There will be few sequences this season that garner greater interest than the matchup between Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly and Yankees slugger Aaron Judge on Tuesday.
While Craig Kimbrel’s ability to blow away Judge with three straight 99 m.p.h. fastballs at the top of the strike zone delivered the final punctuation on the Red Sox’ 5-4 win, the earlier confrontation carried with it something of an air of inevitability. Kimbrel has been so dominant that nothing that he does right now can qualify as unexpected. His dominance represents confirmation rather than revelation.
Kelly is different. He is one of the hardest throwers in the game, his 98.8 m.p.h. average fastball velocity ranking second in the majors among qualifying relievers Cardinals righthander Trevor Rosenthal. That said, batters have managed to keep pace with Kelly’s heater, as just one of every 23 swings against his fastball had resulted in a miss.
The result is that, even though Kelly entered the game with a glimmering 1.48 ERA, his modest strikeout total (6.3 per nine innings, well below league average for a reliever) and high walk rate (3.7 per nine innings) have created some air of uncertainty. So the idea of Kelly against Judge — the preeminent home run hitter in the majors to this point in the season — came with a full array of possibilities.
Before diving into the six-pitch sequence in the seventh inning, it’s worth noting the circumstances that framed it — chiefly, what Kelly, or perhaps more accurately Deven Marrero, did against Gary Sanchez. Against Sanchez, who was batting in front of Judge with a man on first and one out in a full count, Kelly threw a 100.2 m.p.h. two-seam dart to the outside corner.
Sanchez tapped the pitch toward a hole between second baseman Marrero (playing Sanchez up the middle at double play depth) and first baseman Mitch Moreland. Marrero made a brilliant play to range to an area of the infield normally reserved for ground balls by lefthanded pull hitters and, while sprinting toward the foul line, contorted his upper body to square his shoulders to Moreland in order to deliver a perfect throw that nabbed Sanchez by a step.
The result was that Kelly faced Judge with a man on second and two out rather than two on and one out. Moreover, Marrero’s play gave Kelly the freedom to work with an open base. The significance? In his career, Kelly has held opposing hitters to a .163/.276/.259 line with a runner on second; with runners on first and second, that line jumps up to .276/.329/.421.
Prior to the at-bat, Judge had shown the ability to handle velocity. He had seen 19 pitches of 98-plus m.p.h. on the year, and although he’d swung-and-missed six times among his 13 swings, he had four hits (all singles) on such high-octane offerings. He’d only seen one pitch all year, however, at 100 m.p.h. or above, that being a 100.9 mph fastball on which Kelly had struck him out swinging April 26.
On the first pitch of Tuesday’s at-bat, catcher Christian Vazquez wanted to draw once again from that well. He called for a fastball up, and got it — but the 100.5 m.p.h. offering whistled through the upper part of the strike zone rather than above it. Judge nearly demolished it, instead fouling it back; Vazquez made no secret of his displeasure with the location, emphatically lifting his hands up to indicate his desire that Kelly should have thrown the pitch higher.
With Judge having been on time on the first pitch, Kelly added a new wrinkle when he followed it with another elevated fastball. As he raised his left leg to start his delivery, he implemented a brief pause meant to disrupt the hitter’s timing. (With hitters too frequently able to time his triple-digits fastball, conversations between Kelly and the Red Sox coaching staff about disrupting timing with his delivery started in early May, during the team’s series in Milwaukee.)
This time, Kelly’s 101.5 m.p.h. fastball was head-high and featured arm-side run, forcing Judge to spin back from a pitch in the vicinity of his chin.
With a 1-and-1 count, Kelly offered Judge a different look, spinning a 93.4 m.p.h. slider over the inside corner. Judge again fouled the offering back. With the Red Sox having seen the slugger’s reaction to both Kelly’s fastball and slider, Vazquez went to the mound to confer with his pitcher.
Kelly vs. Judge pitch sequence
Once again, Kelly uncorked a 101.1 m.p.h. fastball that sailed up and in — this one a bit lower than the previous one, forcing Judge to lift his elbows out of the way.
The next pitch is the one that stood out unlike any other pitch thrown in the majors in 2017. Kelly fired a 2-and-2 two-seam fastball to a nearly identical place, though perhaps another couple of inches closer to the plate.
The pitch initially registered on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard at 103 m.p.h. and on NESN at 104. It was later adjusted down to 102.2 mph, matching another heater Kelly had thrown this season (to Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo) for the highest velocity tracked by Statcast in the majors this season.
Judge fouled off the pitch, just as had Rizzo. The fact that such offerings elicited not swings and misses but instead contact underscores the perplexing nature of Kelly, and why the righthander wasn’t able to stick in the rotation.
His fastball plays at times as too true, with opposing hitters able to time it. Even if the result is a foul ball, Kelly’s struggles to just blow the pitch by opponents resulted in elevated pitch counts. Hence, Kelly’s role as a reliever, and hence, his effort to impart an element such as hesitation in his delivery — something that he once again tried on the 102.2 m.p.h. pitch that Judge fouled off.
Through those five pitches, every one had been elevated above Judge’s waist, with four of the five inside to prevent Judge from extending his arms and sending a pitch into orbit. On the sixth pitch, Kelly and Vazquez elected to break the pattern.
Kelly unleashed a 92.6 m.p.h. slider that started belt-high and over the middle of the plate but broke sharply down and away. Of all the pitches thrown in the strike zone by Sox pitchers against Judge Tuesday, this one was the lowest.
But while that location often represents one where Judge does an inordinate amount of damage — particularly with his ability to drill the ball over the fence in right — this offering (Kelly’s second-hardest slider of the year, surpassed only by the one he’d thrown earlier in the at-bat) had the two-plane break to steer clear of Judge’s barrel, settling perfectly into the precise location where Vazquez had set his target.
Vazquez emerged from his crouch with a fist-pump while Kelly walked off the mound with a considerable grin. The most unsettled part of the Red Sox’ night had been calmed, with Kelly offering a compelling demonstration of his ability to excel in pivotal situations — a significant concern for a Red Sox team whose best solution to the eighth inning has often been the same as its answer in the ninth.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.