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When I started RealityChek more than three years ago, I expected to post periodically on sports, but so far I’ve held off because – well, there’s been so much (important) nonsense out there and so little time! But even though the nonsense seems to be gushing forth at unprecedented rates lately, what the heck. It’s a holiday weekend. And an interesting analytical puzzle has been surrounding my beloved New York Yankees lately – what’s wrong these days with the team’s promising young slugger, Aaron Judge?

No one would argue that Judge has had an outstanding first full season with the Yankees, and has exceeded all expectations. The trouble is, his performance has tailed off notably in recent weeks, and he looked so befuddled at bat that the team benched him briefly last week. In particular, Judge was striking out at a record rate by one key gauge.

There’s no shortage of theories about the root(s) of the problem. They range from claims that Judge’s experience at home plate has simply reverted to various means that he’s been exceeding; to contentions that, in the unending cat and mouse game between pitchers and hitters, the pitchers have learned some of his weaknesses and he now needs to adjust in turn; to arguments that the umpires have recently changed the strike zone they’ve been using when Judge hits.

And the debate is greatly complicated by the fact that the cat and mouse game has probably been more extreme with Judge than the norm, since he emerged as a star so suddenly – meaning that pitchers were probably taking him comparatively lightly early in the season. And of course, relatively inexperienced players like Judge tend to have more difficulty adjusting to pitchers’ counter-moves than do more experienced players.

Baseball’s long been ahead of other sports in developing advanced data tools that enable analysts to examine situations like this in unprecedented detail – including the pitch-by-pitch level. I’ve got my own theory, though, which doesn’t rule out any of the above explanations (or others), but which can be supported with some data of its own, and meets my own eyeball and common sense tests. I agree with those who believe that Judge has thrown off his game by his invitation to, and victory in, the Home Run Derby now held by Major League Baseball in conjunction with its annual mid-season All-Star Game.

Specifically, I see lots of evidence that Judge’s priorities at bat were warped by this – incredibly popular – spectacle. For as indicated by its name, the Derby puts a premium on hitting home runs, and therefore on taking big swings in order to drive the ball over the fences. And as a result, there’s no reward for exercising the kind of control that can produce lots of valuable but less aesthetically pleasing base hits, or the kind of careful strike zone monitoring that results in bases on balls. Here’s my case:

First, let’s compare Judge’s record before the Derby and after, focusing on how often he’s struck out, and how often he’s walked. Both statistics are good proxies for how well Judge is evaluating the strike zone and whether pitches are falling within it, and whether he’s fixated on swinging for the fences no matter what, or on reaching base in easier but less eye-catching ways.

before All-Star Game/Home Run Derby                  after

total at bats              301                                            159

total walks                 61 (20.27 percent)                    38 (23.90 percent)

total strikeouts        109 (36.21 percent)                     73 (45.91 percent)

These numbers show that Judge has been walking somewhat more often per at bat since the Home Run Derby and striking out quite a bit more. The former result suggests to me that he’s still got a pretty good awareness of the strike zone, and even that he still realizes the value to his team of reaching base via walking. The latter result, though, indicates that he’s still over-swinging – because he’s got a lingering case of Home Run Derby-itis.

I became even more confident about these conclusions when I looked at Judge’s at bats before June 20, when he was invited to participate in the Derby, and between June 20 and the actual contest on July 11.

            Before June 20     June 20-Home Run Derby            after Derby

total at bats   249                                61                                  159

total walks      44  (17.67 percent)       8  (13.11 percent)          38  (23.90 percent)

total strikeouts 83  (33.33 percent)    25  (40.98 percent)          73  (45.91 percent)

The tale told here, as I see it, is that once Judge says he accepted the invite, he began practicing his home run hitting in earnest – and therefore swinging harder and with less control. For during the three weeks between his acceptance and Derby day, his walk per at bat went down significantly (by 25.81 percent) and his strikeouts went up nearly as significantly (by 22.95 percent).

Interestingly, since the Derby, Judge’s walk ratio is not only up considerably – it’s been higher than in the pre-Derby acceptance period. That sure looks like a sign that he continues to understand where his strike zone is located – despite the evidence that it’s changed. In other words, Judge seems to be meeting an even greater challenge in this respect successfully.

But Judge’s strikeout percentage has kept climbing, too. That tells me that when he sees a pitch he can hit, he remains determined to mash it, and often misses because he’s over-anxious.

But how do I deal with one of the more obvious rejoinders to my Home Run Derby theory? As I’ve been reminded today, the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton participated in the contest, too, this year – and he’s proceeded to go on an amazing hitting tear, including home runs. My response? Stanton, in his eighth year in the Major Leagues, is a much more experienced player than Judge. So he’s less likely to be starstruck by the Derby and all the fan excitement it generates.

In fact, for all the study devoted to this subject, I haven’t seen one that tries to account for what seems to me is this crucial experience factor. But if I’ve overlooked any, please let me know. More important, whenever you’re dealing with complex situations, single explanations are hardly ever the whole story. So I have no doubt that the real explanation for the Judge conundrum is some blend of “all of the above.”  

In the meantime, it should be clear to all that these kinds of sports debates are going to continue both because however much progress they’ve made, I’m sure that the analytics are in their infancy, and more important, because, unless you make a living in the sports business (and maybe even if you do?), these arguments are so much fun. So tomorrow, RealityChek will return to the real world. For the rest of today? Game on!