2017-10-17 18:40:04
In the Cage and at the Plate, Aaron Judge Is Still Trying to Figure It Out

18:40, October 17 54 0

Reggie Jackson watched on Monday as Aaron Judge ripped impressive batting-practice rockets into the farthest reaches of Yankee Stadium. All the while, Mr. October was explaining why pitches that dart low and outside should, in theory, present excellent opportunities for a power hitter.

“Right on the barrel,” Jackson. “The pitcher’s done your job for you already.”

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way for Judge, who has struggled mightily during his otherwise stellar career against that sort of low, teasing delivery. His heat chart for the regular season, according to ESPN.com, ranges from a .548 batting average against high, middle-of-the-plate strikes; to .153, against low-and-outside strikes. When he swings at pitches that are even farther low and outside, beyond the strike zone, that average predictably drops under .100.

As awesome as Judge’s display was in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Monday night — a three-run homer and two highlight catches — Judge did not really alter his own scouting report. His home run in the fourth inning off Houston’s Will Harris came on a mistake pitch, a high cutter. He struck out twice on low, outside breaking balls from Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh at which he swung wildly.

The debate is therefore unresolved: Can Judge hit a good pitcher on that pitcher’s good day? Judge’s postseason statistics going into Game 4 against the Astros on Wednesday were still uneven: a .147 batting average, with two homers, 21 strikeouts and seven walks in 41 plate appearances. He had managed just five hits in 34 at-bats. Umpires were calling the low strike against him — and sometimes they might have been calling pitches strikes that weren’t strikes at all. That surely didn’t help.

Yankees Manager Joe Girardi has kept relatively quiet about this issue, leaving broadcast commentators to point out that the 6-foot-7-inch giant seems to be getting cheated at times. The Yankee manager addressed the matter somewhat on Monday — in the reasoned manner that is his fashion.

“Think how little time they have to make up their mind,” Girardi said of the umpires. “I’m not faulting them. I imagine I would be the same way if I was an umpire. In your mind it’s a strike, and the body type might be a little different, and it really isn’t a strike.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Judge ranked third among all major leaguers during the season when it came to getting the most low strikes “framed against” — pitches called strikes by the umpires that tickled the bottom of the strike zone or actually fell below the knees. Only Matt Carpenter and Cameron Maybin endured more such indignities.

You wouldn’t know any of this watching Judge operate in the pregame batting cage, where he still produces a remarkable power display. After a couple of pro forma bunts on Monday to start things off, Judge slammed four of the next five pitches from Danilo Valiente over various walls and into the netting over Monument Park. The pitches from Valiente were not low and they were not spinning downward. They were, instead, similar to the ones Valiente threw to Judge during the young star’s Home Run Derby victory at the All-Star Game in July.

Judge wasn’t learning much from these fat cookies. But there are other ways for Judge to adjust, to learn. Between stints in the batting cage, he conferred on his stride with his veteran teammate Matt Holliday, stepping into imaginary pitches and swinging his hips.

“There are drills,” Girardi said. “They have drills for everything.”

Jackson thought it wasn’t the swing or the stride that was sabotaging Judge so much as it was sheer lack of experience against this type of superior pitching.

“Players like Judge and Gary Sanchez, they don’t even have a thousand at-bats under their belt,” Jackson said. “When I got to this stage, I’d already had a lot more. I was ready.”

By the time he appeared in his first American League Championship Series in 1971 for the Oakland A’s at 25 years old, Jackson had 2,213 regular-season at-bats. He proceeded to hit .333 with two homers in a losing cause against the Baltimore Orioles, facing the starting trio of Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer.

Judge, 25, also has faced some of the best pitchers in the American League during this postseason — including the virtually unhittable Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 2 of the A.L.C.S.

“Going against these guys, the mechanics look all wrong right now,’’ Jackson said. “You can look awful. But that can change in a hurry.”

Judge may simply turn out to be a mistake-pitch hitter. The list of pitchers who have given up homers to Judge over his career is not as impressive as the list yielding homers to his teammate, Gary Sanchez, who has four against David Price. Or perhaps, as Jackson suggested, Judge just may need several hundred more looks before he can make the necessary adjustments.

“This is how you learn,” Jackson said. “You look bad, but can you fix it?”

On Monday, Judge took aim at another chest-high pitch from Valiente, drove another line drive into the bleachers. A host of fans scrambled for the souvenir, fully believing this baseball was struck by a future Hall of Famer who will one day handle pitches tailing low and away.