As the Cleveland Indians studied the New York Yankees, they spent a considerable amount of time on Aaron Judge’s scouting report. They stared at pages of data, and what stuck out most was a giant, glowing blob of red. “If you look at his hot zone where he slugs the ball,” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said, “it’s like the whole strike zone.”
The Indians dusted the Yankees, 4-0, in Game 1 of the ALDS in no small part by carving Judge to ribbons. Starter Trevor Bauer struck out Judge all three times he faced him, and closer Cody Allen placed the golden sombrero on his head by whiffing him in his fourth and final at-bat, too, with two men on base and two outs. After Judge homered, walked and singled in his postseason debut in the Yankees’ wild card victory over the Twins, he went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts in his first ALDS appearance.
“They didn’t try to attack him,” Callaway said. “They moved the ball around, whether it was up, it was in, down and away, on top of the ball. They did a good job of not attacking one area the whole time. He’s been such a good hitter. You have to make sure you move the ball around.”
The Indians, of course, would not tip their hand on how they prepared for Judge, or whether the approach will change in Game 2. But the plan became obvious over the course of the night. They started Judge with curveballs in the strike zone, fed him fastballs at or above the numbers and finished him off by enticing him to chase breaking pitches in the dirt.
Judge is one of the most destructive forces in baseball, a rookie who mashed 52 home runs and carried a rebuilding Yankees team into October. But while he demolishes mistakes, he is the kind of hitter who can be pitched to. The Indians have a bevy of arms capable of executing the right pitches.
“Judge, he’s dangerous,” catcher Roberto Perez said. “We just moved the ball around. This game is hard. It’s about making adjustments. I’m not going to sit here and tell you how we’re going to approach him. The key is about making pitches and executing pitches.”
In all but his first at-bat, the Indians started Judge with a curveball. In all four at-bats, strike three was a curveball. Bauer teased Judge with fastballs high and out of the zone, and he tortured him with 12-to-6 knuckle-curves that dropped over the outside edge of the plate like anvils.
“Bauer did a good job with his curveball,” Judge said. “He likes to play around with it, but he buries it when he needs to.”
In the eighth inning, Judge walked to the plate with two on and two out, the Yankees’ best chance, by far, to make it a game. Indians Manager Terry Francona pulled lefty relief ace Andrew Miller for Cody Allen, who had seen Judge would be his hitter.
“I had already played the at-bat out in my mind,” Allen said. “Then it comes down to executing a pitch. You’re trying to slow the game down as much as you can.”
Allen and Judge engaged in a seven-pitch battle. Allen began with a curve, which Judge took for strike one. He flirted with danger, chucking fastballs at or above the letters, one of which Judge fouled straight back with a vicious hack. After the foul, Allen wouldn’t let Judge see another fastball. On the third curve he threw in a row, he buried it, and Judge swung over it for a fourth strikeout.
Going into Game 2, the Indians will again try to plan for Judge. He’s now seen how they want to pitch him, which means the Indians may have to make adjustments.
“He’s a good hitter,” Allen said. “You just try and don’t make mistakes. With any hitter, the wrong pitch well-executed is better than the right pitch poorly executed.”
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