Is there a formula to get Aaron Judge out? If so, the Red Sox haven’t been able to apply it thus far.
Going into Monday’s Game 3, the Yankees masher was 5 for 9 with a pair of homers, one walk, and just one strikeout, building upon a wild-card game in which he went 2 for 3 with a homer, a double, and a walk.
Judge looks absolutely locked in at the plate, in a way that has the Red Sox on the verge of bewilderment.
The homer that he launched on a Craig Kimbrel curveball in Game 1, for instance — on a pitch that looked like it was headed for his hip but broke back sharply, he opened up completely, yet kept the bat in the zone long enough to slice it into the Red Sox bullpen — represented an astonishing show of strength.
“My initial reaction was, ‘He did a good piece of hitting on that ball,’ ” shrugged Kimbrel. “Staying inside it and drive it like that, there’s not too many guys who can do it like that. It was just a good piece of hitting.”
The middle-middle cutter that Judge launched 445 feet off of David Price in the first inning to kick-start New York’s Game 2 victory was a bit more conventional — a pitch that missed its spot so badly that Price cringed in disgust almost as soon as he threw it.
Price had been trying to throw a cutter away — either off the plate or perhaps clipping the edge of it.
That plan of attack represents the key to what the Red Sox are trying to do against Judge.
“Cutter away, usually it’s a swing and a miss,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie after the Game 2 loss. “If Price executes that pitch, Judge usually runs out of bat.”
How has that played out in the series? Of the 39 pitches the Red Sox have thrown to Judge, they’ve largely been trying to work down and away.
They’ve thrown 11 pitches (28 percent) that were either on the outside corner or off the plate away, compared with just four such offerings (10 percent) that were on the inside corner or in off the plate.
No real surprise there; teams tried to get Judge to expand off the plate away all season, recognizing that (per data from BrooksBaseball.net) he went 4 for 44 (.091) when doing so in the decisive pitch of an at-bat, and perhaps even more significantly, he swung and missed like crazy.
On the 24 occasions this year when Judge chased a pitch down and away off the plate, he swung and missed 23 times, and he swung and missed more than 60 percent of the time when offering at pitches that were off the plate away but not below the strike zone.
If a pitcher can get him to swing at those pitches, it’s a success.
The problem for the Red Sox is that they haven’t been able to get Judge to chase anything.
Through two games, he has expanded the strike zone exactly once — on a Chris Sale two-seam fastball that was just off the outer edge of the plate but elevated. It resulted in a foul ball.
Beyond that, he’s only been swinging at strikes – and for the most part, he’s been swinging at the types of strikes against which he can do damage.
Judge swung at 17 pitches in the first two games of series, resulting in more hits (5) than swings and misses (2).
He’s doing an excellent job of attacking the most vulnerable pitches, as he’s swung at all five Red Sox pitches that were middle-middle against him, resulting in three hits (including the homer off of Price) and two foul balls.
The swings and misses, it’s worth noting, came on righthanded breaking balls down in the zone – a curveball from Brandon Workman that was on the inner third and down, and a slider from Ryan Brasier that was middle-down.
Yet the homer Judge hit off Kimbrel showed how little the margin for error can be — a couple of inches, perhaps — for getting Judge to swing over a curveball or leaving him one that he’s strong enough to blast out of the park to the opposite field.
During the regular season, while 40 percent of his swings off curveballs against righties came up empty, Judge hit .391 with a .957 slugging mark when putting righthanded curveballs in play.
In terms of the Red Sox’ plan of attack thus far, two noteworthy elements stand out.
First, they have been extremely cautious about pitching inside to him.
Only Chris Sale tried to back Judge off the plate, doing so with an 0-and-1 fastball in Judge’s second at-bat of Game 1.
On the next pitch, Sale went back to the inside corner and got Judge to ground out.
It will be interesting to see whether the Red Sox righthanders slated to start the next two games try to pitch inside, off the plate, in order to open up the strike zone.
Secondly, the Red Sox haven’t attacked Judge much at the top of and above the strike zone, a surprising departure from their plan of attack during the regular season.
They have thrown three pitches in the upper third of the zone and none above it, thus failing to attack an area where they repeatedly got Judge to chase pitches in 2017 and had relatively strong results against him in 2018.
During the season, the Sox threw 16 percent of their pitches in the upper third of the strike zone and above it. The result: 17 balls (some of which were missed calls), three called strikes, six swings and misses, 13 foul balls or foul tips, and three balls in play (a single and a pair of outs).
And while Judge often took pitches against the Sox that were above the zone, it’s also worth noting that he was just 2 for 25 (.080) with no extra-base hits when putting balls in play that were above the zone.
For Game 3 starter Nathan Eovaldi, there was a sliver of promise.
Eovaldi’s signature pitch is the cutter, and that was a pitch — particularly against righties — that Judge didn’t handle particularly well.
He swung and missed at 33 percent of the righthanded cutters against which he took a hack, and when putting them in play, he hit just .227 with a .455 slugging mark and a ton of ground balls.
Even on cutters in the strike zone, Judge had holes.
But overall, if the Red Sox want to slow down the Yankees lineup, their efforts will have to start with stalling the incredible early show of force by Judge, an undertaking that will require more precise execution than what the team has shown to this point.
“We just have to make better pitches,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora.
“There’s red and blue, and when you pitch to blue and there’s no damage, you might give up a single, but when you go to strength and we misfire, the ball is going to go out of the ballpark.
“So regardless of the situation, if we’re pitching around him or even with nobody on and we have the lead, we still have to be careful.”