It’s only seven games. That’s the only rational reaction to Aaron Judge going 2-for-27 with 19 strikeouts since the wild-card game. Any hitter can put up any stat line over seven games, and strikeouts are part and parcel of Judge’s offensive approach, which put him at the top of the American League leaderboard in strikeouts, but also in home runs, walks, and runs scored. They’re what you get with Judge.
But not to this extent—in seven of the biggest games of his career, Judge has a .330 OPS. Mets pitcher Robert Gsellman, who couldn’t swing the bat last season, has a career OPS of .337. Judge was the headline act of this Yankees lineup, and hits the ball harder than anyone else in the history of the game, but since the Division Series started, the Yankees could’ve replaced him with a pitcher and only hurt themselves defensively.
Small sample or not, Judge is striking out so much you’d think he’d been at a singles bar with a notebook full of lewd and unfunny pickup lines, not at the plate with a bat. So let’s examine what’s going wrong for the Yankees’ best hitter.
Why Judge Strikes Out So Much
In his past seven games, Judge has a strikeout rate of 59.4 percent. This regular season, a season after which he might be voted the AL MVP, he struck out 30.7 percent of the time, fourth most among 144 qualified hitters. Last year, when he was terrible (.179/.263/.345) in 95 PA, he struck out 44.2 percent of the time.
Judge strikes out a lot when he’s hot and when he’s cold, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, forever and ever, amen. That’s normal for power hitters—eight of the top 10 home run hitters in baseball this year came in above the league-average strikeout rate of 21.6 percent. Three of the hitters to top 40 home runs this year—Judge, Khris Davis, and Joey Gallo—had three of the five highest strikeout rates among qualified hitters.
Strikeouts and home runs go hand-in-hand for two reasons: One way to hit the ball hard is to just swing the bat as hard as you can—nobody swings harder than Javy Báez, who was 13th in strikeout rate this year and struck out 41.5 percent of the time as a rookie in 2014. Other players, like Judge, hit for power because they’re big. Particularly Judge who, at listed dimensions of 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, is the largest regular position player in MLB history. Being big often means having long arms, which generate angular momentum, but also take longer to adjust mid-swing and are harder to control—imagine how difficult it would be to write legibly if you were holding your pencil down by its eraser. Some big players—Joey Gallo, for instance—are both very large and swing the bat like they’re trying to put holes in rock faster than a steam-powered hammer can.
Flip the K% leaderboard upside-down and you’ll find a lot of small guys. Of the 10 qualified hitters with the lowest strikeout rate, six are 6-foot or shorter and none are taller than 6-foot-2. All 10 reached double digits in home runs, but the only one to hit 30 was Joey Votto, who’s also the biggest person in the group. Votto, incidentally, is going to end up in Cooperstown because he’s the best pure hitter of his generation—he’s a freak to whom the normal rules of hitting just don’t apply.
As swings go, Judge’s isn’t that long, but he’s also the size of a Ferris wheel, and like a Ferris wheel, his arms just take a while to rotate on an axis. It’s a big machine, and it takes a while to get going.
Who’s Pitching to Him Has Changed
Baseball-Reference splits pitchers out into three types: power, average, and finesse. Power pitchers are in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks, finesse pitchers in the bottom third, and average pitchers in the middle. Judge has faced five starting pitchers since the divisional round started: Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Dallas Keuchel, and Justin Verlander. Of those, only Keuchel is a finesse pitcher. Since this is the postseason, where every team in the last eight has about 15 fastball-slider relievers who throw 97 mph or better, and since Judge is the focal point of the Yankees offense, he’s also faced a bunch of hard-throwing relievers: Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Ken Giles.
Here are Judge’s 2017 splits by opposing pitcher type:
Judge vs. Pitcher Type
Unsurprisingly, the only soft-tosser Judge has gotten an extended look at, Keuchel, is also the pitcher he’s had the most success against: 1-for-2 with a walk in Game 1 of the ALCS.
How They’re Pitching to Him Has Changed
Over the course of the season, Judge had his greatest success against fastballs and changeups. Judge slugged over .700 on both two- and four-seam fastballs, and .837 on changeups. Breaking balls gave him more trouble—he saw more than 900 sliders and curveballs this year and when he swung at them he missed more than he made contact.
The pitch mix Judge faced evolved over the course of the season, but not that much. Opposing pitchers threw him fewer and fewer changeups as the year went on, as the league became aware that if you throw Judge a changeup, he’ll probably put you on a beach with an alien who looks like David Morse—so great was the risk of noisy contact. But overall, he saw between 54 and 61 percent hard stuff and between 27 and 36 percent breaking balls in every month of the season from April to September.
In October, he’s seen 41 percent fastballs and 55 percent breaking balls. Out of the 197 pitches Judge has seen in the playoffs, only five have been changeups, and three of those five came in the wild-card game. In other words, the pitches Judge is seeing the most of are the ones he has the hardest time hitting, and he isn’t seeing changeups—which he crushes—at all.
During the season, the most popular place to pitch Judge was low and away. Brooks Baseball tracks pitch location on a 5x5 grid, and of those 25 squares, the three that got the most traffic were the very bottom right corner, the box immediately above it, and the box immediately to the left. Those three spots accounted for 27.5 percent of the pitches Judge saw.
In the past seven games, those are once again the three most popular places to put a pitch against Judge, but now they account for 37.1 percent of the pitches he’s seen.
Since Game 1 of the ALDS, Judge has seen 38 two-strike breaking balls out of the zone and below the belt. He’s swung at nine of them and missed every single one.
That invites an obvious question: Why can’t Judge lay off the low breaking ball? It seems so obvious to just not swing at pitches outside the strike zone, so why can’t he hold up?
To some extent, he has—after all, Judge passed on more than three-quarters of the low two-strike breaking balls he’s seen since the ALDS started, so he’s not flailing aimlessly at literally every 58-foot slurve he sees. But Judge is getting pitched in a pretty traditional fashion for a power hitter with some swing-and-miss to his game: hard in, soft away, change speed and eye level frequently. And it wouldn’t be tradition if it didn’t work.
The real answer to that obvious question is equally obvious: Judge can’t lay off the low breaking ball because at the time Judge has to decide to swing, it’s tough to tell the difference between a slider at the ankles and a two-seamer at the knees. The whole point of the breaking ball is to make it look like the ball is going to go someplace other than where it ends up, and worse pitchers than Allen and Verlander routinely fool better hitters than Judge.
Not only does pitching involve a lot of deception, it involves a lot of game theory, pursuing a suboptimal strategy just frequently enough to keep your opponent from being certain you’ll pursue the optimal strategy. And while Judge has seen a lot of low 0-2 breaking balls, that’s not always the case.
He tried laying off the two-strike slider against Danny Salazar in the third inning of Game 4 of the ALDS. Only it turns out it wasn’t a slider in the dirt but a fastball at the knees for a called third strike.
Two innings later, Shaw started Judge up with four high cutters, then went below the zone with a slider, then came back with a middle-middle cutter that, at 98 mph, looked exactly like the 84 mph slider Judge had just seen until it was too late for Judge to adjust his swing.
Judge can’t count on a two-strike pitch to be low, slow, and bendy because not every two-strike pitch is low, slow, and bendy, and he’s struck out guessing wrong on both sides of the equation. And it’s not like he’s bad at doing that because the thought hasn’t occurred to him or he isn’t trying hard enough; he’s faced some very good pitchers over his past seven games, and they deserve credit just as much as Judge deserves blame. Judge is also getting a little unlucky—of his 19 postseason strikeouts, four have come with Judge looking at pitches that were close to the rule book strike zone, but not, strictly speaking, within it.
However, there are aspects of Judge’s game that exacerbate the situation. Judge is one of the most selective hitters in baseball—128th out of 144 qualified hitters in swing rate during the regular season. He also gives pitchers more reason to fear him than just about anyone else in the game, which is why only Gallo and Freddie Freeman saw a greater percentage of pitches thrown to them end up outside the strike zone.
That combination of selectiveness and getting pitched around means Judge sees a lot of pitches: 4.41 per plate appearance, to be exact, the third-highest rate in baseball during the regular season. Toss in the fact that he hits high up in a very high-scoring lineup, and Judge saw more pitches this year than anyone else in baseball.
The same is true in the playoffs, but just like his diet of breaking balls low and away, it’s more extreme: Judge is averaging 5.32 pitches per plate appearance in the postseason. From a practical standpoint, that’s not all bad—you want to run up a pitcher’s pitch count and draw walks if you can, and for all his other faults, Judge’s five walks in 37 LDS and LCS plate appearances are nothing to turn your nose up at.
But more importantly, Judge’s propensity to run deep counts means that 81 of the 197 pitches he’s seen this postseason have come with two strikes, and nobody hits well with two strikes. The league hit .176/.250/.281 with two strikes this year, and while Judge was better, his .195/.315/.416 two-strike batting line is still not great, and Judge has seen more two-strike pitches this postseason than José Altuve has seen in total. It’s hard to hit like Aaron Judge when you spend 40 percent of the time in a situation that causes you to hit like Ryan Schimpf.
And while Judge might be more inclined to try to ambush an early fastball to try to break out of his slump, that approach still requires getting something worth swinging at early in the count, and that doesn’t always happen, particularly when the rewards of keeping the ball away from Judge are so great and the consequences of screwing up and leaving a meatball over the plate are so dire. The only good news at this point is that Judge, at 1-for-7 with a walk and three strikeouts, is already hitting Astros pitching much better than he hit Indians pitching (1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts). Maybe he’s already taken the first step back toward normalcy.
But the book is out there on him now—one imagines Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway chomping on a cigar and growling like Robert Loggia at the end of Independence Day: “Get on the wire to every squadron around the world. Tell ‘em how to bring these sons of bitches down.” Judge tore up the league this year because he’s an exaggerated version of a modern power hitter, and now the very best pitchers in the league are tearing him up, using an exaggerated version of the standard game plan against the modern power hitter.