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Aaron Judge will be heavily considered as a first-round fantasy selection in 2018, but does the Yankees’ right fielder really deserve an ADP inside the top 12?

Judge enjoyed a historic inaugural season, establishing new rookie records in each of baseball’s three true outcomes-- home runs, walks and strikeouts. In fact, the Yankees’ young slugger matched Mark McGwire’s all-time mark of 387 total three true outcomes. He finished 2017 with 52 homers, 127 walks and 208 strikeouts, tacking on 128 runs scored, 114 RBI, nine steals and a .284/.422/.627 slash line.

Considering we’ve never seen anything quite like Judge’s rookie campaign, it’s difficult to predict what 2018 will bring for quite possibly the largest position player in baseball history. Whether or not the feared Sophomore Slump will dig its claws into the 6’7”, 282-lb outfielder, the reigning American League rookie of the year is bound to come back down to earth across the board.

 

Looking Back at 2017

Judge led all of baseball in weighted fastball runs above average and weighted changeup runs above average, but he struggled mightily with sliders, hitting .154 with a mere .125 ISO against them.

As 2017 progressed, pitchers made adjustments. While they actually threw him more breaking balls as the season went along, they were locating those pitches much more effectively.

During his red-hot stretch -- April 19 through June 12 -- 66.8 percent of sliders and curveballs thrown his way missed the strike zone. Judge swung at 28.8 percent of these pitches, whiffing at just a 64.7 percent clip. He hit .314 in such situations, and overall, crushed baseballs to the tune of a .373/.483/.763 slash line with 18 homers and 57 strikeouts in 205 plate appearances across that span.

Alternatively, throughout his prolonged slump later in the season -- July 14 through Sept. 9 -- only 27.2 percent of breaking balls crossed the plate as a strike. Of the remaining 72.8 percent not in the zone, he swung at 30.8 percent, whiffing more than three quarters of the time (75.7 percent). Over this stretch, Judge hit .118 against breaking pitches and slashed a mere .182/.346/.365 with nine homers and 79 strikeouts across 228 trips to the plate.

So while he does possess a patient approach at the plate, he also has a tendency to chase breaking balls out of the zone, and managed the second-worst outside contact rate in all of baseball last year.

 

What to Expect in 2018

It is certainly safe to assume a healthy Judge will sniff 40 longballs. Last season, he paced all hitters in average exit velocity (95.3 mph), hit a baseball 465 feet on four different occasions (only Giancarlo Stanton had as many such moonshots), made hard contact on 45.3 percent of balls in play and produced a healthy average launch angle of 15.2 degrees.

Likely batting in front of Stanton, his new teammate and the only player with more dingers in 2017, Judge should see some more quality pitches in the strike zone. While that means he may walk less often, his generally-patient approach (41.1 percent swing rate) and strong eye (24.7 percent outside swing rate) may prevent his walk total from enduring too much regression. After all, only 11 of his 127 walks last season were intentional-- somehow, 15 of Javier Baez’s 30 walks were intentionally assessed.

The most important factor in Judge’s future success will be his strikeout rate. It is common for a player to become less strikeout prone as he gains more experience in the big leagues, but it may be tough for his aforementioned patience and eye to out-duel his long swing and aversion to breaking balls out of the zone.

Judge’s .357 BABIP was alarmingly high, and while it shouldn’t be a concern considering his surprising speed and absurd hard hit rate, it could indicate a slight dip in batting average in 2018.

Trying to find a comparison for his rookie season proved quite difficult. The only other rookie in baseball history with at least 25 HR, 75 BB and 75 K was Tim Salmon, whose 1993 credentials pale in comparison to Judge’s mammoth stat line.

Mark McGwire, whose home run record Judge just broke, is the player with the most comparable rookie numbers. The future 500-HR club member belted 49 long balls with 97 R, 118 RBI and a .289/.370/.618 slash line.

The sequel to McGwire’s monster rookie campaign, however, saw a 34.7 percent drop in home runs (down to 32) and 157 points fall off his OPS. It took eight years for his average to return anywhere close to that .289 rookie mark, and five years for him to once again reach the coveted 40-HR barrier. Judge and McGwire have more in common than just strong starts to their respective careers, as both will have shared a lineup card with another one of the league’s premier sluggers-- Stanton and Jose Canseco, respectively.

 

Conclusion

Judge is a three-category machine -- four-category in leagues that use on-base percentage in place of the standard batting average -- and will undoubtedly help any fantasy team this upcoming season and beyond.

He is especially valuable in Rotisserie leagues given his ability to single-handedly carry a team in homers, runs and RBI. However, his propensity for strikeouts and major slumps makes the soon-to-be 26-year-old slightly more of a risk than, say, Nolan Arenado or Kris Bryant on draft day.

Somewhere in the 13-18 range is reasonable in standard leagues, with a potential boost into the late first round in OBP leagues.

Projected stat line: 41 HR, 115 R, 98 RBI, 6 SB, .265/.385/.580

 

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