Aaron Judge had one among the best offensive seasons in baseball history this 12 months. He led the large leagues or was tied in lots of major categories: home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, total bases, R.B.I., extra-base hits and wins above substitute. He narrowly missed out on the rare feat of a triple crown, through which a batter leads their league in batting average, home runs and R.B.I.
With such an imposing hitter, the expectation is that some opposing teams would need to avoid facing him in situations with the sport on the road, opting as a substitute to intentionally walk him and let another person on the Yankees attempt to beat them. Under the practices of this era of baseball, driven by data and probabilities, that isn’t any longer the case.
Despite hitting .311 with 62 home runs, 131 R.B.I. and a 1.111 on-base plus slugging percentage in 696 plate appearances this season, Judge was intentionally walked only 19 times. He didn’t even lead the majors, with that honor falling to José Ramírez, the Cleveland Guardians slugger who will face the Yankees of their best-of-five American League division series starting Tuesday within the Bronx. Ramírez, a switch-hitting third baseman, was intentionally walked 20 times.
Each are a far cry from the times of Barry Bonds. On his option to 762 profession home runs over 22 seasons, Bonds was intentionally walked a median of 31 times a 12 months. During his prime, when he averaged 44 home runs per 12 months from 1993 to 2004 with the San Francisco Giants, that ticked upward, with a median of 41 intentional walks per season. In 2004 alone he was intentionally walked 120 times.
Like anything in life, baseball evolves. And given today’s strategies, teams have shied away from intentional walks. In 1993, with a 28-team league, there have been 1,477 intentional walks across Major League Baseball through the regular season. This 12 months, in a 30-team league with more regular season games, there have been only 475.
With pitchers’ velocities, pitch movement and strikeout rates rising dramatically through the years, statistics show that it is sort of all the time higher for teams to attack moderately than to roll over in defeat. And with home runs rising to record rates recently, the following batter after the dreaded slugger is more likely than ever to make an opponent pay for an intentional walk.
“The percentages of that guy coming around to attain with you pitching to him or making a run with you pitching to him versus putting him on intentionally without difficult him generally say that it’s in your best interest to simply go after the hitter,” said Matt Blake, the Yankees’ pitching coach, explaining the trendy rationale. (His pitching staff issued only 10 intentional walks this season, the fifth-lowest total in M.L.B.)
But come playoff time, when the opportunities are far more limited than in a 162-game regular season and one at-bat can swing a complete best-of-five or -seven series, perhaps opposing managers will likely be more inclined to intentionally walking Judge?
“I don’t know what other teams will do,” said Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ hitting coach. “I’d think that it has a likelihood to be more likely.”
He continued, “But to think that it might ever even come near what Barry Bonds was back within the day, baseball is different from that, at the very least, the strategy behind a few of that’s different. I feel that they’re going to attempt to take the approach where it’s like, ‘Hey, we don’t want Aaron Judge to beat us.’ But I also think that he’s been intentionally unintentionally walked a hell of loads more and that won’t show up within the stats.”
By that, Lawson meant that teams have pitched Judge fastidiously, nibbling across the plate in hopes that he would chase balls out of the strike zone. As he was pursuing home runs Nos. 61 and 62 down the stretch, Judge encountered a justifiable share of that cautious approach. The strategy can work: Judge was second within the majors with 111 walks this season but additionally seventh in strikeouts with 175.
“A variety of teams all year long just form of say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go after him and see what happens,’ or ‘We’ll be slightly careful with him and if he swings out of the zone, he swings. If he doesn’t, he’ll take his walk,’” Judge said, adding later, “But within the postseason, I expect teams to have scouting reports and do what they should do. There’ll make sure situations where they arrive after me or other guys. There will likely be certain situations where they pitch around me or other guys simply to get the correct matchup.”
Craig Counsell, a former player and the present manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, explained that intentional walks have declined throughout the game over the many years because run expectancy charts — which show the typical variety of runs that scored based on which bases were occupied and the variety of outs — provide evidence that intentional walks aren’t needed.
If Bonds were playing on this analytically influenced era of baseball, Counsell hypothesized that he would “logically” be intentionally walked lower than before. Bonds, though, he said, was unique.
“In the event you looked to past generations, Barry Bonds was walked more in three seasons than every other player in his profession,” he said. “And doubtless was having higher seasons than Aaron Judge. That’s the usual. In the event you take a look at the Barry Bonds intentional walks, it’ll never be done again.”
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, two other former sluggers with 60-homer seasons, were intentionally walked much lower than Bonds, with McGwire topping out at 28 in 1999 and Sosa at 37 in 2001. But because Bonds was a greater all-around hitter — his profession batting average (.298) and O.P.S. (1.051) were markedly higher — he was treated more fastidiously.
In 2001, when Bonds hit an M.L.B. single-season record 73 home runs, he was intentionally walked 35 times. Three years later, his 120 set a serious league record. The subsequent closest marks are 68, in 2002, and 61, in 2003; he holds each.
“A variety of teams understand how tough it’s to hit, especially with the most important league pitching that we’ve in at the present time and era,” Judge said. “I feel like each starter is throwing 95-plus and each guy within the bullpen is throwing 100. It’s still tough to square up the baseball and go on the market and check out to do something productive.”
Through the postseason, Manager Aaron Boone said he felt prefer it is perhaps the identical: Some teams could also be more likely to think about the intentional walk when facing Judge. “And I’m sure there’ll be situations where it’ll be obvious to barely more gray, after which you might have a choice to make,” he said.
In 2019, the Houston Astros, an analytically minded team, set a M.L.B. record by issuing zero intentional walks. A.J. Hinch, their manager on the time, had said that his stance on the topic had evolved “out of the pure education of what that does to run scoring and run prevention.”
But within the postseason, the Astros snapped their streak. In Game 2 of the World Series against the Nationals, trailing, 3-2, with two outs within the seventh inning, the slugger Juan Soto got here to the plate with runners at second and third base. Soto had crushed Astros pitching already and Hinch called for reliever Ryan Pressly to intentionally walk him.
Pressly struggled and the move backfired. After coughing up back-to-back singles to Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera, Soto scored.
“Clearly I feel there’s plenty of downside provided that I haven’t done all of it 12 months,” Hinch said after the sport. “But paradoxically I assumed it was our greatest likelihood to limit their scoring and as a substitute it poured gasoline on a hearth that was already burning.”
Reflecting back, Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, who was on the Astros on the time and began Game 1 of the 2019 World Series, still admires Soto’s hitting but said facing Soto’s teammates, like third baseman Anthony Rendon, wasn’t a a lot better option.
Through the regular season, Cole said he would like to challenge Judge, in the event that they were facing off, moderately than intentionally walking him. But within the playoffs, when the chances are high limited, Cole said, “you throw big data out and also you go together with what everybody’s most comfortable with. And the pitcher and catcher have discussed who you wish to attack and you simply need to put yourself in the perfect position to succeed, and sometimes that’s not facing a man.”
A technique for the Yankees to make sure teams aren’t as tempted to walk Judge within the playoffs — intentionally or not — is for the batters behind him within the lineup to hold their weight. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, who smashed 32 home runs this season, returned from a back injury in mid September and the designated hitter and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, with 31 home runs, began hitting higher over the ultimate two weeks of the season.
“We’ve got to be huge behind him,” Stanton said. “We’ve got to ensure we capitalize once they do walk him and make it known which you can’t just try this.”
Gary Phillips contributed reporting.