DETROIT — Aaron Judge said he looks at each at-bat as “a chess match,” a heady cat-and-mouse game that is central to his love of the sport.
“That’s how I kind of think of it. It’s chess,” Judge said after Saturday’s Yankees-Tigers game was postponed. “They’re [pitchers] going to make their move and then you have the counter-move that you have to make.”
Of course, it’s not necessarily as benign as that may sound.
As grandmaster Bobby Fischer once said of chess: “The object is to crush the opponent’s mind.” That’s a concept Judge certainly is familiar with.
He routinely did it to opposing pitchers last season and is doing it with regularity again this year. He went 3-for-15 in the opening series in Toronto, but Judge entered Saturday with a .340/.470/.566 overall slash line. In the 10 games since the Toronto series, Judge has a .395/.521/.684 slash line with all three of his homers and all nine of his RBIs. He has an 11-game hitting streak.
“He’s a great player, a great player,” Aaron Boone said. “And I think between the ears, he’s really good and understands what teams are trying to do to him. I think he develops a great plan going into the games. I think he really is in tune with his swing and all that goes into making him successful as a big guy.”
For the 6-7, 282-pound Judge, who is coming off an American League Rookie of the Year season in which he hit a rookie-record 52 homers and finished second in the MVP voting, that starts above his shoulders.
“I have a full season underneath me,” he said. “I’ve faced all of the teams in the AL, so they have a way they’re going to attack me every series I go into.”
It’s what people in the sport loosely call “the book,” an accrual of information on any player — pitcher or position player — filled with tendencies and trends. It’s basically a way to attack an opposing player and give yourself the best chance of making him fail.
“It’s ‘OK, what are they going to do?’ ” Judge said of the mind gymnastics. “Are they going to try and go hard-in this series and soft away, or are they going to just try to stay away with everything and maybe come in late? Are they going to pitch backwards? That’s what I enjoy. It’s just the competition. It’s a thinking man’s game.”
And Judge’s thought process has been a good one. An aspect of his offensive game that has impressed opposing team scouts is his ability to cover most of the plate and adjust on the fly to a variety of pitches.
“You go up there and hammer some off-speed pitch your first at-bat, now it’s like, maybe they’re going to go with something hard the next at-bat,” Judge said. “Or if you go up in your first at-bat and hammer a fastball into the gap, they’re probably not going to give you another fastball your next at-bat. It’s just fun.”
The appeal, he said, is the unrelenting mental challenge of every pitch.
“They’re trying to figure a way to get you out, they’re trying to figure out a way to get you off your plan and keep you off balance, and for me, it’s about being mentally strong,” Judge said. “How mentally tough can you be to stick to your plan? They might show you some fastballs in, but they’re not really trying to get you to swing at those; they want to try and get you with the soft stuff away after that, they’re trying to set you up. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Judge ranked second in the majors last season in slugging percentage (.627). Like a lot of power hitters, he struck out a ton, a league-high 208 times. But he also hit .284, showing the potential to be the rare slugger who can hit for average as well.
“[It’s] possible,” Boone said. “He’s a guy, you’re around him and he’s not satisfied. He’s always kind of grinding and looking for advantages. How that shows up in average, I don’t know. I wouldn’t put a ceiling on it, but I know he’s going to get on base a boatload and just be a problem night in and night out for opposing pitchers.”
That’s a group Judge never showed up last season with excessive celebration, something he said will continue, even when he wins his share of the mind games he relishes.
“I can’t get too satisfied with it because at some point they’re going to get you too,” he said with a smile. “It’s ‘Hey, I got you this time, but we’re going to have a couple more of these, a couple more battles like this, so let’s see what happens.’ I can’t celebrate too soon.”