Why is Judge seeing strikes? Don't look behind him

Soto is providing lineup protection ... from the front

July 1st, 2024

It’s not hyperbole to say that is trending toward one of the greatest seasons of the 21st century. It’s as simple as “looking at a leaderboard,” like the one that says that his 214 OPS+ is the best we’ve seen since Barry Bonds’s magical 2001-04 run. He just ripped off stretches of 40 games and 50 games that ranked with the all-time greats; his 2024 line to date looks eerily similar to his 2022 line, and that one merely ended with “62 homers and an MVP win.” When healthy, he’s the most dangerous hitter on the planet.

That being the case, when you're a hitter who is having a year so overwhelmingly great that you can compare his season to that of Bonds – who for all his faults was indisputably one of the greatest hitters to ever live – one obvious question starts to pop up: Why are you still pitching to him?

After all, Bonds, at a certain point, simply stopped seeing strikes. In that four-season run from 2001-04, he walked 31% of the time he stepped to the plate; Even before that, he was infamously given an intentional walk with the bases loaded in 1998. In 2004, he was intentionally walked 120 times, an all-time mark that never gets enough play on “baseball’s most unbreakable records” lists.

But that isn’t happening to Judge. He’s not walking more than last year; he’s walking less. (Down from 19.2% to 16.5%.) He’s not getting intentional passes; his six is merely the same as Josh Naylor or Salvador Perez, and two of those barely count because they came in extra innings with a runner already on second. He’s not seeing fewer strikes, either. He’s seeing more, with last year’s 46% zone rate up to nearly 49%, which would be a career-high.

Judge isn't seeing fewer pitches in the zone; he's actually seeing a career-high 48.6%.

All this, at a time where the idea of ‘protection’ in the order behind him is absolutely non-existent. Alex Verdugo’s hot start has dissipated into thin air, and Giancarlo Stanton is again injured, leaving the middle and bottom of the Yankee lineup a problem spot. Worse than that, really; the cleanup hitters in the Bronx have been the second-weakest in the Majors since May 15, and twice in the last week, the spot behind Judge has been manned by J.D. Davis, a journeyman hitter having a season so tough that the A's designated him for assignment just two weeks ago.

Yet teams haven’t stopped throwing Judge strikes. If anything, it’s the opposite, because May and June 2024 represent the two months of his career where he’s seen the highest rate of strikes – not, of course, that it’s helped to slow him down.

So: Why? It can’t possibly be because they fear Davis, or the current version of Verdugo, who has a lowly .274 on-base percentage since May 15, and it’s not. It’s a little because Judge has curtailed his chase rate from his wilder earlier days, to the point that he’s now one of the choosier hitters in the bigs. But it’s also because of first-year Yankee , who has been hitting second all season, and is currently, along with Judge, one of only two above-average hitters in the Yankee lineup. It’s because lineup protection doesn’t really come from behind. It comes from the front.

Why not walk Judge, or pitch around him? This might help shed light on why.

% of PA with runners on base, for Judge

  • 2023 // 39%
  • 2024 // 49%

Last year, Judge primarily hit second in the order around time missed for an injured toe. The leadoff men ahead of him were mostly Anthony Volpe, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, none of whom had a particularly strong season -- all told, 2023 Yankee leadoff men had a .306 OBP, the fourth-weakest in the Majors.

Among the 164 hitters with at least 250 plate appearances this year, only seven hitters are coming up with a runner on base more often than Judge, and it’s not because of leadoff hitter Volpe (who has a .547 OPS in June) or anyone who might be hitting ninth. It’s because of Soto, who leads the Majors in on-base percentage, helping to give Judge a boost in how often he’s hitting with a runner aboard – which, understandably, makes it a little tougher for opponents to want to hand out a free pass.

2024 highest % of PA with runners on base, min 300 PA

  • 54.0% // Will Smith (LAD)
  • 52.3% // Willy Adames (MIL)
  • 50.8% // Jared Triolo (PIT)
  • 50.5% // Jorge Soler (SF)
  • 50.4% // Christian Walker (AZ)
  • 50.3% // Alec Bohm (PHI)
  • 49.0% // Judge (NYY)

Consider this: Since 2018, there have been 14 different teammates (split by individual season) who have hit ahead of him at least 70 times in a season. Guess who he’s seeing the most strikes behind?

It extends past Judge, too. Verdugo, the team’s primary cleanup hitter, sees 55% of his pitches in the zone when he’s hitting behind Judge, as he’s done 156 times. He’s hit behind three other hitters at least 35 times, and he’s not being challenged nearly as often. (That’s Stanton; 55 times and a 52% zone rate; Gleyber Torres, 74 times and a 47% zone rate; Volpe, 36 times and a 52% zone rate.)

For Judge, it manifests in other small ways, beyond just “is it a strike.” He’s seeing somewhat more in-zone fastballs when runners are on as compared to when they aren’t, and he’s seeing more first-pitch in-zone fastballs when runners are on as compared to not, and so on, a dozen other small things that add up to an advantage for him – which is part of why he’s slugging 203 points higher with a runner on base. Why, then, wouldn’t you work around him and risk putting him on? Because more often than ever before, someone is already on.

“What he and Juan are doing as a tandem is hard to wrap your brain around,” said manager Aaron Boone.

No kidding. As it turns out, the best thing to do in order to help diminish Judge may be the most difficult thing in baseball to actually achieve: Keep Juan Soto off the bases. Good luck with that one, pitchers.