BALTIMORE — In an emptying clubhouse just after a spring training game last month, Aaron Judge offered a glimpse into the midgame, mid-at-bat adjustments he anticipated making once the regular season began.
Specifically, the New York Yankees right fielder was sharing in a one-on-one conversation the reasons he wanted to test out his no-stride approach at the plate that became all the rage in the Grapefruit League. The buzz about him in Florida centered on that key offseason change he had made.
When a player hits six homers in such a short span with such a new and simple swing, he’s going to have people talking.
“Just wanted to have that ability to change my swing,” Judge said at the time.
On Saturday, the slugging superstar made another change. And it worked wonders. Thanks to a similar mechanical tweak, the powerful Judge played a key role in sparking the Bronx Bombers’ 6-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles.
- Rising star Gleyber Torres went on a hitting tear Thursday, cranking out four hits, slugging two home runs, stamping his name next to Joe DiMaggio’s and leading the depleted Bronx Bombers to a much-needed early-season win.
- Yankees shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is trying his best to remain positive despite a trip to the injured list just six games into the season.
For a team suddenly ravaged by early-season injuries, knowing how and when to pull off the right adjustment has become all the more necessary. One primary tweak helped Judge hit two monster home runs Saturday, effectively getting him back on sound offensive footing after the four-strikeout performance he had in his previous game Thursday.
“After that game, I just watched a lot of video to see some differences and see some things that I was doing last year in the playoffs that I wasn’t doing [now],” Judge said.
Last postseason, Judge hit .421 with three homers in five games. Clearly angered by his struggles in Thursday’s series-opening win, he wanted to get back to being as productive as he was in October.
Judge also realized in recent days that he wasn’t quite as comfortable with his pre-pitch approach as he had been. So he used Friday’s off day as a chance to go back to the drawing board. In addition to all the video-watching, he came to the realization that maybe it was time to go away from the no-stride setup and start bringing back the leg kick he had so regularly used at earlier points in his career.
“I’ve been feeling good with the leg kick, so I wanted to keep that rolling,” Judge said. “Having the no-stride is just something I want to go to when that leg kick ain’t feeling too good. When the let kick’s feeling good, let’s roll with it.”
The leg kick apparently felt great when he put Dylan Bundy’s first-inning, 2-2 fastball well over the center-field fence, giving Judge his first home run of the season. It must have felt even better two innings later when, with two runners on, Judge deposited a hanging slider to a spot in center 6 feet deeper than his first homer.
Some of Judge’s pregame study included looking at Bundy, a pitcher he has had trouble solving in the past. The Yankees slugger entered Saturday’s game having gone 2-for-13 with one homer off the Orioles pitcher. Apparently, Judge has now figured out a way to solve Bundy.
Judge’s 412-foot and 418-foot blasts were two of three homers the Yankees had in the game. Clint Frazier came off the bench and added a clutch, three-run, go-ahead shot in the eighth that helped sew up the Yankees’ win.
“All week, I feel like I’ve been trying to go up there and win the game with one swing,” Frazier said. “All I did that at-bat was to try to just keep my head down and focus on what I was trying to do the entire at-bat.”
The drive to left was Frazier’s first major league homer since July 28, 2017. It also came right after he struck out as a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning. Because of that swing and miss, Frazier, like Judge, realized he needed to make a key change. Pressing a bit during his first week up from the minor leagues, Frazier’s change focused on his mental approach.
“That [first] at-bat set the tone for what I was trying to do,” Frazier said. “I feel like I kind of got out of my element a little bit in that first at-bat in chasing a pitch.”
With the franchise’s hopes, for now, resting in part on the shoulders of young players such as Frazier, it can be easy for them to think their way out of the approaches that normally work for them. They’re understandably desperate to be considered dependable and to be long-term pieces on the roster instead of a short-term fixes that will one day be shuttled back to Triple-A.
“I came up here and it’s a little bit different than the back fields in the minor leagues down there. It’s not chain-link fences [here], it’s three-story stadiums,” Frazier said. “So I was probably pressing a little bit, but that’s common. It’s hard not to whenever you’re not a starter on a team. You get thrown into a situation and you want to capitalize immediately, and it’s hard to do that if you’re trying to win the game every swing.”
The latter part of that is sage advice for the Yankees’ other youngsters as they try to keep the club afloat until injured stars such as Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, Dellin Betances, Didi Gregorius, Miguel Andujar and Troy Tulowitzki return from injury.
For Judge, the on-again, off-again changes he makes to his swing are what will have the biggest impact on his year. If those changes pan out the way Judge believes, Yankees fans will have Miguel Cabrera to thank. It has been in closely watching the Detroit Tigers’ superstar first baseman over the years that Judge found something he wanted to sneak into his game.
“You see him up there, and one at-bat, he’ll have the leg kick; the next at-bat, he’ll have the toe-tap; the next at-bat, he’ll have the no stride,” Judge said last month. “So watching guys like that do that, I was like, ‘I want to be able to take the same swing, but I want to adjust [the same way].'”
The Yankees are already seeing that the more Judge continues to tap into an expanding range of timely adjustments. The better he gets at making them, the better they will be.
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