Yankees 2017 Chances May Hinge on Progress of Aaron Judge

Aug 26, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) doubles against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 26, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) doubles against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports /

With the New York Yankees expected to lean heavily on their core of young sluggers next year, the development of Aaron Judge into a productive power bat may be the key to contention in 2017.

While the rumors about the New York Yankees pursuing the elite hitters on the free agent market have already begun making the rounds, it would be incredibly surprising to see this club reverse course and pay big money for Edwin Encarnacion or Yoenis Cespedes‘s decline years.

General manager Brian Cashman has shown remarkable restraint in holding on to his draft picks and top prospects for several years now. Making a move to block his budding stars from playing just as they are on the cusp of establishing themselves in the big leagues seems counterproductive unless he’s had a drastic change of heart.

It’s not hard to see why so many pundits expect the team to go after a proven middle-of-the-order hitter this winter. In a season where every scrappy shortstop and utility infielder in the game crushed 20 long-balls, the Yankees have had basically no power. Their .405 slugging percentage ranked 21st in all of baseball and their 182 home runs were 19th.

If New York does indeed decide to trust their plan and avoid any big name acquisitions this offseason, their chances of contention in 2017 will depend heavily on a trio of young sluggers who, in an ideal world, would establish themselves as the three, four, five hitters for the foreseeable future: Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Aaron Judge.

Of that group, Sanchez and Bird have done nothing but rake in their admittedly brief time in the big leagues. By far the biggest question mark is the player with the biggest power potential of the three, right fielder Aaron Judge.

Judge forced his way into the big league lineup by hitting .270/.366/.489 with 19 home runs in 410 plate appearances in Triple-A, but he looked completely over-matched during his first month in the majors, hitting .179/.263/.345  in 95 PA while striking out in 44.2% of the time.

Perhaps the biggest reason to be hopeful about Judge’s ability to turn things around next season is just how hard he was hitting the ball when he did connect. At 96.8 mph, Judge had the highest average exit velocity of any MLB batters who put at least 15 balls in play last year according to Statcast. His 16.3 degree launch angle is right in the sweet spot that tends to produce the most home runs, and his 249.7 average distance is also among the league’s better marks.

So when Judge actually hits the ball, he gets tremendous results. Yankees manager Joe Girardi echoed that idea the other day when he told Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media:

"To me, that’s just making more contact. When he hits, there’s a real good chance he’s going to hit it hard. He’s going to have misses that go out of the ballpark because he’s so big and strong. So for me it’s just cutting down on the strikeouts. If he does that, I think he’s going to have success at this level."

Obviously that is easier said than done, but Judge has shown the ability to make these kinds of adjustments before. As he recently told Kuty:

"Same thing as last year. Got a little taste of Triple-A, got used to it and the same thing here. Got a couple of games up here, saw what it’s like and now just get ready to prepare and come into next year not an unknown. I’ll know what’s going on and what the league is and I’ll be prepared."

Something that coaches, teammates, and reporters constantly make note of after speaking to Judge is his unshakable confidence. He trusts his own abilities and puts in a tremendous amount of work each year to improve. We obviously can’t see inside his head, but there is no sign he has been negatively impacted by his struggles this year.

Presumably Judge now knows exactly what he’s facing, how big league pitchers are exploiting his swing, and what he needs to do to adapt to be successful in 2017.

Next: Five Yankees Most Likely to Be Traded this Winter

Barring a major acquisition or roster shakeup, it is hard to imagine a Yankees club that makes the postseason next year without Aaron Judge playing a big role. This team is built around him, Sanchez, and Bird being the big boppers. If he is still struggling to make consistent contact off MLB pitching when March rolls around, the Yankees have a big problem.