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Aaron Judge finally got a challenge

Max Scherzer couldn’t sneak a third fastball by the Yankees’ MVP frontrunner.

New York Mets v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Sometimes, competition gets the best of you.

Max Scherzer must be borderline-uncomfortably competitive, at least on days he pitches. He’s built a legend that stands up to just about anyone’s in the history of the game — pitching with a black eye, screaming at managers, relief pitching in the World Series while nearly unable to turn his head. He’s going into the Hall of Fame, he rarely lets his competitive nature get the best of him.

Except maybe for last night, when he was facing Aaron Judge in a 1-0 game. Almost exactly a month ago, Scherzer made Judge look, and probably feel, like a rookie again, as the Yankee superstar went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Mad Max. This wasn’t the first time that, post All-Star break, pitchers had avoided giving Judge much to hit, but it was perhaps the most damning example. Max tortured Judge with sliders in the zone, giving him just four fastballs all game, and only two of them in the zone:

This is why Max Scherzer has made $200 million throwing a baseball, with another $80 on the way. He lives in the shadows and edges of the zone, able to locate his slider against the best hitter on the planet and take him completely out of the game.

But then last night, Max came right at Judge:

I think this home run is notable for a couple reasons. First, boy did Judge look like a weight had been lifted off him for the rest of the game. I can’t imagine the pressure he’s put on himself, as day in and day out he’s often the only, or one of two, real threats in the Yankee lineup during this downturn. Second, its the second-lowest pitch he’s hit out this season; only a slider from Seth Martinez came lower in the zone.

The last thing about this home run probably depends on how you look at the game. Aaron Judge was embarrassed by Scherzer in July. That happens, he’s one of the best pitchers of all time, he embarrasses a lot of guys. Baseball’s all about making adjustments, and Judge needed to do that to avoid being embarrassed again. He took the previous pitch, another four-seamer right down Broadway, and had taken a really bad called strike on the fastball in his first plate appearance.

Now maybe this home run came from being able to adjust, pitch to pitch, getting a feel for Scherzer’s velo and spin. Or maybe it came from Max’s competitive instinct taking over, wanting to get ahead with his number one instead of relying on the slider and changeup like he did in July. Or maybe he even out game-theory’d himself, knowing that Judge knew how bad he’d done on sliders on the 27th, and so thought to go to the fastball to upset what he thought Judge’s gameplan would be.

Up until that July 27th game against Max, 40 percent of the pitches thrown to Judge were in the zone, and 45 percent were four-seam fastballs. Since going 0-for-4 against Scherzer, those numbers have dropped to 34.5 percent and 34 percent respectively. This has a cascading effect — since Judge knows he’s not going to get to see a lot of four-seamers, when he does get one, his trigger has to be even quicker than normal. That 34 percent of the time that he does get something to hit, he needs to make it count. Last night, off maybe the best pitcher of his era, Judge made it count.