In this postseason, Aaron Judge has had strike calls repeatedly on pitches that appear to be at the very lowest edge of the strike zone -- or to be less charitable to the home plate umpires, low and out of the zone.
One evaluator noted that this seems to be a common experience for Judge, perhaps because umpires are simply not accustomed to interpreting balls and strikes for a player as large as the Yankees right fielder. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Judge is the largest position player in MLB history, at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds.
Shorter players such as Jose Altuve know all about unusual strike zone interpretations: The short guys will sometimes have strikes called on pitches higher in the zone, and conversely, Judge seems to have more than his share of shin-high pitches interpreted as strikes.
Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information dug out these numbers: Only two other players in MLB had more low strikes framed against him -- pitches that were called strikes that were near the bottom edge of the strike zone or below, and had a low probability of being called a strike -- during the regular season.
Judge has adjustments to make and challenges to overcome as he learns more about hitting in the big leagues. A rival evaluator following the Yankees noted that time and again in the playoffs, Judge tends to dip his back shoulder at the outset of his swing and then turn his front shoulder out, toward third base, as he tries to loft the ball -- and this has left him completely exposed to breaking balls low and away. His only defense against those pitches has been his ability to sometimes recognize the spin and hold his swing. Over the Yankees' past five playoff games, Judge is 2-for-20 with 14 strikeouts. (Similarly, Gary Sanchez is 2-for-20 with 12 strikeouts in that same span.)
But Judge also has seen more than his share of strike calls below his strike zone -- maybe where umpires are accustomed to calling strikes on players who aren’t as tall.
Joe Maddon was so furious that Willson Contreras was called for blocking home plate against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series that he argued after the replay review rendering, even when he knew that he would get tossed. Maddon doesn’t like the home-plate collision rule, nor how it was interpreted in this instance. “I don't think the rule was called correctly either,” he told reporters after. “From what I saw, the ball took Willson toward that line. I disagree with that. So I disagree with it on both counts, your Honor.”
On the TBS game broadcast, the esteemed Ron Darling took issue with the home-plate collision rule, mentioning that the “beautiful and athletic” play of Contreras was effectively removed from the game because of regulations.
But if the old rules were in place -- in other words, no rule regarding collisions -- perhaps Contreras wouldn’t have been able to make a play. Instead, Dodgers baserunner Charlie Culberson might have decided as he neared home plate to err on the side of aggressiveness, turn himself into a human missile and simply target Contreras in an effort to knock the ball loose.
This is what Marlins baserunner Scott Cousins did in 2011, as he rounded third in a game against the Giants. Because he didn’t know whether San Francisco catcher Buster Posey was going to shift late and block the plate as he caught the ball, the 200-pound Cousins -- running full speed -- launched himself at Posey, who wasn’t even in front of the plate. Posey was bulldozed, his leg was shattered, and as Posey went through almost a year of rehabilitation, the Giants didn’t know whether the career of their promising young catcher had been altered forever.
What Major League Baseball and the Players Association determined, together, is that players should not be exposed to the violent home plate collisions that could lead to serious injury -- like this hit in 2013 on minor league catcher Brian Jeroloman, who was hospitalized for days afterward.
Since then, what is almost never seen in baseball is a catcher (or a baserunner) getting carted off after a collision at home plate, like that experienced by Brett Hayes and others, as seen in this reel of catcher collisions.
In order to prevent baserunners from targeting catchers, MLB officials had to write a rule that also ensured baserunners a path to home plate; they couldn’t let catchers plant themselves in front of home while waiting for the throw, which they were once expected to do. And under the wording of the new rule, Contreras was determined to have violated the rule by stepping in front of home plate before he caught the ball.
One disputed run in one game over the course of a long season. It seems like a small cost to ensure that players at a position that already bears a heightened risk for concussions and CTE are protected from a debilitating blindside hit.
Whenever this issue pops up, I remember the muffled words of a longtime catcher -- a player widely respected in his clubhouse and all around baseball -- about the antiquated culture of collisions. He had been injured a couple of times in his career, as he recalled sitting at his locker, and he glanced around the room at the players around him, lowered his voice so that others could not hear and muttered: “If I don’t block the plate, I have to come in here and look in the eyes of 24 other guys who think I don’t care. Would I like a rule that would mean I don’t have to put myself in position to get run over and seriously hurt? Hell, yeah.”
The Cubs lost a game that almost nobody will remember five years from now, and today, Willson Contreras is intact.
• Justin Verlander’s hero growing up was Nolan Ryan, because he loved how Ryan continued to be a power pitcher well into his 30s and 40s. Verlander has endeavored to do the same, and he was throwing very hard in dominating the Yankees on Saturday; it was the best he felt all year, Verlander said.
He is 34 years old, and during the course of the 2017 season, he averaged 95.2 mph with his fastball, the eighth-highest velocity among all pitchers. He was also the only pitcher among the top 14 in average fastball velocity over 30 years old.
But the Astros have been surprised and pleased by how much Verlander is interested in learning. The first time that Houston manager A.J. Hinch talked to Verlander after the pitcher agreed to the trade to the Astros on the night of Aug. 31, Hinch mentioned to Verlander that the Astros had some thoughts to present about how he might get better. In particular, they wanted to talk about his changeup, because they felt that Verlander could use an offspeed pitch that moved away from left-handed hitters.
While with the Tigers, Verlander threw a split-finger type of changeup, which he felt complemented his fastball. But the speed variation between those two pitches was often under 10 mph, mitigating the impact of the change of speed. After joining the Astros, Verlander has worked on a changeup with more of a standard grip, and with a greater speed variation than what his old changeup had in Detroit. Verlander has used the pitch increasingly, including on Saturday, when he threw it to Brett Gardner to finish off a strikeout. The pitch veered away from Gardner at 86 mph -- about 10-12 mph slower than the best fastballs that Verlander threw in the game.
• In Game 1 of the ALCS, Aaron Judge lashed a single over shortstop Carlos Correa toward left-center field that the Yankees had hoped would drive in baserunner Greg Bird in the fifth inning. But left fielder Marwin Gonzalez took a direct route at the ball, and with a powerful throw, cut down Bird at the plate.
The play might not have been made in other places, because the Houston left fielders are uniquely positioned in Minute Maid Park. As you stand at home plate, the Crawford Boxes in left field in Houston are so close that they seem to hang over the infield, and just to the right of those seats, there is a recessed wall in left-center -- a cutout in front of the visitors bullpen.
The Astros left fielder often stands at the edge of the Crawford Boxes, on the center-field side, because the Astros believe if a ball is hit in the air to the left, it’s either going to be a home run or bang off the fence, or have enough loft that the left fielder will have the time to run it down. And by playing at the corner of the Crawford Boxes on the center-field side, the left fielder is assured of direct access to the drives that are hit into the area of the cutout. If the left fielder is positioned in the typical spot in Minute Maid and a ball is hit into that recessed section, then the left fielder has to turn the corner of the Crawford Boxes in pursuit. More and more, visiting teams have mimicked the way the Astros position their left fielders -- an alignment that paid off when Gonzalez threw out Bird, after having a better angle to close on the hit and make a throw home.
• Speaking of Nolan Ryan: Before the first game of the ALCS on Friday, the Astros honored some stars of the past, Enos Cabell, Jose Cruz, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio, Ryan and others. Among the group, there were a lot of bro hugs. But not with Ryan -- not when a good, stiff handshake sufficed.
Baseball Tonight podcast
Friday: Jesse Rogers on what lies ahead for the Chicago Cubs, after their epic Game 5 win against Washington in the NLDS; Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post on what’s next for the Nationals as they pick up the pieces after another postseason exit; Karl Ravech and Paul Hembekides on the crazy Game 5, and the question of the use of starting pitchers in relief in the postseason.
Thursday: Bob Nightengale of USA Today on the Stephen Strasburg saga and his brilliant Game 4 outing; Boog Sciambi on the Yankees’ closeout of the Indians; Scott Lauber on the Red Sox’s managerial search.
Wednesday: Tim Kurkjian on the playoffs; Indians play-by-play man Tom Hamilton; Andrew Marchand on the Yankees’ comeback.
Tuesday: Keith Law and Jessica Mendoza discuss the playoffs; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.
Monday: Peter Gammons on John Farrell and the Red Sox; Jerry Crasnick on the playoffs; Todd Radom’s uniform and logo quiz.
And today will be better than yesterday.