If there used to be a book on how to pitch Aaron Judge — a breaking ball was once a good bet, especially a slider — the Yankees slugger has ripped all of the pages out of it this year on the way to an historic season.
The record book could be the next one to need some fixing.
In his sixth full season in the big leagues, Judge has patched up most of the holes that may have existed during his first five — which were mostly strong years in their own right and yet have been easily surpassed by the outfielder’s prolific 2022.
“He used to be a power hitter that had to get a mistake,” Yankees hitting coach Dillon Lawson said this week in Boston. “So [pitchers] had to worry about, ‘If I execute this pitch, I got a chance. If I miss by one or two baseballs, he’s gonna get me.’ Now, he can camp out in his damage zone or he might be able to go into your area of strength as a pitcher and take your strength away. That’s really opened a lot of things up because then you’re talking about the cat-and-mouse game.
“He’s been the cat for most of the year.”
Entering the series that begins Friday in Milwaukee, Judge is batting .310 with 57 home runs, 123 RBIs and a 1.102 OPS. He is closing in on Roger Maris’ American League and franchise record of 61 home runs and has suddenly given himself a shot at chasing the AL Triple Crown as well (Judge has huge leads in HRs and RBIs and entered Thursday fourth in batting average, with the Twins’ Luis Arraez leading at .320). In a year when offense is down across baseball, Judge has only thrived more.
A number of factors have allowed Judge to take that next step in his game this season, but chief among them are being in a good spot physically 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 get him out, either,” said Gerrit Cole, who has had a front-row view for Judge’s historic season, but often thinks about how he might pitch him. “It’s just risky all the time.”
Judge has always mashed fastballs during his big league career, and this season is no exception: he’s batting .340 with 32 home runs and a .760 slugging percentage against them, according to Baseball Savant.
But before this season, pitchers had better success throwing him softer stuff, including the slider. From 2016-2021, Judge hit .222 with 20 home runs, a .406 slugging percentage and a 38.5 percent strikeout rate against sliders. This year, he is batting .320 with 14 home runs, a .721 slugging percentage and a 27 percent strikeout rate against sliders. And his run value — Baseball Savant’s metric that quantifies a batter’s impact on a specific type — of 26 against sliders is the highest of any player against any pitch this season.
“A fastball was something he was always able to get on,” Red Sox veteran lefty Rich Hill said. “But the breaking ball has been a huge adjustment for him to be able to really start to see a complete hitter.”
Judge has attacked his potential weakness against sliders in part by putting in purposeful pregame work, including against a slider pitching machine to prepare his eyes for what he might see on a given night.
“They’re big sliders, hard sliders, sometimes they’re downers, sometimes they’re sweepy, sometimes they’re short and at a high velocity depending on who we’re facing,” Lawson said. “But it’s always amazing.”
Judge has also worked to refine his bat path in a way that allows him to handle more pitch types by keeping his swing through more of the strike zone and for longer.
“That requires being able to first of all recognize the pitch, which he’s great at,” Lawson said. “But then having a bat path that allows you to handle the multiple pitch types that you are recognizing and you are recognizing for strikes. I think that’s probably what you see in the batting average and in being able to handle sliders and other pitches. Different locations as well. That’s due to his dedicated work on bat path.”
That ability to do damage against breaking pitches was on full display Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
Judge’s 56th home run — his first of two homers 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 homers he hit off curveballs from 2019-2021 (spanning 278 games).
Home run no. 57 came off of Garrett Whitlock’s slider in the eighth inning — the 14th slider that 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 one mistake and he’s going to crush it.”
Of course, with the way he can cover the plate and different pitch types, it doesn’t even take a mistake for Judge to pounce these days.
“He’s got coverage inside, he’s got way more coverage than you would think outside,” said Higashioka, who first played with Judge in 2014. “He has a contact-hitter’s approach in terms of he’s just looking to square the ball up. He’s not looking to hit homers, but he’s so strong that when he squares it up, half the time, it’s a homer. That’s just what makes him such a tough out.”
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 of them out there,” Cole said. “What’s elevating [Judge] among the rest of the group is the consistency.”
Plus the power.
While Judge has consistently downplayed his home run chase, he seems to take pride in also hitting for a high average.
“As a kid, you looked up and you see Albert Pujols hitting .330 every year and consistently putting up the RBI numbers and stuff like that,” Judge said. “So for me, the hitter’s grading has always been about average. It might be a little old school, but can you hit or can you hit? It’s always been a goal of mine to try to get to that point [.300] and do that.”
Judge was putting together this kind of season through the first half of his rookie year in 2017, when he entered the All-Star break batting .329 with 30 home runs and a 1.139 OPS. But the league adjusted to him in the second half, cooling him off as he finished with a .284 batting average, 52 home runs and a 1.049 OPS.
This year, Judge has only gotten stronger down the stretch. Over his last 50 games since the All-Star break, he is batting .360 with 24 home runs and a 1.321 OPS. Even when he is not going deep, he is getting on base and being a productive hitter — all while remaining physically fresh despite playing more center field than the Yankees would necessarily like.
“I think one of the things he’s gone to another level at is knowing how to physically prepare and withstand the grind of the season,” manager Aaron Boone said. “That’s one of the big things in his continued development as a veteran, 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, a lot of times that’s less.
“That sometimes has been the challenge for him in the past, to do less. He’s gotten really good at that. I think that’s gone a long way in keeping him as fresh and as strong as he’s been all year.”
While the Yankees’ season has gone from a potentially historic early winning pace to a potential collapse to the team looking more like itself recently, Judge has put the club on his back 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 the consistency of it that is so remarkable.”