If there was once a book on how to throw Aaron Judge — a breaking ball was once a good bet, especially a slider — the Yankees slugger tore out every page of it this year on his way to a historic season .
The record books could be the next in need of repair.
In his sixth full major league season, Judge has patched most of the holes that might have existed in his first five years – which were mostly good years on their own and yet were easily overtaken by the prolific 2022. of the flyer.
“Before, he was a power hitter who had to make a mistake,” Yankees hitting coach Dillon Lawson said this week in Boston. “So [pitchers] had to worry, ‘If I execute this pitch, I have a chance. If I miss by a baseball or two, he’s gonna get me. Now he can camp in his damage zone or he might be able to walk into your force zone as a caster and take your force away from you. It really opened up a lot of things because you’re talking about the game of cat and mouse then.
“He’s been the cat for most of the year.”
Going into the series that begins Friday in Milwaukee, Judge is batting .310 with 57 homers, 123 RBIs and a 1,102 OPS. He’s closing in on the American League and Roger Maris franchise record of 61 homers and has suddenly given himself a chance to chase the AL Triple Crown (Judge has huge leads in HR and RBI and entered Thursday fourth in batting average, with the Twins’ Luis Arraez leading at .320). In a year of declining offense in baseball, Judge has only prospered more.
A number of factors have allowed Judge to take the next step in his game this season, but chief among them is being physically well positioned throughout the year, using his experience to his advantage and becoming one of MLB’s most dangerous hitters against sliders.
“There’s no one way to lose and there’s no one way to take it out either,” said Gerrit Cole, who had a front-row view for Judge’s historic season, but often thinks about how he might throw it. “It’s just risky all the time.”
Judge has consistently hit fastballs during his big league career, and this season is no exception: He’s hitting .340 with 32 home runs and a .760 slugging percentage against them, according to Baseball Savant.
But before this season, pitchers had more success throwing softer things at him, including the slider. From 2016 to 2021, the judge hit .222 with 20 homers, a .406 hitting percentage and a 38.5% strikeout rate against sliders. This year, he’s batting .320 with 14 homers, a .721 slugging percentage and a 27 percent strikeout rate against sliders. And his run value — the Baseball Savant metric that quantifies a hitter’s impact on a specific type — of 26 against sliders is the highest of any player against any field this season.
“A fastball was something he was always able to do,” Red Sox veteran left-hander Rich Hill said. “But the ball breaking was a huge adjustment for him to really start to see a complete hitter.”
Judge attacked his potential weakness against sliders in part by doing targeted pregame work, including against a slider thrower to prepare his eyes for what he might see on a given night.
“They’re big sliders, hard sliders, sometimes they’re depressing, sometimes they’re fast, sometimes they’re short and high speed depending on who we’re up against,” Lawson said. “But it’s still amazing.”
Judge has also worked to refine his bat trajectory in a way that allows him to handle more pitch types by keeping his swing across more of the strike zone and longer.
“It requires being able to recognize the terrain, which he excels at,” Lawson said. “But then having a bat path that allows you to manage the multiple types of pitch that you recognize and recognize for strikes. I think that’s probably what you see in batting average and the ability to handle sliders and other throws. Different places too. This is due to his dedicated work on the path of bats.
That ability to do damage against broken shots was on full display Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
Judge’s 56th home run — his first of two home runs on Tuesday — came against a Nick Pivetta knuckle-curveball in the sixth inning. It was his sixth home run on a curveball this season — a marked improvement from the five home runs he hit on curveballs from 2019-2021 (covering 278 games).
Home run No. 57 came off Garrett Whitlock’s slider in the eighth inning — the 14th slider Judge has hit for a homer this season.
“It’s tough because there’s not one pitch that’s guaranteed to get him out every time,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “It’s like you make a mistake and he’s going to crush it.”
Of course, with the way he can cover plate and different types of terrain, it doesn’t even take a mistake for Judge to pounce these days.
“He’s got inside coverage, he’s got a lot more outside coverage than you might think,” said Higashioka, who first played with Judge in 2014. home runs, but he’s so strong that when he does, half the time it’s a home run. This is precisely what makes him a badass. »
When asked if Judge’s ability to cover the entire plate reminded him of anyone, Cole mentioned three-time batting champion Jose Altuve, Shohei Ohtani and Rafael Devers.
“There’s a handful out there,” Cole said. “What elevates [Judge] among the rest of the group is consistency.
Although Judge has consistently downplayed his homer chase, he seems to take pride in hitting for a high average as well.
“As a kid, you looked up and saw Albert Pujols hitting .330 every year and constantly posting RBI numbers and stuff like that,” Judge said. “So for me, the batting rating has always been average. It might be a bit old school, but can you kick or can you punch? It’s always been a goal of mine to try to get to this point [.300] and do that.
Judge was setting up for that kind of season during the first half of his rookie year in 2017, when he entered the All-Star break averaging .329 with 30 home runs and 1.139 OPS. But the league adapted to him in the second half, chilling him as he finished with a .284 batting average, 52 homers and 1.049 OPS.
This year, Judge has only gotten stronger over time. In his last 50 games since the All-Star break, he’s averaging .360 with 24 home runs and 1.321 OPS. Even when he’s not going deep, he gets down to base and is a productive hitter — all while staying physically fresh despite playing more center field than the Yankees would necessarily like.
“I think one of the things he’s gone through is how to prepare physically and withstand the rigors of the season,” manager Aaron Boone said. “It’s one of the big things in his continued development as a veteran and superstar player. He understands what he needs to do to be ready and sometimes, on certain days, especially when you’re deep in the season in the grind of the season, often times it’s less.
“That’s been the challenge for him sometimes in the past, to do less. He’s gotten really good at it. I think that’s been a big part of keeping him as fresh and as strong as he’s been all along. the year.
As the Yankees’ season has gone from a potentially historic winning streak at the start to a potential meltdown of the team looking more like itself recently, Judge has put the club on the back foot more often than not.
“I think everyone knows what greatness looks like,” Lawson said. “I think it’s easy to see that moment and recognize it for what it is. The thing that’s super special about him this year is that it just keeps happening. It’s his consistency that is so remarkable.
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