How Judge Batting Leadoff Saved the Yankees’ Season

Aaron Judge
Sep 28, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; New York Yankees designated hitter Aaron Judge (99) walks towards the club house dressing room at the end of the game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

If you ask a fan of the New York Yankees how the season went or is going, you’ll get mixed results. The great start had many thinking this would be the year for the 28th World Series title for the storied franchise. Then came the 10-18 record in August, the exhausting, draining month that made it look like they wouldn’t even make the playoffs. The bright spot through it all has been Aaron Judge who has not only carried the Yankees but has single-handedly made them the second-best team in the American League (and a World Series contender).

On Wednesday night, Judge hit his 61st home run of the season. A fastball left over the strike zone was powered to left field as he extended his arms and launched his fastest homer of the year (with an exit velocity of 118.4 miles per hour).

Judge’s accolades this season can be talked about for years. He leads the league in the triple crown stats and the slash line stats (which include On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage). Just about every valuable hitting stat, Judge leads the league in it. His value to the Yankees is unquestioned but manager Aaron Boone optimizing his value has in particular turned the season around. They have a 17-7 record in September and are heading into October with their eyes on that 28th title.

Aaron Judge Moving From the 2 Spot

In the first four months of the season, Judge batted behind the leadoff hitter, an understandable spot for him. He was the best hitter on a star-studded team so the best place for him the 2-spot. After all, the data in the baseball world tells you to bat your best hitter in the 2nd spot in the lineup.

Judge batting behind DJ LeMahieu (the most common leadoff hitter early on in the year) allowed him to receive the most plate appearances in a game with a runner on base. Then came the injuries and the sudden collapse.

In August, it was only Giancarlo Stanton that was out of the lineup with an injury. By September, it was LeMahieu, Andrew Benintendi, Josh Donaldson, and Anthony Rizzo to name a few. Why have Judge batting second when there’s nobody around him to help out? Hence the lineup changed.

The Judge Effect

Judge moving to the leadoff spot was a subtle change. Yet, it’s the type of change that make managers good or even great. Boone essentially saved his job with the change and allowed the Yankees to suddenly have a reliable batting order in the final month of the season.

So why did the change help? The simple answer, it gave Judge the most possible plate appearances in a given game. The more complicated answer is that Judge is continuing to play at an MVP level and aside from hitting home runs, he continues to get on base. He by default started rallies, even if the opposing pitcher chose to walk him.

Judge’s On-Base Percentage (OBP) this season is .425 which by itself is impressive. In the past 28 days, his OBP is .559 meaning more than half the times he’s at the plate, he is guaranteed to make it to first base (at the minimum). With Judge on first base, all it takes is for the other batters in the lineup to look respectable at the plate. Now that Rizzo and Stanton are back that’s more often or not the case.

Will Aaron Judge Move Back?

It’s unclear. The educated guess is not. If it ain’t broke why fix it? The Yankees are winning and it appears this is a successful formula. The second part of this success is that Judge is the best leadoff hitter on the team and the most valuable as well.

It’s possible that the Yankees have one of their true leadoff hitters return to the lineup. In that case, Judge can slide back to the 2-spot. However, even if that happens, it’s hard to move away from something that has driven the Yankees their recent success. Judge in the leadoff spot has been a driving force for runs and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

How Far Can This Change Take the Yankees?

Teams can still intentionally walk Judge. However, with him leading off, it’s a decision that will cost the Yankees opponents tenfold, especially in the postseason. The question is which teams will be able to pitch around Judge or specifically, pitch to him in a way that they can get him out.

In the playoffs, pitching by default is better. The teams that face the Yankees will have the starting pitchers that can and will go after Judge. Moreover, they can attack him on the outside part of the strike zone and when they go inside, will throw off-speed or breaking pitches.

All eyes are going to be on the Yankees matchups moving forward. They get a bye and it’s going to be random in terms of their opponent in the Division Series. However, the matchup that can be the one for the Yankees in the Championship Series is the Houston Astros, one that irks them, to say the least. The Astros have the pitchers that can test the Yankees and ultimately, Judge in that leadoff spot.

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