If you caught the beginning of the game against the Cardinals on Wednesday, you might have heard Reggie Jackson and Ken Singleton discuss Aaron Judge’s refined approach this spring. Changes that hitters make in the batter’s box aren’t always obvious unless they’re drastic, and I don’t think I would have noticed it until Mr. October said this:
“Aaron has been working in the cage and behind the scenes, if you will, by trying to take a no-stride swing to not have too much going on with two strikes.”
I wanted to see this for myself. Lo and behold, Jackson was right:
Watch Judge’s front foot closely. He completely elevated it off the ground last year in a two-strike count. On Wednesday, his toes remained in touch with the dirt. Go back and watch any highlight from Grapefruit League action and you’ll see that he’s been doing this all spring. Shortly after Reggie introduced the topic on the broadcast, Singleton briefly mentioned a discussion he had with hitting coach Marcus Thames, who told Singleton that Judge is trying to cut down on his strikeouts.
That goal should come as no surprise. Strikeouts are Judge’s only flaw on offense, and given his brute strength, it’s easy to dream on how much better he could be with a little more contact.
So, what are the early returns on this adjustment? I shouldn’t be citing spring training stats, but I’m going to do it anyway. Take the following with the largest grain of salt possible. In 17 plate plate appearances, Judge has struck out three times, or just under 18 percent. I’m not going to pretend that’s predictive or anything. Let me emphasize it once more: never, ever, draw conclusions from spring training stats, let alone 17 plate appearances. But…maybe it gives us a little hope? What’s the harm in dreaming?
Before we get too wrapped up in this change, keep in mind that this isn’t the first time Judge has tried to pare down his leg kick. In fact, by now we should expect him to experiment in camp. After introducing a leg kick in 2016, He played around with quieting the kick in 2017…
Judge went from small leg kick in 2015 (left GIF) to big leg kick in 2016 (right GIF) to no leg kick now. pic.twitter.com/4fLBToEAel
— River Ave. Blues (@RiverAveBlues) February 9, 2017
…though that turned out to be a false alarm. The leg kick stuck around to great success. He could decide to go back to it this time around, too. Look, it would be great for Judge to reduce his career 31.6 percent strikeout rate, but not at the expense of his other skills. If he ultimately feels uncomfortable with this new approach and reverts to the leg kick, fine by me. It’s great that he’s trying to get better and fun to think about the best case scenario, but sometimes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Let’s also not forget that this change that Judge is trying is not guaranteed to succeed. His strikeout rate could be just the same as usual or potentially even worse. Guys who punch out as frequently as Judge rarely start making much more contact. Sometimes, it’s just who the hitter is and no alteration can make a difference. The only examples I can think of who improved after striking out roughly as often as Judge are Kris Bryant and Giancarlo Stanton.
Bryant fanned 30.6 percent of the time in his rookie season, but was able to drop his mark to as low as 19.2 percent in 2017 (he’s been around 22 – 23 percent otherwise). Meanwhile, Stanton dropped his near 30 percent clip to 23.6 percent in 2017, though that jumped back up in pinstripes.
It won’t be the end of the world if Judge maintains his high strikeout rates. It hasn’t slowed him down thus far in his career, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to any time soon. Without question, it would be fantastic to see him dip into the low-to-mid twenties, but that’s a lot to ask. For now, it’s still early March, so it’s fun to drool about the possibility. We won’t really know if this will work until the regular season. And that’s if he doesn’t decide to scrap it like he did a couple years ago.