You’d be hard-pressed to name 5 hitters in the last 30 years who presented more of a pure nightmare for opposing pitchers than Aaron Judge did in 2022. In some ways, the fact that he strikes out considerably more than similar offensive terrors like prime Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, or Frank Thomas might make him a little bit scarier. You can get a swing-and-miss, sure, but if he puts the ball in play? Good luck! It makes the stakes a little bit higher, from the pitcher’s perspective.
When Judge stepped in the box last year, there simply wasn’t anywhere for the men on the mound to throw without sticking their necks out. Avoid the zone if you want, but he chased pitches out of the zone at a well-below average rate (22.9%), as he has for his entire career. If you can successfully put the ball on the edges of the plate, congratulations: You’re only getting the 14th- or 15th-best hitter in the league against pitches in Baseball Savant’s “shadow” zone. Should you throw it in the zone, though? Peace be with you. His batted-ball numbers on pitches in the strike zone ran laps around the rest of the Statcast era, rivaled only by Bryce Harper’s all-time 2015 breakout year.
And don’t even think about missing over the middle against the Yankees’ new captain: 44 home runs on pitches in the “heart” of the plate were the most since 2008, breaking Judge’s own record by three.
There’s some relationship between the steady rises in slider usage, swinging strike rate, and out-of-zone rates in recent years, but nobody told Judge. Half the pitchers in the league might be armed with 95+ heat and a nasty slider, but it didn’t matter. Not only was he elite against fastballs, as he typically is; he had the most absurd season in recent memory against sliders. His .495 wOBA against them was one of the best we’ve ever seen devoid of any context, but when you include outcomes, it gets even more absurd: The difference between his 27.9 Savant Run Value for sliders in 2022 and Yoenis Céspedes in second place (18.3 RV) is the same as the gap between Céspedes and Jason Kipnis (2013) in ...
... 200th place (minimum 250 sliders faced). Standard deviations don’t do it justice.
What is a pitcher to do in 2023? There might be plenty of angst about the length of Judge’s contract, but it’s also worth considering that Judge just now figured out how to consistently lift the ball and pull the ball at the same time for a full season. It’s ludicrous to expect anyone in this day and age to approach 60 homers every year, but if Judge can even come close to maintaining his career-high fly ball and pull rates from 2022, he’ll probably still be the best hitter in the game by a fair margin.
Long story short: It’ll mean that pitchers will need to come up with new tricks to get the big man out — tricks they clearly didn’t have this year. Let’s think about what a couple of those might be.
Going back to the sliders, pitchers league-wide threw ‘em in the strike zone a bit more than 44 percent of the time. In 2022, pitchers threw their sliders in the strike zone to Aaron Judge a bit more than 42 percent of the time.
In absolutely what universe should pitchers be throwing sliders in the zone at anywhere in the same ballpark as a league-average rate? Here’s a chart of where the 59 sliders Judge took for hits last year were located:
That’s a lot of hanging sliders. If you’re a pitcher in 2023, why are you even taking the chance? High slider usage isn’t going anywhere, but if they’re thrown near the zone as much as they were last year, it’s only a matter of time before enough hang in the zone that Judge won’t miss them. He has a good eye for the zone (even if umpires often disagree), but if there’s one change I’d bet on, it’s that pitchers going forward will be much more willing to test that eye and concede the walk than get beaten 60+ times again.
High slider usage might not be going anywhere, but that also doesn’t mean they have to keep throwing that many. Judge actually saw more sliders from righties than he did four-seamers, believe it or not. If pitchers are going to stop messing around in the zone so much with their sliders, they’re going to have to throw fewer of them, unless they’re willing to walk him at upwards of a 20-percent clip. Which, hey, they might! It would be hard to blame them for it.
If elevating to the pull side is the name of the game for Judge, it may also make sense for pitchers to reconsider how they attack him with sinkers. A heatmap of sinker locations to him last season is typical for his career: Righties work the sinker almost exclusively to the inner half of the plate, trying to put it on his hands and jam him.
It’s not an approach that’s seen much success. The problem is that if Judge is able to recognize an inner-half sinker and catch it out in front of the plate, the loft in his swing combined with the downward approach angle of the pitch is an ideal recipe for sending the ball a long way from home.
Sinkers are valuable in an era that values putting the ball in the air over all else. Now that Judge has optimized his swing and approach to once again get to all of his power, keeping the ball on the ground by any means necessary should be the No. 1 goal of any pitcher without a four-seamer that plays very well at the top of the zone. If Judge is selling out to the pull side a bit more than he used to, then perhaps pitchers will respond by trying to locate sinkers on the outside part of the plate, and hope they can avoid drifting back over the plate enough for Judge to roll over and fail to get any lift.
Those are just a few small prescriptions; On the whole, it seems that pitchers need to be a little more chaotic in their plan of attack, at the very least. The things that worked at least some of the time when he was just an All-Star aren’t working at all now that he’s once again an MVP. It’s a certainty that the league will adjust after the warpath he left behind in 2022. The only question is where. Only time will tell!