Aaron Judge was the American League Rookie of the Year this past season as he demolished the record books for a rookie player. He clubbed 52 home runs, put up 173 wRC+, and accrued 8.2 fWAR.
Before the awards were handed out, Aaron Judge faced Rays ace Chris Archer nine times, beginning on Opening Day.
In the first time those two met, Archer — with his first pitch to Judge — hung a slider that caught way too much of the plate. One pitch was all Judge needed. He roped it into the left field corner for a double that plated the Yankees first run of the new season.
The pitch was supposed to be one of Archer’s patented devastating sliders that hook sharply away from right-handed hitters, often resulting in very weak contact or a complete whiff, but this time, the pitch stayed flat and Judge punished it.
In their first meeting, Judge established himself to be a formidable foe. This was no ordinary rookie.
Baseball Prospectus has a cool new tool, still in beta, which shows the projectory of every pitch in an at bat, as viewed from the perspective of the batter (rather than the traditional graphical view of right behind the catcher). This view gives some insight into the interaction between pitch with similar or different trajectories, often referred to as tunneling.
Let’s use this new tool to see how Archer responded to Judge throughout the rest of the season.
Plate Appearance Two
Archer faced off with Aaron Judge again in the 4th inning, and the lesson was learned.
The game plan was clearly to keep the ball and low and away from Judge, so with his first pitch of the new at-bat, Archer spiked the ball badly, bouncing it a few feet before home plate. He then attacked with a slider, with nasty bite, that Judge was just able to lay off as it hooked away from the plate for a ball.
With the third pitch, Archer looked to go low and away again with the slider; however, the pitch failed to break once again and stayed high. Fortunately for Archer and the Rays, Judge didn’t get a good swing on the pitch and popped it up for an out.
Archer succeeded, but as you can see from Baseball Prospectus’s Matchup Tool, Archer was not doing a great job in masking his pitches.
Judge knew full well which pitch to swing at:
The slider worked this time, but again, Archer needed to adjust.
Plate Appearance Three
Archer found himself in trouble in the seventh inning when he faced Judge for the third time.
Although the Rays had built up a five run lead, the Yankees had gotten the first two hitters of the inning on base with Judge due up. The Rays, feeling comfortable with their lead and their ace on the mound, decided to let Archer face Judge once more.
The first pitch of the at-bat was another slider, that once again did not break and stayed high in the zone. Judge ripped at it, fouling the ball straight back.
That pitch was the last mistake Archer would make against Aaron Judge in 2017.
Next, Archer delivered a knee-buckling slider that caught the tip of the outside edge and came across right at the knees for a called strike, 0-2.
With the third pitch of the at-bat, Archer knew he had Judge flummoxed and just needed to put the finishing touches on the battle. So, Archer went with his third straight slider, tailing slightly further off the plate and coming across in the low 90’s. Judge had to offer at the pitch, but had no chance at connecting. He flung the bat past the pitch and whiffed for strike three.
Check the first pitch, obviously a mistake from Archer and a pitch that Judge would absolutely love to see again. It broke into the killzone for Judge, middle-in at the letters. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that for one of the top offensive players in the game.
So how does Archer follow that up? He unfurls two nasty sliders, low and away at the knees but a similar look out of the hand, effectively taking the at-bat away from Judge as he was incapable of doing anything with those two devastating sliders from Archer.
Watch for the late breaking movement on the final pitch.
Note how similar those last two pitches start out looking, yet how they end up in different locations of the strike zone.
Opening Day, Archer was just starting to dial it in.
Plate Appearance Four
It would be over a month before these two faced off again, with the Rays taking on the Yankees in Tampa Bay.
By this time, Judge had emerged as one of the top hitters in baseball, currently holding a wRC+ of 201, leading the majors with 15 home runs over just 37 games.
Archer turned up the heat against Judge, showing something new and hurling a 98 mph fastball for a first pitch called strike, up in the zone. Then, the eye level changed as Archer bounced a slider, low and away for a ball.
Archer went back to the high velocity and Judge swung through another 98 mph fastball, this time perfectly located at the knees. Archer tried going back to that same pitch, but just missed the outside corner to even the count at 2.
Now, with the 2-2 count, Archer went back to his slider, hooking it away from Judge and bouncing it. However, it enticed Judge enough for him to muster a check swing that got called for strike three.
Archer had found a way to pitch to Judge . . . he just couldn’t make any mistakes.
- Pump his fastball up in the zone, occasionally bringing the slider up as well.
- Then, once Judge took a good rip, go back low and away.
- Continue to change location.
Plate Appearance Five
During Judge’s next at-bat, Archer went with a fastball up that Judge fouled off, then bounced a slider. Now, with a 1-1 count, Judge fouled off a slider up in the zone.
Next, Archer located a perfect 98mph fastball at the knees on the outside corner that Judge was just able to get a piece of to stay alive, but would be unable to hold up as Archer went with a slider with incredible slice that ended just a few inches away from the plate.
These “tunnels” don’t look all that similar, but the inconsistency in the sequence worked. There’s more than one way to pitch well.
Plate Appearance Six
In the 6th inning, Aaron Judge took his third at-bat of the day, having struck out in his last three plate appearances against Archer.
Archer mixed it up a bit more this time, and by mixing it up, I mean he offered three straight fastballs, all on the outer edge of the plate and all at 96 mph, to quickly jump ahead once again on Judge, 1-2.
To put Judge away, Archer then went with his slider, first just narrowly missing the zone to even the count at 2-2. Archer bounced the next slider to actually fall behind Judge for the first time since Judge’s first plate appearance against Archer. A third straight slider resulted in a foul ball.
Now, with the count full, and having thrown three straight sliders, Archer challenged Judge with a 96 mph fastball that came across right at the knees for a called third strike.
Here’s what all of that looked like out of the hand:
Judge had struck out swinging, once again.
Plate Appearance Seven
Fast forward now to July, Judge was 1-6 against Archer with four strikeouts. Meanwhile, Judge was third best hitter in the majors with a 181 wRC+ and led the American League with 32 HR.
Judge, along with the rest of MLB, knew what to expect from Archer: fastball & slider.
However, what the hitters didn’t know was where and when to expect him to go with the pitches.
During his first plate appearance on July 27th, Archer carved through Judge. He delivered four fantastic sliders, generating two whiffs from Judge to build to an even count of 2-2. Then, Archer uncoiled a 96 mph fastball that Judge swung through for strike three.
Note the release point and the initial trajectory.
With the delivery of the fastball, Archer was able to mask a surprise in what had probably looked to Judge like looked like five straight breaking balls out of the hand. Good example of sneaky pitch tunneling here.
Plate Appearance Eight
Judge, now not wanting to fall behind Archer anymore following his fifth straight strikeout, went up hacking. He swung at the first pitch of second at-bat and it was another slider, low and away.
Judge harmlessly lifted the ball to shallow right field for an easy fly out.
Plate Appearance Nine
During the bottom of the 5th, Judge came up for his third at-bat, ninth overall against Archer.
Archer again attacked with the slider, missing the zone badly with his first two pitches. He went with the slider again, missing his target badly, but still got a called strike. He followed that with an errant fastball for ball three.
With the count in his favor, Aaron Judge took a huge rip at a hanging slider from Archer, but swung through the pitch to make the count full.
Judge would foul off a fastball and a couple more sliders, with Archer just throwing them all over the zone to extend the at-bat.
With the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Archer got a slider low and in on Judge, who managed to make contact, hitting a soft groundball to third base for an easy out.
- 89.86 mph Slider (ball)
- 88.85 mph Slider (ball)
- 86.45 mph Slider (called strike)
- 96.57 mph Fastball (ball)
- 86.23 mph Slider (swinging strike) (!!!)
- 96.73 mph Fastball (foul ball)
- 87.65 mph Slider (foul ball)
- 88.36 mph Slider (foul ball)
- 89.15 mph Slider (ground out)
After doubling in his first at-bat against Archer, Judge struggled mightily, striking out six times in eight plate appearances as Archer’s slider and fastball rendered Aaron Judge’s potent bat useless in the middle of the Yankees lineup.
Inside a division, hitters and batters face each other many times over the course of a season, and the course of a career. Chris Archer clearly won round one against Aaron Judge (the 2017 season), but generally, familiarity favors the hitter. It will be very interesting to see how Archer pitches Judge in the future, and how the same or similar sequences work against the Yankees slugger.
We hope to continue using this tool to analyze pitcher/hitter match ups. Follow along with us and BP over the course of the 2017 season for more.