You've seen the turbo sinkers and the sweeping sliders crisscrossing baseball in 2022. Aaron Judge has seen them too.
So, down in the batting cage, he ratchets up the Yankees' pitching machines even higher: More velocity. More spin. More break. He faces pitches designed to outmatch even what baseball's best aces can throw at him.
And then he steps onto the field and crushes everything.
Judge, who leads the Majors with 25 home runs, is covering both sides of the plate like never before. He's crushing inside pitches and outside pitches, better than any hitter in the league. It's a product of his preparation for the nastiest stuff today's pitchers will throw at him.
Highest OPS vs. pitches on inside/outside edge, 2022
Min. 50 PA decided on inside/outside edge pitches
1) Aaron Judge: 1.131
2) Yordan Alvarez: 1.110
3) Kolten Wong: .985
4) Paul Goldschmidt: .977
5) José Ramírez: .908
Edges: Within one baseball's width of strike zone borders
Judge is batting .366 and slugging .704 against pitches on the inside and outside edge of the plate this season -- that means within a baseball's width of the zone on either side, as tracked by Statcast. He's turning on pitches like sinkers in on his hands and driving them to left field. He's staying with pitches like sliders away and shooting them up the middle or to the opposite field.
"It's [using] pitching machines. Cranking that thing up. Getting it spinning the right way," Judge said. "I like overtraining. Basically, train the extremes. If you turn up the pitching machine and get this thing moving this much, all of a sudden in the game, if it's not moving that much, it's only moving this much, I'll see that and be like, 'Oh, that's it? I'm used to seeing this thing move the whole plate, and now it's only moving half the plate.' It just makes it easier to hit."
Highest BA vs. pitches on inside/outside edge, 2022
- AJ Pollock: .370
- Aaron Judge: .366
- Paul Goldschmidt: .355
- (tie) Rafael Devers / José Ramírez / Max Kepler: .333
Highest SLG vs. pitches on inside/outside edge, 2022
- Yordan Alvarez: .741
- Aaron Judge: .704
- Paul Goldschmidt: .579
- Kolten Wong: .571
- Trea Turner: .545
Judge has 26 hits against pitches on the inner or outer edge of the zone, and 10 extra-base hits, both one behind Goldschmidt for the most of any hitter. He has seven home runs, tied with Alvarez for the MLB lead.
"I wouldn't say I've worked on the plate discipline, or plate coverage side of it," Judge said, "it's more [about] covering more [types of] pitches."
That's what you have to do when pitchers keep throwing harder and harder than ever, and evolutions in technology and analytics have helped them design pitches and pitch combinations that move in the most effective ways.
Take some of the new, heavy running sinkers and two-seam fastballs pitchers are throwing these days. The sinkers at the top of the pitch movement leaderboards this season break upwards of 16, 17, 18 inches horizontally. Some of those come in at 97, 98, 99 mph.
"Before, the sinker used to be guys throwing 90, 91 mph, and now you've got guys throwing 100," Judge said. "I've worked on hitting those pitches, especially when they're coming in off the plate. I didn't know I was gonna get attacked like that."
But he is -- and he's adjusted. If you see the pitch chart of Judge's hits against inner-edge pitches, there's a cluster of sinkers up and in on his hands. He's hitting them. He's even hitting them out of the park. (See those homers to deep left field on the spray chart?) Watch the game-tying homer Judge hit off Kendall Graveman on May 22. It's a 97.2 mph sinker in off the plate on an 0-2 count. Judge rips it 111.1 mph and 431 feet into the second deck at Yankee Stadium.
The reason he's able to do that -- beyond just being one of the game's elite sluggers -- is because he's already seen that Graveman turbo sinker before he enters the batter's box.
The Yankees, of course, have the technology in place to simulate opposing pitchers' stuff on their pitching machines before their hitters actually face those pitchers in the game ("It's crazy what they can do nowadays," Judge said).
On the inside edge, that can be a sinker like Graveman's. On the outside edge, there are the rising four-seamers that carry onto the edge, and the breaking balls that spin across it.
The "sweeper" sliders that have become the trend in Major League Baseball move as much as the sharpest sinkers -- 16-20 inches horizontally … but in opposite directions. So a hitter like Judge could face two pitches, thrown as mirror images of each other out of the pitcher's hand, that end up three feet apart.
"Sliders used to be this short little [pitch], small [break], a little depth, a little side-to-side, but now you have really sweepy sliders that were kind of unheard of," Judge said. "I say, 'Hey, get this thing basically starting at me and coming back over the plate.' I think that's one thing that's helped. Set the pitching machine up to where these balls are coming right at me -- I know it's gonna curve back over the plate -- and the more you see that, all of a sudden you get in the game, you step to the plate, you see that ball starting behind you and coming in, it's like, 'Oh, I've already seen that 30 times before I stepped in here.'"
Judge might not know just how much his numbers have jumped, but the more reps he gets against the nastiest stuff the pitching machines can throw at him, the more he senses that it's translating to the field.
"I'd hope so," Judge said. "Instead of me walking in and facing a guy that throws 100 and does this and that, now I can actually see that 100 times before I step in the box … I think the pitchers have had the advantage for quite a few years now, with all the technology they have, but now that we can replicate some of the stuff these pitchers are doing, it's gonna help out the hitter."
And we do have the numbers. Here's how much Judge has improved.
Judge vs. inside/outside edge pitches, by season
2016: .174 BA / .348 SLG / .617 OPS
2017: .260 BA / .475 SLG / .820 OPS
2018: .238 BA / .483 SLG / .774 OPS
2019: .184 BA / .340 SLG / .594 OPS
2020: .188 BA / .438 SLG / .650 OPS
2021: .261 BA / .449 SLG / .760 OPS
2022: .366 BA (+105 points) / .704 SLG (+255 points) / 1.131 OPS (+371 points)
"If I can work in the batting cage and basically get my 'first at-bat' out of the way by seeing a slider that starts here and comes over the plate, by seeing a sinker that starts over there and comes in … If I can see that -- the pitches he throws -- now when I step in the box, I've already got the swing path; I've already got the muscle memory down," Judge said.
"Instead of me worrying about, 'Oh my gosh, this guy's slider moves 20 inches, how am I gonna cover that? Plus a guy's sinker is moving in 15 inches, how am I gonna cover that?' I go out there and just take my swing -- everything works out."