Aaron Judge has elevated his standard that the qualifier “only” now goes in front of only pulverizing a couple of doubles more than 100 mph. He has made the game look so remarkably simple, especially recently, that “only” — that word again — elevating his chances to win the Triple Crown feels like a half measure. Of course, the Pirates — because they are the Pirates — tried hard to provide as many chances as possible for a 61st homer in Judge’s glorious season.
Judge was the eighth batter due in the Yankees’ final at-bat in the eighth inning Wednesday. The Pirates pirated and he got up to his two-prong reception at the Stadium — every fan standing in applause and echoes of “MVP.”
“Tonight it felt like waiting for the big moment,” Aaron Boone said appreciatively of the atmosphere. But lefty Eric Stout threw four pitches that allegedly landed in The Bronx, although nowhere near the strike zone. So Judge walked unintentionally and was removed for pinch-runner Tim Locastro.
He, thus, did not take a step towards Roger Maris, 61 homers in 1961 and, instead, did work towards Mickey Mantle, 1956 and the Triple Crown. Judge completed the game hitting an AL-best .317 over the .3166 of Boston’s Xander Bogaerts while also leading the universe in homers and RBIs. His slash line of .317/.421/.705 has not been bettered in each category since Barry Bonds in 2004 (fill in your own morality play here).
But let’s return to after Judge was removed and Anthony Rizzo flied out. Gleyber Torres hit a three-run homer — his second homer of the eighth inning. It was mainly cosmetic because it made the final 14-2 Yankees over a Pirate team that came to New York and went winless in six games and defines awful. Judge, though, also scored after both of his doubles — via a first-inning Oswaldo Cabrera grand slam and an RBI single by Torres in the fifth.
One question that has and will hover over the Yankees is if opponents avoid Judge, will others in the lineup make that a costly choice?
Among the many trends wrought by the analytical revolution is the steady death of the intentional walk. At its most extreme, AJ Hinch’s 2019 Astros did not issue an intentional walk until Game 2 of the World Series to Juan Soto.
Some of the death is natural — with the removal of pitchers hitting there is no longer a lure to walk the eighth hitter in front of the pitcher. Mainly, though, the theory is not to put runners on base unless it is blatant — sometimes not even then. The 434 intentional passes this year (through Tuesday) are by far the fewest in a full season during the division era (since 1969). It was, for example, 1,452 20 years ago — 68 of them went to Barry Bonds the year after he set the homer record with 73.
In 2004, Bonds was intentionally walked a record 120 times — the entire AL East had been intentionally walked just 90 times in 2022. In 2004, Bonds was the most destructive force in the sport, and the two players who most regularly batted behind him, Edgardo Alfonzo and Pedro Feliz, were not good.
But in 2022, the concept of “protection” also has dimmed. In the non-Judge department, the Yankees have been hit by significant lineup injury and poor production during a chunk of the second half. Still, the opposition has mainly gone after Judge. Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, who had 10 more homers than anyone on his team, actually led the majors with 18 intentional walks to 17 for Judge, who had 20 more homers than anyone in the majors.
Among the reasons Boone bats Judge leadoff is to attempt to compel the opposing team to pitch to him. Rizzo, who most often hits second behind Judge, said he is aware he is going to face more RBI situations. But he said it does not change his hitting approach or exert greater pressure on him. Said Torres: “For sure when you are behind him, you want to do the job for the team.”
The two previous times a Yankee hit 60 homers, the co-stars who batted cleanup behind Babe Ruth and Maris made sure they received pitches to hit. Lou Gehrig probably had his best season in 1927 when Ruth went for 60. Gehrig hit 47 homers and drove in 173 runs. Gehrig’s slash line with runners in scoring position was .402/.502/.793.
Mickey Mantle arguably had his second-best season to his 1956 Triple Crown in 1961. Mantle launched a career-best 54 homers that year. With runners in scoring position, he was .365/.490/.907 — the .907 slugging percentage is the third best in those situations in major league history to two dubious Bonds campaigns (2001, 2004).
Seventeen of the 18 best OPS seasons in Yankee history with runners in scoring position (minimum 100 plate appearances) belong to Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. The others? That is Judge this year at 1.303.
The problem, of course, is Judge cannot hit behind Judge. That is Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, Torres and Josh Donaldson — perhaps DJ LeMahieu again at some point.
In the playoffs can we assume that teams will take Judge out of the game and force others to beat them? It is hard to imagine the Yankees winning their first championship since 2009 unless a few non-Judge hitters do in big moments what Judge has throughout the season.