Thanks to a historic comeback, the New York Yankees are heading to the ALCS to take on the Houston Astros. The Yankees erased an 0-2 ALDS deficit to beat the Cleveland Indians in Game Five on Wednesday night (). Only eight times has a team come back from 0-2 to win a best-of-five series during the wild-card era.
The Yankees came back to beat the Indians even though their best player, runaway AL Rookie of the Year favorite and AL MVP candidate Aaron Judge, was pretty much a non-factor in the series. He did hit a two-run double in Game 4, and of course he took a two-run home run away from Francisco Lindor in Game 3.
Other than that double and the home run robbery, Judge was a complete zero in the ALDS. He went 1 for 20 with 16 strikeouts — 16 strikeouts! — in the five games. The 16 strikeouts are a new postseason series record, and that includes seven-game series. Also, Judge is now the only player in history with three career four-strikeout postseason games. He’s played only six postseason games.
Clearly, the Indians did their homework and figured out a way to neutralize Judge’s immense power. And clearly, that plan involved breaking balls. Lots and lots of breaking balls. Here is the pitch selection Judge saw this year:
The Indians fed Judge a steady diet of breaking balls — curveballs and sliders — all series. They showed him enough fastballs to keep him honest, particularly high fastballs up and out of the zone, otherwise they buried him with bendy pitches. And it worked! Because bendy pitches are a lot harder to hit than fastballs. Consider Judge’s regular season numbers:
- Fastballs: .315 AVG and .714 SLG (MLB averages: .276 AVG and .461 SLG)
- Breaking Balls: .215 AVG and .430 SLG (MLB averages: .216 AVG and .361 SLG)
- Offspeed: .323 AVG and .742 SLG (MLB averages: .241 AVG and .405 SLG)
Like every other hitter on the planet, Judge is better hitter against fastballs than breaking balls. Pitches that move are hard to hit. So why don’t pitchers throw more breaking balls in that case? Eh, there’s a self-preservation aspect to this. Generally speaking, sliders and curveballs can be hell on the arm, particularly the elbow. Throw a lot them across a 162-game season and you’re asking for injury. But, in a short postseason series where the stakes are high, go for it.
Keep in mind the Indians were not throwing Judge normal breaking balls here. They weren’t keeping him in check with league average sliders and curveballs. The Indians hammered Judge with Corey Kluber sliders, Trevor Bauer curveballs, Carlos Carrasco sliders, Andrew Miller sliders, Cody Allen curveballs … some of the game’s best breaking balls. Those breaking balls were a weapon the Indians had their disposal and they used them expertly to shut Judge down.
“I haven’t been doing my job there at the top of the order, and my teammates came up big for me this series. Now it’s time to regroup and get ready for the (ALCS),” said Judge to MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch following ALDS Game 5 on Wednesday.
As for the Astros, the Indians just did them a favor. They gave them a blueprint for shutting Judge down. Hammer him with an extreme amount of breaking balls. Houston’s pitching staff doesn’t feature as many elite breaking balls as Cleveland’s — Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. have great curveballs, and Ken Giles has a killer slider — but that shouldn’t change the plan. Give Judge breaking balls and force him to hit something with a wrinkle in it.
Keep in mind shutting down Judge is not quite as simple as “throw him a lot of breaking balls.” They have to be well-executed breaking balls. Judge will take his walks — he set a new rookie record with an AL best 127 walks in 2017 — and of course he can still hit a mistake off the scoreboard. Look where the Indians located their breaking balls to Judge during the ALDS:
Not too many out over the plate. The Indians did a great job keeping those breaking balls down in the zone and off the edge of the plate for swings and misses. Throwing a lot of breaking balls is one thing. Throwing a lot of high-quality breaking balls and locating them well is another. The Indians did the former during the ALDS and now the Astros will try to do the same to keep Judge in the ballpark during the ALCS.
“He was going up against some amazing pitching,” said general manager Brian Cashman to Hoch following Game 5. “Turn the page and now focus on Houston. Reggie (Jackson) always talked about, ‘If you have the bat in your hand, you can change the story.’ Thankfully, he’ll have the bat in his hand for another series.”