In case you missed it, Aaron Judge is officially on a tear to start his 2017 campaign. Only one Yankee, some guy named Alex Rodriguez, has hit more home runs through the first twenty six games of a given season. That's right, one player in the most storied franchise in baseball has exceeded what this rookie is doing for the Yanks to date.
One month into the season, Fangraphs has the Judge as a 2 win player in 2017. For reference, Bryce Harper, former NL MVP, is a 2.1 win player according to Fangraphs, so Judge has started his season on par with an MVP-quality player through one month of the season. WAR is a fine summary statistic, but I've always felt it really only succeeds in explaining how well a player is performing, great for intellectual bar arguments and heated office debates, but WAR does little to explain why players are performing so well.
MLB's Statcast tool offers a chance to look at differences between how players put the ball in play, rather than just focusing on the results players on producing. Quality of Contact and Exit Velocity are two available tools for evaluating how players put balls into play. Quality of Contact judges how well a player strikes a pitch. "Barrel" contact is ideal, with "solid" contact indicating a good swing and "flare" contact generally falling into the lowest form of a good swing. Exit velocity measures the ball speed off the bat and measures the combination of the quality of a swing with the strength of the player.
Continuing the Judge and Harper comparison, Statcast allows us to see that the players have a pretty significant difference in the quality of contact on batted balls.
Clearly, Judge is on a hot streak. To date, Judge has found the barrel of the bat substantially higher than Harper. This is likely the result of a combination of the rookie being locked-in on pitching and pitchers not fully understanding where the rookie's weak spots are in his swing. In either case, though, you have to note that Judge is squaring up pitches at a substantial rate. After all, anyone who squares up pitches more than Bryce is having a good year. This spread likely isn't sustainable, but given he's hit 13 homers so far, I don't think anyone would be surprised to see how often Judge is bringing barrel to ball.
Looking at Exit Velocity, though, it's pretty apparent that Judge's bat strikes the baseball substantially different than Harper's has to date.
In all three categories, Judge puts the ball in play at a higher velocity than Harper, but when both players have reduced contact quality, Judge puts the ball in play at significantly higher speeds than Harper, almost 4 mph for both "solid" and "flare" contact. Some of this difference may come from Harper trying to steer his hits to defeat a defense or go with a pitch, but a good portion of this difference likely comes from Judge's ability to transfer his physicality into a baseball.
On paper, both Harper and Judge are contributing pretty evenly to their team's success, but their offensive contributions occupy different spaces of the spectrum. Harper brings a mix of power, but it's hard to argue with his performance. Judge on the other hand, seems to be benefiting from a league that has yet to exploit his weak spots and from physical ability typically reserved for NFL defensive ends. The good news for Judge, though, is that his physical ability isn't going away any time soon.
The simple fact that a Yankee right fielder is performing close to a player of Harper's quality is a testament to how far Aaron Judge has brought his game. Judge is a specimen that doesn't come along very often. He looks like Dwayne Johnson's bigger brother, and he is making Yankee fans run to the TV every time he steps into the box. Pitchers will adjust and find a way to avoid his barrel more often in the future, but not many put the ball in play the way Aaron has to start the season. Enjoy.