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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Just walk Judge? These days, pitchers may have different intentions.

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees stands in the dugout during a game against the Baltimore Orioles, at Yankee Stadium in New York, on Oct. 2, 2022. Intentional walks have fallen out of favor, but with every run in the postseason being precious, teams may be tempted to force a different Yankees batter to beat them.

By James Wagner

Aaron Judge had one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history this year. He led the big leagues or was tied in many major categories: home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, total bases, RBIs, extra-base hits and wins above replacement. He narrowly missed out on the rare feat of a triple crown, in which a batter leads their league in batting average, home runs and RBIs.

With such an imposing hitter, the expectation is that some opposing teams would want to avoid facing him in situations with the game on the line, opting instead to intentionally walk him and let someone else on the New York Yankees try to beat them. Under the practices of this era of baseball, driven by data and probabilities, that is no longer the case.

Despite hitting .311 with 62 home runs, 131 RBIs and a 1.111 on-base plus slugging percentage in 696 plate appearances this season, Judge was intentionally walked only 19 times. He did not even lead the majors, with that honor falling to José Ramírez, the Cleveland Guardians slugger who is facing the Yankees in their best-of-five American League Division Series that started Tuesday night in the Bronx. Ramírez, a switch-hitting third baseman, was intentionally walked 20 times.

Both are a far cry from the days of Barry Bonds. On his way to 762 career home runs over 22 seasons, Bonds was intentionally walked an average of 31 times a year. During his prime, when he averaged 44 home runs per year from 1993 to 2004 with the San Francisco Giants, that ticked upward, with an average 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 were 1,477 intentional walks across Major League Baseball during the regular season. This year, in a 30-team league with more regular season games, there were only 475.

With pitchers’ velocities, pitch movement and strikeout rates rising dramatically over the years, statistics show that it is nearly always better for teams to attack rather than to roll over in defeat. And with home runs rising to record rates recently, the next batter after the feared slugger is more likely than ever to make an opponent pay for an intentional walk.

“The odds of that guy coming around to score with you pitching to him or creating a run with you pitching to him versus putting him on intentionally without challenging him generally say that it’s in your best interest to just go after the hitter,” said Matt Blake, the Yankees’ pitching coach, explaining the modern rationale. (His pitching staff issued only 10 intentional walks this season, the fifth-lowest total in MLB.)

But come playoff time, when the opportunities are much more limited than in a 162-game regular season and one at-bat can swing an entire best-of-five or -seven series, perhaps opposing managers will be more inclined to intentionally walking Judge?

“I don’t know what other teams will do,” said Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ hitting coach. “I would think that it has a chance to be more likely.”

He continued, “But to think that it would ever even come close to what Barry Bonds was back in the day, baseball is different from that, at least, the strategy behind some of that is different. I think that they’re going to try 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 a lot more and that won’t show up in the stats.”

By that, Lawson meant that teams have pitched Judge carefully, nibbling around 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 fair share of that cautious approach. The strategy can work: Judge was second in the majors with 111 walks this season but also seventh in strikeouts with 175.

“A lot of teams throughout the year just kind of say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go after him and see what happens,’ or ‘We’ll be a little 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 in the postseason, I expect teams to have scouting reports and do what they need to do. There’ll be certain situations where they come after me or other guys. There will be certain situations where they pitch around me or other guys just to get the right matchup.”

Craig Counsell, a former player and the current manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, explained that intentional walks have declined throughout the sport over the decades because run expectancy charts — which show the average number of runs that scored based on which bases were occupied and the number of outs — provide evidence that intentional walks aren’t needed.

If Bonds were playing in this analytically influenced era of baseball, Counsell hypothesized that he would “logically” be intentionally walked less than before. Bonds, though, he said, was unique.

“If you looked to past generations, Barry Bonds was walked more in three seasons than any other player in his career,” he said. “And probably was having better seasons than Aaron Judge. That’s the standard. If you 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 less than Bonds, with McGwire topping out at 28 in 1999 and Sosa at 37 in 2001. But because Bonds was a better all-around hitter — his career batting average (.298) and OPS (1.051) were markedly higher — he was treated more carefully.

In 2001, when Bonds hit an MLB single-season record 73 home runs, he was intentionally walked 35 times. Three years later, his 120 set a major league record. The next closest marks are 68, in 2002, and 61, in 2003; he holds both.

“A lot of teams understand how tough it is to hit, especially with the major league pitching that we have in this day and era,” Judge said. “I feel like every single starter is throwing 95-plus and every guy in the bullpen is throwing 100. It’s still tough to square up the baseball and go out there and try to do something productive.”

During the postseason, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said he felt like it might be the same: Some teams may be more likely to consider the intentional walk when facing Judge. “And I’m sure there’ll be situations where it’ll be obvious to slightly more gray, and then you have a decision to make,” he said.

One way for the Yankees to ensure teams aren’t as tempted to walk Judge in the playoffs — intentionally or not — is for the batters behind him in the lineup to carry 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 better over the final two weeks of the season.

“We’ve got to be huge behind him,” Stanton said. “We’ve got to make sure we capitalize when they do walk him and make it known that you can’t just do that.”

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