NEW YORK—Before Aaron Judge became the toast of New York, before his home runs became the nightly subjects of oohs and ahhs and StatCast GIFs, he had to come to a humbling realization.
His swing needed to change.
“The biggest thing, the way I can explain it, was controlling my back hip," Judge said. “I watched the great hitters. They're into their back hip, and that's where the swing starts. They're in their legs, They're in that hip. For me it allows me to stay in and through the zone longer. I don't come around the zone."
The results have been evident. For all of his chiseled 6-foot-7, 282 pound physique and 80 grade raw power on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, Judge never hit more than 20 home runs or slugged above .490 in any minor league season.
Now, as a rookie, he is on pace for 58 home runs with a .692 slugging percentage.
“He's always been powerful, but I think he's learning to use his body more efficiently," said Yankees first baseman Greg Bird, a teammate of Judge's at every level from high Class A to the majors. “And then you're seeing him reap the rewards of that more than ever before."
Judge, 25, entered Tuesday leading the majors in home runs and ranked among the top five in runs, slugging percentage, OPS and average exit velocity. He already has a cheering section in right field at Yankee Stadium devoted to him called the “Judge's Chambers," featuring rows of dark-stained wood seats designed to resemble a courtroom and fans dressed in robes with Judge's No. 99 on their backs.
It's a far cry from last year, when Judge slumped to a .179/.263/.345 slash line with a 44.2 percent strikeout rate in his 27-game callup with the Yankees.
“My bat is kind of working, how I see it, like a Ferris wheel instead of like a merry-go round," Judge said. “The past couple years when I started getting bad I would start rolling over a lot of balls because my bat was like a merry-go-round, it was not staying through the zone. Controlling that (back) hip allows the bat to get through the zone like a Ferris wheel. So my contact point now, if I'm expecting 95 (mph) and a guy throws 98 or 99, my bat is still in the zone and I can drive it into right-center field. Or if I'm expecting a fastball and the guy throws something offspeed, my bat is still in the zone I can hit something to left field."
Carnival ride similes aside, the results of Judge's adjustment have been indisputable. Instead of just raw power, he has game power like never before.
“His balance is better, his swing path is better, all these things are better," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “You can have a really strong player that has power that is just not tapped in to. I mean I think about Robby Cano. Robby Cano, it took him time. And I think that's what happens."
Judge, the Yankees' first-round pick out of Fresno State in 2013, has already accumulated the highest Wins Above Replacement of any Yankees first-rounder since Ian Kennedy (2006). With the improvements he's made to turn his raw power into game power, there figures to be a whole lot more to come for the young Baby Bomber.
“Of course, his power has always been there. He's the biggest, strongest guy in baseball," outfielder Brett Gardner said. “I think that everybody knows what he's capable of doing and how far he is capable of hitting a baseball. It's just all about becoming a better hitter . . . It's just all a learning curve. Not just for him, but for every young player."