How (the lack of) pop-ups have helped Aaron Judge mitigate his strikeout problem

Aaron Judge's propensity to strikeout has been his biggest drawback as a player, and could continue to be for the rest of his career. Can't have it all, I guess. Given his size, no player is required to cover as large of a strike zone as Judge must. Perhaps he'll improve a few ticks as his career progresses, but it's hard to imagine him ever running an average strikeout rate. This year, he's gone down on strikes at a 30.1% clip, which though is far from ideal, has been more than tolerable given Judge's production otherwise. Though that rate sounds high, Judge has done something exceptionally well to mitigate it: he's made quality contact when putting the bat on the ball. In particular, Judge rarely hits infield pop-ups, something that's essentially the equivalent of a strikeout.

Strikeouts and pop-ups are incredibly similar. Both are easily recorded outs on which baserunners rarely advance. Infielders rarely botch pop flies, and on strikeouts, runners infrequently move up on wild pitches or passed balls. Considering the aforementioned, it's reasonable to say that a pop fly is just as bad as a strikeout. Although Judge has struck out in 30.1% of his plate appearances, he's only popped up twice all year, or 0.5% of his trips to the plate. Simple math shows that Judge has struck out or popped up 30.6% of the time this season (let's call it easy out rate, or EO%).

Major league hitters (pitchers excluded) have a 23.4% EO-rate this season, meaning that Judge's 30.6% mark is still 7.2% higher than the league. However, that's an improvement from the 9.0% difference between Judge's strikeout rate (30.1%) as compared to the league's (21.1%). Of hitters with 200 plate appearances or more (265 players qualified), only 12 hit pop flies less often than Judge. In other words, Judge has made up some of the ground he's lost from striking out by not popping up frequently. Judge's K% is 20th-worst in baseball whereas his EO% is 27th-worst (both min. 200 PA). That's still not great, but it's a better picture of how Judge truly stacks up. Look, Judge could (obviously) still stand to put the ball in play more often. Hopefully that gets better with time. Regardless, had he hit infield fly balls at a league average rate, he'd have cost himself seven or eight additional outs this season. I know it doesn't sound like much, but it certainly makes it easier to deal with the times he goes down on strikes.

Let's look at it from another perspective. Todd Frazier, one of the newest Yankees, has struck out at practically a league average clip (21.2%). However, he pops up more than twice as often as the rest of baseball, at 5.4%. That brings his EO% up to an above average 26.6% (again, league is 23.4%). Using Frazier as an example shows that though a batter's strikeout rate can tell us a lot, it can be a tad misleading. Frazier, who's strikeout rate is ho-hum and wouldn't raise any eyebrows, actually has been retired easier than it seems once his pop-up rate is considered.

Although Judge's strikeout rate is bad, it's not telling the whole story. No, his low pop fly rate won't save him, but it's unquestionably a helpful way to alleviate some of the contact concerns. Essentially, Judge has earned seven or eight additional plate appearances thanks to his ability to square up the ball when making contact. It doesn't sound like much, but it's certainly beneficial.

EO% Leaderboard thru 7/23/17, created via Fangraphs