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How Aaron Judge’s arm impacted a game in a single inning

Aaron Judge’s arm single-handedly kept a weekend showdown from getting out of control.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On July 4th, Yankee fans endured a — to put it mildly — forgettable 10-5 loss to the Mets. My apologies if you have in fact put the team’s All-Star ace and All-Star closer both blowing leads in the same game out of your mind, but there was a sequence in the game that’s worth revisiting. It was a sequence in which Aaron Judge’s arm somewhat quietly made an enormous impact on the Yankees’ chances that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Let’s review that sequence, and exactly what occurred:

With a 4-1 lead entering the top of the fourth inning, Gerrit Cole issued a leadoff walk to the Michael Conforto. Jeff McNeil then followed with a single through the right side into right field, with Conforto advancing only to second base. McNeil’s ball was struck at 91.1 mph, and Judge had to run approximately 10 strides to his left before scooping it up. That is to say, it wasn’t a frozen rope right at Judge that he took a step in and fielded on one hop with forward momentum. A ball that was clearly through the hole with no need for Conforto to pause and rolling well to Judge’s left did not result in Conforto advancing to third base.

Cole then issued another walk to Billy McKinney that loaded the bases with nobody out. Tomás Nido then followed with a single to right field, this one a 90.0-mph line drive approximately 10 strides to Judge’s right. Conforto scored easily from third, while McNeil stopped at third without even making a serious turn, as Judge calmly hit cutoff man Luke Voit on a line with his throw back into the infield. Once again, a ball that was struck well but not smoked and forced Judge to travel laterally only resulted in a single-base advance for everybody. If you’re curious, McNeil is not slow, ranking in the 54th percentile in sprint speed.

After Luis Guillorme struck out, Brandon Nimmo hit yet another single to right field (it was not a good afternoon for Cole). This one was almost exactly like Nido’s: 90.1 mph off the bat and forcing Judge to go several steps to his right and slightly in. McKinney — he of the 68th-percentile sprint speed rank who had been on second base — stopped at third without making a serious turn. The play ended when Voit called time out after receiving another throw from Judge that hit Voit chest-high on a line.

With Jonathan Loaisiga now on the mound for the Yankees, Francisco Lindor stepped in next with the bases still loaded and only one out, and hit – you guessed it – another single to right field — a five-hop ground ball through the hole that Judge had to charge in over a dozen strides to pick up. Although Nido is not fleet of foot, he did get a big jump given the ball was hit on the ground and he had no need to wait and be sure if the ball would be caught, stopped at third base even with the ball taking its sweet time rolling out to Judge.

Nimmo, like many of us watching the play develop, believed Nido would score and took a big turn around second base. After coming up with the intention of firing home, Judge realized that Nido wasn’t taking any chances and quickly turned and threw to second base, sentencing Nimmo to banishment from the bases for the inning’s second out:

Dominic Smith followed by drawing a walk loading the bases once again, but the inning mercifully ended when Pete Alonso grounded out weakly for the third out. When it was all over, the Mets scored three runs to tie the game, and frankly, if you’re a Yankee fan, it was a minor victory. I can understand if you disagree — the team’s ace blowing a three-run lead will justifiably get one’s pinstripes in a bunch. Yet when you consider some context, and exactly how much worse the inning could have been, a sigh of relief was appropriate.

Perhaps most importantly, we had Judge, who single-handedly kept the game from getting out of hand, to thank. Consider that the Mets had three hits in five at-bats with the bases loaded and scored only three runs. On four occasions, they had a baserunner with an opportunity to advance two bases, and in each case, could only move station-to-station. I think it’s safe to say that this decision was completely due to Judge’s reputation and the manner in which he throws baseballs. Whether it was the individual baserunners making calls on the fly, or whether it was Mets third base coach Gary DiSarcina* exercising caution is irrelevant — the fact is, when given a choice to test Aaron Judge, they passed every time.

*Perhaps worth noting, DiSarcina as a player was thrown out on the bases 45 times in his career, for an average of 7 times per 162 games. With a career OBP of .292, it wasn’t like he was on base very often either. Perhaps he learned a few lessons about being overly aggressive.

I know we can never assume that all other factors would have played out the same way had there been a poor outfielder with a weak or erratic throwing arm in right field on Sunday (pitchers, batters, and fielders obviously might change their approach as circumstances change). Yet, just for fun, let’s imagine how that inning might have played out if instead of Judge, the Yankees had a right fielder who didn’t field balls cleanly and didn’t have a great throwing arm:

  1. When McNeil singled with no outs and Conforto on first, Conforto may have advanced to third instead of stopping at second (that alone is the difference of close to a quarter of a run in run expectancy).
  2. After a McKinney walk to load the bases, Nido’s single might have scored two runs instead of one, leaving runners at first and third.
  3. Nimmo’s single would have scored another and advanced the other runner to third, leaving first and third again.
  4. Lindor’s single might have scored a fourth run with Nimmo going to third base this time instead of getting picked off at second, as no one is in front of him now.
  5. Smith’s walk loads the bases again, but this time with only one out because Nimmo is standing on third instead of in the Mets’ dugout.

Summary of what might have happened without Judge: Four runs in, bases loaded, only one out, and Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto due up.

What did happen, largely because of Judge: Three runs in, Yankees back in the dugout. Thanks in part to Judge’s efforts to limit the Mets to a 4-4 tie at the end of the fourth (not to mention his single in the fifth), the Yankees regained the advantage in the next inning and handed that lead to their All-Star closer.

Judge’s impact on the fourth inning was a huge factor in who was winning and losing that game. The fact that what could have been a debacle in the fourth inning did in fact become one later with Chapman on the mound shouldn’t allow us to overlook Judge’s value. For those of you who may be skeptical about newer advanced statistics and rely on things you see that may not show up in the box score, Judge’s ability to cut down runners and hold them to one base at a time is in fact, factored into his WAR.

It was a phenomenal sequence from a phenomenal player that went largely unnoticed. Here’s hoping we get to see that player in pinstripes for a long, long, time.