
(Newsday)

It was Gardner’s second multi-homer game in the past four games, a notable feat considering that Gardner had only two multi-homer performances on his ledger in his first 1,085 career games.

Even more improbable is the fact that G.G.B.G. had yet to record his first RBI this season prior to the start of this power outburst on April 29 – in fact, his 76 plate appearances through April 28 were the most by any zero-RBI player in MLB.

Despite the huge contributions up and down the lineup in this game – six players had multiple hits and five players drove in at least one run – of course it was Judge that stole the show with his 11th and 12th home runs of the season.

Judge’s first one in the third inning was a 337-foot wall-scraper that just made it over the fence in right field, the shortest home run he’s hit so far in his career. The second one was a moonshot with a launch angle of 38.7 degrees, the highest for any home run he’s hit so far in his career.

After Tuesday’s two-homer, four-RBI night, Judge’s numbers reached historical proportions for a player this early into the season. He is the:

  • Third Yankee ever to hit at least 12 homers in the team’s first 25 contests, joining A-Rod (14 in 2007) and Babe Ruth (12 in 1921). Notably, A-Rod finished that 2007 MVP season with an MLB-best 54 homers while the Great Bambino led the majors with 59 homers in 1921.
  • Second player in MLB history at the age of 25 or younger to compile at least 12 homers and 25 RBI within the team’s first 25 games of the season. The other was Eric Davis in 1987, who went on to have an All-Star campaign with 37 homers and 100 RBI for the Reds.

Judge also etched his name in the record books with his singular performance at the plate on Tuesday night. He is the:

  • Third Yankee right fielder to have at least two homers, two walks and four RBIs in a game, a list that also includes a couple franchise legends in Dave Winfield (1985) and Joe DiMaggio (1936).
  • Youngest Yankee (at the age of 25 years, 6 days) with a multi-home run, multi-walk game since a 24-year-old Mickey Mantle in 1956.
(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Judge re-writes record books, again
No deficit is too big for this team, which celebrated yet another improbable come-from-behind victory on Wednesday night. Down 4-0 before they came to bat in the first inning and 6-3 after two frames, the Yankees rallied to win 8-6 and reclaim sole possession of first place in the AL East. This was their fifth comeback win when trailing by at least three runs this season, matching the Cubs and Astros for the most in the majors.

Matt Holliday got the scoring started early, crushing a three-run, 446-foot bomb in the first inning. It was the 300th career home run for the 37-year-old veteran, a milestone blast that confirms Holliday as one of the game’s rare sluggers with an elite hit tool: He is one of three active players to have at least 300 homers and a .300 career batting average, along with Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.

Aaron Judge added to his ever-growing legend with his 13th dinger of the season in the third inning. The unprecedented 435-foot blast to dead-center made the 25-year-old power-hitting cyborg the youngest player in major-league history to hit at least 13 homers within the team’s first 26 games.

Looking for another impressive #AaronJudgeFact? Here’s the short list of right-handed batters since 1950 to match Judge’s 13 homers within the season’s first 26 games: Nelson Cruz (2015), A-Rod (2007), Pujols (2006), Mark McGwire (1992), Mike Schmidt (1976) and Willie Mays (1964).

Game 26: Just Keep Winning Series

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Know what I love about the 2017 Yankees? Besides almost everything? They don’t take losing lightly. The Yankees are in the middle of a 15-5 stretch, and following three of those losses, they won the next game by at least six runs. They come back the next day and take out all their frustration on the other team. That’s what happened last night.

Tonight’s rubber game against the Blue Jays is an important game for the “just keep winning series” crowd, of which I am an active member. There’s an off-day tomorrow, so Joe Girardi can be aggressive with his bullpen usage tonight. Win the series, enjoy the off-day, then hit the road. Sounds like a good plan to me. Here is the Blue Jays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. DH Matt Holliday
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 1B Chris Carter
  8. SS Ronald Torreyes
  9. C Kyle Higashioka
    LHP CC Sabathia

Just a gorgeous day in New York today. One of those skip work and go play outside days. It’s clear and cool tonight, and not nearly as windy as last night. I don’t think we’re going to see any pop-ups get blown over the wall in this one. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy the game.

Awards!: Earlier today Judge was named the AL Rookie of the Month. Pretty cool. The big guy hit .303/.411/.750 (216 wRC+) with ten home runs in April. Judge is the first Yankee to win AL Rookie of the Month since … Gary Sanchez last August. Duh.

A Funny Thing Happened

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. The Yankees were supposed to be more fun to watch this year with a trio of young, exciting hitters in the lineup and a high-upside starter in the rotation. Then the starting shortstop got hurt. Then one of the trio got hurt. Then one of the trio started off the year terribly. But a funny thing happened: the fun kept coming and the Yankees began…winning?

If we told you that the Yankees would literally miss Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez for pretty much the entire month of April and that Greg Bird would do, well, what Greg Bird has “done” in April, there’s no way you’d be able to guess that the Yankees would end the season’s first month with the league’s best record and run differential. Regardless, that’s the case and it is just downright awesome.

As many have said and written and noted, the last few years of watching the Yankees have, at times, felt like a chore. They were okay, but not really good. And while it was still baseball and thus fun to us, there was something missing. Something ineffable and indescribable that made the nightly ritual seem a bit a of a slog. Now, each night at 7, we have something to look forward to that will actually engage, energize, and excite us in ways we’re not really used to as Yankees fans.

Sure, we’re used to winning, used to being at the top–even if the team hasn’t been that of late–but seeing a young group lead the team is a distant memory for fans of my generation, who may have been just a touch too young to really get what was going on in the mid-late 90’s, despite enjoying all the winning.

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Given what we know about baseball and about this specific team, there’s going to be an instinct inside of us to wait for the shoe to drop. That shoe is probably going to drop soon–despite how it’s gone, it’s hard to imagine this team keeping this up all year–but we should remember to live in the moment for this team. Let’s keep enjoying the hell out of every Judge home run. Let’s keep getting pumped for every Severino strikeout. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for Greg Bird and welcome back Gary and Didi.

Speaking of Gary and Didi, I want to end this on something I noticed during yesterday’s game. After Judge’s home run, he was sitting atop the bench, flanked on his right by Sanchez and on his left by Didi. They were talking, presumably about the homer or the game, and just…laughing. This belies my ‘stay in the moment’ sentiment, but I could go for about ten more years of those three guys laughing and buddying it up in the dugout after big homers and big outs. That moment encapsulated the feeling of this season so far: fun. Who knows what’s coming today and after as we turn the calendar to May, but this April ride has been absolutely fantastic. Indeed, a funny thing happened on the way to a rebuild.

 

Aaron Judge hasn’t just improved his plate discipline this year, he’s improved his plate coverage too

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

What’s your favorite Aaron Judge home run so far this year? I’m partial to the ball he hit nearly to the flag poles against the White Sox (video) because I saw that one in person. His blast against the Pirates this weekend (video) is another good one. Can’t forget about the Spring Training home run off the scoreboard (video), right? It happened this year. It counts.

We’ve seen Judge hit some massive home runs already this season and I’m sure there are many more to come this year and in the future. I’m excited. The home runs are great and I have a hard time picking my favorite. Picking my favorite Judge base hit is a different story. That one is an easy call. It was his opposite field two-strike single with one out in the ninth inning Sunday. Here’s the contact point:

aaro-judge

That pitch isn’t a strike. That pitch isn’t close to being a strike. Judge was in protect mode with two strikes though, and Tony Watson did show him a fastball away earlier in the at-bat, so it was in the back of his mind. The Yankees were down one run at the time and we were all thinking about Judge putting a ball into orbit to tie the game. Instead, he got a generally unhittable pitch and took it the other way for a hit. (Here’s a GIF of the hit.)

As broadcasters will tell you over and over again, hits to the opposite field are a “nice piece of hitting,” and that two-strike single to right field Sunday certainly qualifies. It helps that Judge is 6-foot-7 with long arms and was able to reach that pitch, but the point is he recognized the pitch and reacted appropriately. He wasn’t sitting on an inside heater he could yank to left field or anything like that. Judge took what Watson gave him and did all he could do with it.

Hits like that one are the difference between 2016 Aaron Judge and 2017 Aaron Judge. As Matt detailed over the weekend, Judge has shown improved plate discipline in the early going and he’s cut down his strikeouts, which was a necessity after last season. Another thing Judge has improved is his plate coverage, which we saw in action on that opposite field single Sunday night. Here is his 2016 contact heat map, via FanGraphs:

aarn-judge-2016-heat-mapLast season Judge was completely hopeless against pitches away. His contact rates on pitches on the outer third of the plate were typically right around 50% or well below, which is terrible. I mean terrible. We’re talking about simple bat-to-ball here, not exit velocity or hard hit rate or anything like that. Just getting the bat on the ball. When the pitch was on the outer third of the plate (and beyond), Judge failed to make contact with more than half his swings. Woof.

(To be fair, I should point out Judge’s contact rate on pitches on the inner half last season was quite encouraging. Big guys like him are usually easily jammed because bringing those long arms in to handle pitches inside is not easy. Judge has always had a surprisingly compact swing — relatively speaking, of course — for a guy his size.)

Now here is Judge’s contact heat map for the 2017 season, again via FanGraphs:

aaron-judge-2017-heat-mapAh, much better. Judge is covering the outer half of the plate this year — this is a heat map, so the brighter the blue, the worse the contact rate, and there isn’t nearly as much bright blue on the outside part of the plate this year as last year — which addresses arguably his biggest weakness from a season ago. Last year pitchers buried him breaking balls or fastballs near the left-handed hitter’s batter box, like the fastball Watson tried to sneak by him Sunday.

Doing a better job covering the outer half is obviously a positive sign, as is the improved plate discipline. This, to me, is most important: Judge has been able to cover the outer half this year without sacrificing the inner half. He’s not focused so much on the outer half that he’s letting pitchers beat him inside. Judge is covering both sides of the plate now. That’s good! Plate coverage is a wonderful thing.

The season is still quite young and we’ll see whether this continues. Baseball is a game of adjustments and it’s only a matter of time until opposing teams come up with another way to attack Judge. They pitched him away, it worked, and now he’s made the adjustment. Judge doesn’t get enough credit for being as good a pure hitter as he is — it’s so easy to stereotype guys like him as meathead sluggers who swing out of their shoes — and we’re seeing it now with the way he’s covering the outer half.

Yankeemetrics: Rocky road trippin’ (April 21-23)

(Getty)
(Getty)

The Bad, the Ugly and the Awful
Last year the Yankees went 3-7 on their road Interleague slate, tied with the Twins for the worst record among AL teams … and the trend continued into 2017 after dropping the series opener in Pittsburgh, 6-3, on Friday night.

All the momentum and confidence built up from a strong 8-1 homestand came to a screeching halt thanks to a mix of bad pitching (see below), sloppy defense (two unearned runs) and a lack of clutch hitting (0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base).

CC Sabathia was knocked around early, allowing a lead-off homer on the third pitch he threw and another longball in the second frame, putting the Yankees in 4-0 hole after two innings. Although he settled down and was able to gut through three more innings without allowing another run, he still was tagged for his worst outing of the season.

For whatever reason, Sabathia’s fastball (sinker/cutter) velocity was down significantly from his first three starts, averaging 88.2 mph compared to 90.6 in his first three starts combined …

brooksbaseball-chart-1

… and stuff-wise, each of his fastballs had much less “ride” on Friday, averaging just 7.1 (sinker) and 1.3 (cutter) inches of horizontal movement compared to 11.9 (sinker) and 3.7 (cutter) in his first three starts.

brooksbaseball-chart-2
Unsurprisingly, the Pirates crushed Sabathia’s diminished hard pitches, going 5-for-14 with two homers when putting his fastballs in play. In his first three starts, batters hit .244 and slugged .317 against Sabathia’s sinker/cutter combo.

The Pirates did their best to give the Yankees a chance to win, committing three errors, while the Yankees weren’t credited with an official RBI on any of their three runs scored. It was just the sixth time in franchise history they scored as many as three runs in a game with zero RBI. The last time it happened was May 2, 1989 in a 5-3 loss to the Royals.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Love these Komeback Kids
The Yankees got back in the win column with their sixth comeback win of the season, this time erasing a 3-0 deficit after five innings and cruising to an 11-5 victory.

Starlin Castro ignited the first rally with a three-run homer in the sixth inning that knotted the score at 3-3. It was his 25th longball with the Yankees and the 12th one that either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead – that’s three more than any other Yankee over the last two seasons.

Ronald Torreyes then followed with a two-run double to give the Yankees their first lead, 5-3, in the sixth. Torreyes finished with four hits and two RBI, giving him 13 RBI through the team’s first 17 games. The only other Yankee shortstops with that many RBIs this early into the season were Derek Jeter (1999, 2006) and Frankie Crosetti (1936).

After the Pirates came back to tie the score, Chris Carter delivered his first True Yankee Moment®, belting a tie-breaking, pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning – his first time going deep in pinstripes. He is just the fourth Yankee pinch-hitter with a go-ahead homer in an Interleague game, joining Travis Hafner (2013 vs Arizona), Eric Chavez (2012 vs Mets) and Clay Bellinger (2000 vs Braves).

Aaron Judge then put the icing on the cake, connecting for yet another moonshot deep into the left field bleachers at PNC Park. Statcast measured the blast at career-high 457 feet with an exit velocity of 115.6 mph. Since his debut on Aug. 13, 2016, he has hit three homers traveling at least 445 feet. In that span (and through Saturday), only Justin Upton could match Judge in 445-plus foot homers.

It was the sixth time in 2017 that Judge ripped a ball with an exit velocity of at least 115 mph, making the leaderboard of 115-plus mph batted balls this season through Saturday … well, pretty ridiculous:

  • Aaron Judge: 6
  • Joey Gallo: 2
  • Rest of MLB: 9

Supernova’d
As good as the Yankees have been in the Bronx, they’ve been just as bad away from the friendly confines. After dropping the rubber game on Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Yankees fell to 0-3 in road series this season.

Ivan Nova — in his first start against the Yankees since being traded away last summer — got some sweet revenge against his former team as he allowed one run in seven efficient innings. It was the ninth time in 15 starts (60%) with the Pirates that Nova gave up one earned or fewer; he did that in just 25 percent of his 118 starts with the Yankees.

(USA Today Sports)
(USA Today Sports)

Jordan Montgomery continued to show poise on the mound and a knack for pitching out of trouble in another impressive outing. Making his third career start, the 24-year-old rookie scattered seven hits across six innings, surrendering two runs. The Pirates had one hit in seven at-bats with runners in scoring against Montgomery, who has held batters to a .118 average (2-for-17) with a man on second and/or third in his three starts.

The Yankees had plenty of chances to win the game but repeatedly came up empty. Notably, they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth but Aaron Hicks struck out and then Pete Kozma grounded out to end the game.

This was not an ideal situation for Hicks: he is now 2-for-27 (.074) with the bases loaded in his career, the second-worst mark among active players (min. 25 at-bats). And Kozma is just a bad hitter: his .148 batting average overall since the start of 2015 is better than only two non-pitchers that have at least 100 at-bats in the last three seasons (Craig Gentry, .139 and Erik Kratz, .117).

Judging from the Start

All rise. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
All rise. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Aaron Judge, huh? Okay, guys, thanks for reading! Check back next week for…something else…and enjoy whatever show Judge’s gonna put on for the next week.

Despite Chase Headley‘s heroics and Starlin Castro‘s hot start, the hands-down, no doubt about it, bonafide best thing about the Yankees in April of 2017 has been Aaron Judge. He’s been an absolute monster, clocking massive homer after massive homer, displaying the power we all dreamed of and got flashes of during 2016. Additionally, he’s cut down on his strikeouts from a mind-boggling 44.2% last year to a still-high-but-manageable 25.4% this year. Part of that is due to a reduced chase rate and a reduced whiff rate.

In 2016, the league averaged an O-Swing% (swings on pitches out of the zone) of 30.6%; Judge came in at 34.9%. This year, the average has dropped (so far) to 30.1%; Judge clocks in with a wonderfully below average rate of 18.3%. And while his contact rate–74.8%–is still worse than average (77.1%), it’s a demonstrable improvement from last year’s tally of 59.7%.

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

It’s no surprise that a guy as big and strong as Judge will do damage when he makes contact and so far, that’s what he’s done. The improved contact rate is a big step forward in Judge reaching his full potential. He’s shown growth in both the “where” and the “what” of making contact–not just in one area–and that dual fact has been key for his hot start.

In 2016, there were 13 zones out of a possible 25 that saw Judge whiff on 50% or more of his swings. So far in 2017, he’s cut that number to just five zones. Additionally from 2016 to 2017, Judge has dropped the whiff rates on fastballs by about one percent, sinkers by about three percent, changeups by over 20 percent, sliders by about 14 percent, and curves by about ten percent.

We tend to be selfish as fans and we want results when we want them and no later. Of course, baseball doesn’t work like that and we must be careful not to get mad at the microwave for not heating up our burrito fast enough. But so far this year, we’ve gotten near instant gratification from Aaron Judge. He’s given us the improvement we all knew he’d need to make while keeping his prodigious power. The rest of the year has a long time to play out, but with things starting to stabilize, we may be in for a truly great year from a truly great talent.

Marketing the Yankees’ present with the past and the future

(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)
(Steven Tydings/River Ave. Blues)

With the New York Yankees brand, the past is always present. But should the future take precedent?

Early in this season, the Yankees’ marketing near the stadium has brought the team’s historic past to the forefront. After two seasons where the souvenir cups featured current players, the new cups contain a smattering of World Series logos. Ads at the subway stops near Yankee Stadium highlight the 27 championships. Furthermore, the team has begun selling stadium-exclusive hats corresponding to each World Series win with unique details for each era.

When you think about the Yankees’ brand over the years, this makes a lot of sense. The brand has always been built upon a winning atmosphere. With a ridiculous number of championships has come an overwhelming number of fans scattered across the country but concentrated especially in New York. There is little doubt which is the No. 1 baseball team in the hearts of most New Yorkers.

And diehard fans identify with this sense of winning. They even demand it. They come to the park both due to a connection to the past and an expectation the current product will live up to the established expectations. But the diehard fans make up the 25-30 thousand spectators that will come to the park rain or shine, win or lose, championship or no.

So at least part of any marketing campaign each season needs to be focused on how to bring in the casual fan. The one who could live with themselves if they don’t make it to Yankee Stadium each year, let alone every month or game. Beyond simply going to the stadium, these are the fans that may only follow and watch the team a little, paying extra attention if the team is winning.

Does an appeal to a past filled with winning work on these casual fans? This, after all, is what the brand already is, so you’re emphasizing what you already have and not extending the brand. That isn’t a bad thing. Extending a brand further can dilute it and the accentuation on championships makes plenty of sense from a marketing perspective. However, I don’t know if this brings that extra 10-20K to the stadium. This is because I am a Yankees and baseball junkie and far from a casual fan.

The way I tried thinking about this was from the perspective of a Yankee fan considering a trip to Citi Field. I am not a Mets fan by any means, but if I’m in the city and the Mets are the only game in town, I’ll certainly consider it. I don’t think an appeal to the Mets’ past would get me to the stadium, but they don’t have the same past as the Yankees, making this an unfair comparison. A general Mets advertisement would make me consider the ride to Citi Field when I otherwise wasn’t considering it, but I would need something more to get me there.

In the recent past, that something extra has been the Mets’ pitching. I can say definitively that I went to Citi Field with the express purpose of seeing Matt Harvey in 2015. By that time, he was no longer a rookie or burgeoning star but a more established part of the team well into his third big league season.

But my trip to see Harvey made me think that maybe a marketing push around exciting young talent could work better than an appeal to nostalgia.

The Yankees don’t have the established talent of the Mets’ rotation right now or the flashy everyday veteran star of a Yoenis Cespedes. What they do have is some of the most exciting young position players who could potentially man the middle of the lineup for the next decade. For a baseball fan, that’s an exciting proposition. For a Yankee fan, even a casual one, that should be even more appealing, the chance to ostensibly get in on the ground floor of a new Yankee evolution.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

So a marketing push behind, let’s say, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Greg Bird could set you up for the future. The team already utilizes their breakout potential in some YES ads and it’s not like they’re absent from the Yankees’ marketing materials. However, if you further establish the star power of those young players, it can help you down the road if they’re everything they’re made up to be. It would create a connection with fans, including the non-consistent ballpark goers, that you can play off of for years. It could potentially be the same as connecting fans with Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in 1996 and riding that all the way to 2014 and beyond.

But this can really backfire, too. I go back to the Harvey example. He was dreadful last year and that can create a bad taste in fan’s mouths. Or what about the ill-fated Dan & Dave Reebok commercials from before the 1992 Olympics. Relying on unestablished athletes can blow up in your face. What if the first baseman you’re advertising heavily starts the year 1 for 20? Or your catcher of the future injures his arm and is out for a month? Not many people are going to be excited about a cup or t-shirt of a player who appears to be a marginal talent.

So there are easy reasons not to go all-in on the youth movement. The risk is high despite the potential reward and the possible reality that youth talent may bring more casual fans to the park. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a near future with a slightly more than life-sized billboard of Aaron Judge dominating Time’s Square. With the dad jokes aside, the future of Yankees’ marketing seems to be on the current team, but the past may be the best present for now.