The Cleveland Guardians won the best-of-three American League Wild Card Series against the Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend, moving on to the playoffs’ second round. The Guardians may thank their pitching staff for the victories. In 24 innings, Cleveland’s pitchers held the Rays to one run while walking just six batters and striking out 29. Throughout the long 15-inning game that ended the series, they did not allow a single extra-base hit.
The adage “no good act goes unpunished” is true. Pitchers for the Guardians are discovering that for themselves. As compensation for stopping the Rays, they now have a new, more difficult task to complete before Tuesday, when the best-of-five Division Series against the New York Yankees will begin: finding out how to maneuver Aaron Judge.
Of course, Judge has just had one of the league’s best offensive seasons. He not only hit 62 home runs, shattering the AL and team single-season marks, but he also hit.313/.425/.686 and came very close to winning the Triple Crown. In other words, June, when he recorded a.922 OPS, was Judge’s worst month. How effective is A.922 OPS? If that had been his full-season total, he would have been third among qualifiers in the majors, behind only Yordan Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt.
No strategy devised against Judge has succeeded thus far, but the Guardians must try if they are to move forward. So, what strategy might they employ during Judge’s at-bats? Let’s look at what his seasonal data says they should do (and what they shouldn’t do).
Does he typically take a swing at the first pitch?
You may anticipate the answer to be “no,” considering that Judge walked 111 times during the regular season. In contrast, he joined players like Willy Adames, Yuli Gurriel, Hunter Renfroe, and Trey Mancini in having a swing percentage on first pitches (31.7 percent), which was more aggressive than the league average. Look at the heat map below to see that Judge frequently chooses the middle-in position on his first pitch. However, he is prepared to fire throughout the area.
Does his strategy change as he progresses through the count in TruMedia 2?
It proceeds pretty much as you would anticipate. If the judge is ahead in the count, he becomes more selective; if he is behind, he becomes less selective. In counts plus, his swing habits shift to the inner third of the plate.
TruMedia s3. What kinds of pitches does he have trouble with?
Remember that the word “struggle” is a relative one. This season, Judge saw at least 100 pitches of every type and had a wOBA of at least.300 on all of them, including a.509 mark on two- and four-seam fastballs. No other batter came within 50 points of that total.
Splitters (fewer than 100) (fewer than 100).
Again, relatively speaking, the pitch types that gave Judge the greatest trouble were changeups and cutters. In the majors, his wOBA against changeups still placed him in the 70th percentile, but it fell to the 45th against cutters. This year, he faced fewer than 200 of them, so it may simply be a result of a tiny sample size.
4. What about a place?
In baseball, there is a proverb that states that home runs are thrown, not hit. This season, Judge homered 14 times on balls that were in the middle of the field (and doubled on six other occasions). His best area was up and in, and his worst was down and away, if you divide the zone into four quadrants. The second shouldn’t be a surprise because that is where effective sliders and/or changeups are thrown at him. The former does defy the common misconception that tall sluggers have trouble getting their levers through the hitting zone in time to handle inside heat. The fact that Judge finished second in the wOBA in that category (behind teammate Matt Carpenter) illustrates how little his swing is compared to other players his size.
5. Can defensive positioning be beneficial?
According to Statcast’s definition, Judge was shifted in almost half of his plate appearances this season, with teams frequently positioning three infielders on the shortstop side of the second base bag. It did not assist. Instead, Judge’s wOBA versus adjusted defenses was.470, and when the defense wasn’t changing, it was.447. Unfortunately, there is no shift to prevent home runs, which is bad news for the Guardians and other adversaries.
6. Have the Guardians been able to defeat him?
Nope. Cleveland demonstrated that Judge frightened nearly all 20 teams he faced this season. In six games against the Guardians, he hit.235/.409/.706 with two home runs and five walks.His 1.115 OPS against Cleveland was in line with his 1.111 OPS for the entire season. Only the Blue Jays, Athletics, Rangers, and Astros played Judge more than a few times while keeping his OPS under.900.
7. How and by whom?
The two pitchers that performed the best against Judge this season were arguably Blue Jays ace Alek Manoah and Orioles lefty Bruce Zimmermann, keeping in mind that pitcher-versus-batter matchups have little predictive value. In their combined 20 at-bats, Zimmermann and Manoah limited Judge to three singles, one home run, and three walks (versus nine strikeouts). How did they do it? Zimmermann kept the ball down and away while throwing him more breaking and off-speed offerings than fastballs. Manoah hit him repeatedly with a mix of strong sinkers in and sliders away.In 2021, Judge faced Zimmermann five times and homered twice, so luck also played a part.
Should the guards always simply walk him?
It would seem like a fair question to pose after watching Judge cause mayhem over the entire season. While deliberately walking him makes sense in some circumstances, doing so is a losing strategy overall. Baseball’s inherent nature ensures that the defense always has the upper hand, even when facing a talented batter like Aaron Judge. Consider it in this manner. Despite the damage Judge caused, he still managed to strike out in more than 57 percent of his at-bats, and despite the number of home runs he hit, they accounted for less than 10% of his total at-bats.Giving him an automatic pass would significantly increase the frequency with which the Yankees’ other good hitters bat with a runner on base, increasing the likelihood of experiencing the outcome you were trying to avoid in the first place: giving up runs. Obviously, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those home runs, especially not in October.
Yankees guardians pitch, Aaron Judge responds to inquiries, and the playoffs feature a top slugger.