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Aaron Judge may have passed his first test

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Opposing pitchers appear to have tried a simple change versus the young star, and he’s adjusted with ease.

Oakland Athletics v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Baseball has always featured a tug of war between offense and defense. Pitchers can learn new pitches, or add velocity. Hitters can aim for the skies, or add bulk. Defenses can shift to try to turn more batted balls into outs, while hitters can try to go to the opposite field or bunt for a base hit if a shift turns too extreme.

Pitchers adjust, hitters adjust back, and so and so forth. When a young hitter comes up to the big leagues, early success is often discounted, as pitchers haven't had a chance to adjust to the young hitter and ply his weaknesses. Once pitchers have a book on him, the notion goes, the hitter will be more easily dealt with at the plate.

Aaron Judge has taken baseball by storm this year, and opposing pitchers have plenty incentive to try to find a way to keep him from crushing the ball. At this point, there's good news on that front: pitchers seem to have made a simple adjustment on Judge, and he's adjusted back in a way that's made him even better.

Let's start with the ways pitchers haven't adjusted. I tried to find ways that they could be changing their approaches to Judge, such as perhaps challenging him with fewer fastballs. That hasn't been the case, as per FanGraphs, the rate of hard pitches he's seen has held pretty steady, from 49.1% in April, to 49.6% in May, to 50.3% in June.

Perhaps pitchers have found a pitch Judge struggles with in particular? If any such pitch exists, it's probably the slider. Per Brooks Baseball, Judge has batted .200 and slugged .386 against the slider, while whiffing on 45% of swings against the pitch. That compares poorly to how he's fared against all types of fastballs, changeups, and curves, against each of which he's posted slugging percentages in excess of .600.

Yet the share of sliders he's seen so far has actually declined, from 24% in April to 21% in May to 17% in June. He's seen a slightly higher share of changes and curves in recent weeks, pitches against which he's smashed seven homers this season.

No, pitchers don’t seem to have found a specific way to attack Judge. The main adjustment pitchers have made versus Judge so far has been quite general and very straightforward: they're just not pitching to him as much.

From FanGraphs, here’s a 15-game rolling average of the rate at which pitchers have thrown Judge pitches in the zone:

The rate at which Judge was seeing strikes peaked in April, but for some reason, pitchers still challenged him at a decent rate even as he continued to rake through May. Only in June has Judge seen the rate at which pitchers give him strikes plummet, all the way down to 37.6% over his past 15 games. For perspective, only one qualified hitter, David Ortiz, saw a zone rate that low in 2016.

Recently, opposing pitchers have begun treating Judge the way they treated one of the more feared power hitters of the last generation. Now, Judge struggled with expanding the zone and whiffed consistently when he was called up last year. With pitchers coming to grips with Judge’s abilities and staying away from him, has he been able to lay off and adjust back?

The answer is a resounding yes. Here is the rate at which Judge has swung at pitches outside of the zone juxtaposed with opposing pitchers’ zone rate against him:

Just as he’s been seeing fewer and fewer strikes, Judge has been offering at fewer and fewer pitches out of the zone. That’s a deadly combination for opposing pitchers: if they can’t entice him to swing at bad pitches, Judge is going to get on base at a spectacular rate, to go along with all the damage he does when he actually swings.

That’s precisely what’s happened in June. His walk rate is up to 22% for the month, and his OBP is .481. His wRC+ is an incredible 205, thanks in large part to all the free trips to first base he’s been happily accepting.

So Judge seems to have passed a test here. Pitchers posed the question of whether he could resist expanding the zone, and he answered emphatically. In fact, Judge seems to have been answering questions even before they’ve been posed. He’s shown an ability to adapt his game before pitchers have even had a chance to adjust.

In April, Judge was putting the ball on the ground a bit, at a 44.5% clip. That rate has fallen to 37% in June, meaning Judge has been able to fully unlock his power by putting the ball in the air. He’s also turned himself into a highly balanced hitter. After profiling as an extreme pull hitter (a skyhigh 54% pull-rate in April), Judge’s pull rates in May and June have been 35% and 41%, respectively.

So Judge stopped hitting ground balls and turned himself into an all-fields hitter over the past couple months. If teams were considering shifting heavily on Judge when he was pulling everything at the start of the year, well, that strategy probably doesn’t look so good now. He’s preempted the potential adjustment by ironing out the weakness in the first place.

This is all great news for the Yankees, as Judge has yet to display a major hole in his game. He could have failed to adjust when pitchers gave him fewer pitchers to hit. Instead, Judge has flashed a maturity beyond his years, exhibiting patience and just letting pitchers escort him to first base. There will inevitably be slumps in the future for Judge, and eventually, pitchers will simply have to find a better adjustment to make against him than throwing fewer strikes. Until then, though, Judge has passed his first test, and is showing no signs of slowing down his MVP-caliber season.