In our latest installment of Analyze This, we take a look at Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge. The massive slugger is tearing up the American League with tape-measure blast after tape-measure blast. His exit velocities top the Statcast leaderboard in the same way Aroldis Chapman’s fastball does. The Yankees drafted him in the first round of the 2013 draft in part for his mammoth power, but also for his potential as a complete hitter. Once he got into the system, the player development team went to work unlocking that ability.
Baseball America spoke to P.J. Pilittere, the Yankees’ Triple-A hitting coach who was with Judge at his stops in high Class A, the Arizona Fall League and Double-A, to get some insight about the development of Judge’s swing from his days in the low minors into what it looks like now in the major leagues.
2014 South Atlantic League All-Star Game
“The things that make him look different there as compared to now are, when he first came in, we were trying to get him more centered in his swing. The things that look different in his swing there are obviously that his hands are a lot higher, he's standing up taller than he is. When he gets to the position of landing with his front foot, you can see that the position with his hands is wrapped pretty good around his head, around the back of his head. But by the time he starts to make that move after his foot comes down, his swing isn't much different than it is right now, which is: Really, really short to the baseball, pretty centered and pretty explosive.
“I think for a large guys, or guys of his size and stature, those guys aren't typically short-swing guys. They're typically long, slow pull guys that have some holes that can cover the ball down and can cover a mistake offspeed pitch and that's about it. But (Judge) bucks the trend. For as big as he is, his swing is extremely short. He covers high velocity, he can handle the ball inside. It's always been a positive sign from him.
“I think when he came in from college he kind of got stuck on his backside, and what I mean by that is he kind of worked uphill. A lot of guys come in from college that way where they kind of work to the baseball and then they backward, if that makes sense. Uphill is probably a better descriptive word for that. Us as a hitting department—myself, James Rowson, Edwar Gonzalez, Tom Slater, you name it—everybody was trying to do what we could to get him to be centered. And by centered, I mean that when he gets to contact his body is stacked, shoulders over waist over feet, getting off of an uphill stroke and getting him to the middle of his body when he hits.”
2015 Spring Training
“The hands are still high, but they are a little bit more upright. But the big noticeable difference here is you can see that he's incorporated a little bit more of a leg lift into his swing. We were trying to get him more of a feel for timing and separation. Separation meaning, he's getting up off the ground with his leg left and as soon as that leg starts to sweep and take its stride down the slope, he wants his hands to go back at the same time.
“The leg lift was incorporated for him to try to incorporate the timing of his separation to feel like he could get his hands back in a better position consistently. If you notice, when he gets his foot to the ground here he's starting to slowly see that the bat is not wrapping around his nearly as much anymore. Now his foot's on the ground and it's pointed toward third base, as opposed to that Charleston video where it was almost pointed at the shortstop. You can see the swing's starting to evolve and get even shorter here by 2015.
“The evolution of where his hands get to at touchdown, it's slowly starting to help him create a better launch angle. He doesn't have as far to go now to get to the baseball.”
“He's a little bit more open with his stance and his hands are little more out and away from his body to get started, and then you can see he's got a lot more flexion on his back leg and in his setup he's a lot more grounded. So as this leg comes up on his leg lift you just see so much more control. As the front leg gets off the ground you can see the flexion and the strength in his backside as the hands get down and start to get into launch position.
“For me, as a hitting coach, it creates more room for error. He doesn't have to be perfect now. If he gets that timing right and he's strong on his backside, when he gets that leg off the ground he's going to able to be on time to a fastball and if he happens to get slowed down he'll be able to lengthen that stride naturally and have something behind it. This is where you really get to see him feel a lot more comfortable with these moves, in my opinion. He gets to touchdown and that bat's in a pretty good position. It's not wrapped terribly at all.
“Personally, I enjoy leg kicks. I think they're great if they're done correctly. When you incorporate a leg kick to a guy who's never done it before, it's going to take some time because immediately the hitter's though is: lift your leg off the ground. When in essence—like I was telling you with the video in Triple-A—if he's loading and getting on to his backside right, that leg kick's going to take care of itself. It's no different than a normal stride or a no-stride or a toe-tap. If the load is done properly they're all going to accomplish the same thing. I think you see that, as he got more comfortable with doing it, you start to see the height (of the kick) vary.
“In a perfect world when I explain leg kicks to hitters, the height of your leg kick is all just going to depend on your timing. If you're facing a guy in the stretch and he's quick to the plate (your leg's) just not going to be able to get up there. It can't. If you're facing a guy in the windup and you're facing something soft in the zone, it might be higher than high. That's something that takes some time to figure out, and it really started to take off for him when he started to realize that it's not about getting his foot off the ground. That'll take care of itself. As long as he's grounded in his set up, on his legs and loaded into his backside properly, then the height's going to vary.”
“For Aaron, after getting that taste of the big leagues last year, he wanted to make some adjustments when in came into spring training. I think the biggest thing, like I talked a little bit about in the Triple-A video is being grounded. In the Triple-A video, you can tell he's in an even more in a strong, powerful position with his lower half engaged in his setup. That's huge for him. You watch him, and it looks like he's ready to unleash. I think it's honestly, throughout the development of his career, it's honestly the best starting position he's ever been in right now.
“The thing that sets him apart is that he's a baseball player. Don't get me wrong, he likes hitting the ball a long way, but he's a baseball player. He tries to move runners. He tries to take the extra base. He tries to hit the ball where it's pitched. He swings at strikes. He's not a one-trick pony who's trying to hit the ball 500 feet and strike out 200 times. I think that translates because now he's taking a lot of walks, he's using the whole field. It's just ingrained into him. He's not just sitting there trying to hook balls out of the ballpark. It's pretty impressive. It really is.“