Aaron Judge on red-hot homer streak, yet rarely walked – What’s going on?

Yankees slugger Aaron Judge reacts after hitting his 32nd home run of the season against the Reds at Yankee Stadium on July 2, 2024.
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Esteban Quiñones
Wednesday July 3, 2024

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When a baseball player puts up numbers that draw comparisons to legends like Barry Bonds, it’s a signal that we’re witnessing something truly special. Aaron Judge, with his towering homers and jaw-dropping stats, is no exception. In 2024, his OPS+ hit an incredible 214 (presently at 217), mirroring Bonds’ best years. Yet, despite this, pitchers still challenge him with strikes rather than giving him the ‘Barry Bonds treatment’—an almost strategic avoidance. The reason? The strategic placement and performance of his teammates, notably Juan Soto.

The logic behind pitching to Aaron Judge

The core of the issue lies not with Judge’s lack of skill or fear-inducing prowess; rather, it’s the circumstances around him that dictate this unusual choice by opposing pitchers. Initially in the season, Anthony Volpe, batting ahead of Judge, was on a hot streak, frequently finding himself on base. However, while Volpe’s performance cooled down, Juan Soto remained as the consistent on-base machine, complicating any strategy that involves giving Judge a free pass.

Currently, the Yankees’ lineup exhibits a significant drop in offensive output once past Judge and Soto. The surrounding bats, like Alex Verdugo and the frequently injured Giancarlo Stanton, haven’t provided the necessary support, weakening the lineup’s overall threat. This scenario presents a less daunting challenge for opposing pitchers, as walking Aaron Judge would simply advance runners without the imminent threat of a big inning, given the current form of the batters following him.

Despite his impressive statistics, Aaron Judge is seeing more pitches in the strike zone than ever—49% this season, a career-high. In contrast, during Bonds’ peak years, pitchers avoided him to an extreme degree, not out of fear of Bonds alone but also due to the potent hitters surrounding him in the lineup, which isn’t the case for Judge. The Yankees’ cleanup spots have been notably weak, often the worst in the majors, with a revolving door of underperforming hitters like J.D. Davis, who was recently designated for assignment.

aaron-judge-new-york-yankees

Despite Aaron Judge’s monumental performances, reminiscent of Barry Bonds at his peak, the dynamics at play within the Yankees lineup lead to a contrasting pitching strategy. Aaron Judge is not being avoided by pitchers like Bonds once was. Instead, his walk rate has actually decreased from 19.2% to 16.5%. Surprisingly, he is also not accumulating intentional walks at a high rate, with just six this season, comparable to less intimidating hitters like Josh Naylor or Salvador Perez. Furthermore, two of these walks are less indicative of fear or strategy, as they occurred in extra innings with a runner already positioned on second base.

In addition to the static walk rates, Aaron Judge is seeing more pitches in the strike zone, with his zone rate escalating from 46% last year to nearly 49% this season, marking a career-high. This increase in strikes thrown to Judge can be attributed, paradoxically, not to the absence of threats behind him, but rather to the consistent presence on base of Juan Soto, who has taken over the role of the Yankees’ primary on-base machine.

In 2024, the percentage of Aaron Judge’s plate appearances with runners on base has risen dramatically to 49% from 39% in 2023. This uptick is largely thanks to Soto, whose exceptional on-base percentage leads the majors. Soto’s knack for getting on base not only increases Judge’s RBI opportunities but also strategically complicates the decision for pitchers to intentionally walk him. Simply put, the risk of walking Judge is magnified by the likelihood of Soto already being on base, which could lead to multiple runs scored rather than just one.

MLB.com

This strategic conundrum is further illustrated by Judge’s enhanced performance when batting with runners on base. He is not only seeing a higher proportion of pitches in the strike zone in these situations but is also being served more in-zone fastballs, particularly on the first pitch. This pattern suggests pitchers are increasingly challenging him, perhaps out of necessity rather than choice. Consequently, Judge is slugging 203 points higher with runners on base, an advantage that stems from the frequency and position of his at-bats rather than a decrease in the quality of pitches he faces.

The Juan Soto effect

Juan Soto’s presence in the lineup is pivotal. Batting just ahead of Judge, Soto has maintained a league-leading on-base percentage, ensuring that Judge frequently bats with runners on base. This year, 49% of Aaron Judge’s plate appearances have come with runners on base, a significant increase from last year. The likelihood of Soto being on base makes it riskier to walk Judge, as it would only add more runners on the paths, with a higher chance of them scoring, even with the Yankees’ struggling lineup.

Player of the new york yankees: Aaron Judge and Juan Soto
SL.com

Moreover, the statistics reveal a broader strategy. In 2024, Judge has seen the highest rate of strikes in his career during the months of May and June. The idea seems to be to challenge Judge in hopes that the rest of the lineup will fail to capitalize on any opportunities he might create. This approach only underscores the critical role Soto plays; his ability to get on base not only increases Judge’s RBI opportunities but also reduces the chances that pitchers will intentionally walk Judge. Simply put, the strategy to pitch to Judge, risky as it may seem, is influenced heavily by the presence and performance of Juan Soto.

For Aaron Judge, his historic run continues not in spite of being pitched to, but perhaps because of it. As long as Soto keeps reaching base, and the rest of the lineup struggles, pitchers will take their chances with Judge, hoping that the risk pays off more often than not. Also, with only Judge producing and driving in Soto, the Yanks can only do this much. The past few weeks have revealed significant gaps in this Yankees lineup, despite both Aaron Judge and Soto being at the top of their game, away from any downtime or slump. It isn’t unimaginable to consider the possibility that Judge will soon be walked with no one reasonably hot at the cleanup spot, and both Soto and Judge will be left on base… What do you think? Leave your comment below!

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