ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Aaron Judge took a pitch that looked outside for strike three in his first at-bat Friday night.
He seemed to mutter something to himself before walking back to the dugout.
In the third inning came what appeared to be an even more egregious miss on a pitch that Phil Cuzzi called a third strike, This one prompted Judge, still very much in control, to briefly say something to Cuzzi.
It was seen as news because Judge rarely says much to umpires. It’s part of his overall philosophy regarding the men in blue, which dates to his days at Fresno State and probably before that.
“There’s just no need, no need to argue with them,” Judge said in an interview earlier this season about dealing with umpires, specifically when it comes to ball-strike calls. “I ask them a lot on certain pitches [during an at-bat], messing with the dirt, ‘I got that low’ or ‘hey, I’ve got that a click off, is that the corner?’ I’ll just ask them questions just so I have a general idea what the strike zone’s going to be that certain night. And they’re always great about that.”
Friday stood out to some, but the reality is that it wasn’t the first time Judge expressed himself that way.
It happened in the eighth inning at Citi Field on June 8 after Mark Wegner punched him out on a questionable pitch, in the sixth inning in Kansas City on May 19 after Jim Wolf called him out on a pitch that looked low, and numerous other times this season.
The 6-7 Judge, of course, has a huge strike zone and, not surprisingly, has been the victim of more than his share of called strikes that shouldn’t have been.
Alan Porter called out Judge on a close 1-and-2 pitch on April 27 in Anaheim, then ejected bench coach Josh Bard for taking exception to the call. But Yankees fans hoping for some kind of expletive-laced tirade from Judge after being rung up on a non-strike aren’t likely to get their wish. Friday night might be about as fiery as he gets.
“I don’t want to show them up,” said Judge, who has walked 53 times and struck out 101 times in 327 plate appearances.
He added: “They have a job to do and I’ve got a job to do. It’s something my college coach told me: ‘You’re not here to umpire, you’re not an umpire, so don’t sit here and try to call balls and strikes in your head. You’re up there to hit. You’ve got one job to do, hit. So do that.’ That’s always been my philosophy.”
The approach is similar to the one Derek Jeter took during a 20-year career in which he famously was never ejected. Jeter, like Judge, would talk to the plate umpire after a disputed strike call while moving his bat in the dirt near the plate, almost never looking back directly at the umpire.
Aaron Boone, ejected once as a manager for arguing balls and strikes and twice as a player for that reason (five times overall), doesn’t buy the notion that Judge should become more animated.
“I want him to handle it how he feels good about handling it,” Boone said. “He handles it like a pro. There’s a lot of different ways to handle your business [while] moving in and out of the box. I don’t want him to be a certain way, I want him to be himself and be a pro, and being a pro can look a lot of different ways.”
Brett Gardner, who has an overall good relationship with umpires, has been ejected three times in his career, each time for arguing balls and strikes, the most recent in 2014. He said his experience over the years is that players who complain don’t get any more borderline calls than those who don’t.
“They’re not pulling against you or pulling for the pitcher or vice versa, they’re trying to do their best job calling balls and strikes, and it’s not easy to do,” Gardner said. “You just have to be respectful of them and realize, even though it might not seem like it to you when you’re hitting, that they’re trying their best back there. And I think he does a very good job of that, being respectful. It’s just how he was raised.”
Judge said that even in the heat of the moment, having a borderline strike call against him that results in a punchout or even one earlier in an at-bat — such as one that puts him in a 0-and-1 or 1-and-2 hole — it’s not difficult to keep his composure.
“That’s why you get three of them,” he said of strikes. “Say you get one that you don’t think is a strike and they call it on you, that’s why you get two more. That’s what always makes me laugh. Some guys, first pitch of the at-bat gets called a strike, maybe it’s a ball off or below their knees and it gets called a strike, and then the next two pitches they swing at balls in the dirt, and all of a sudden they’re yelling at the umpire about that first pitch. You just swung at two balls in the dirt, buddy.”
There is, he said, a common-sense element to his philosophy regarding umpires.
“Hey, they’ve got a better view than I do,” Judge said. “I think I have a pretty good idea of the strike zone, but they’re the one standing right behind the catcher, they’ve got the best view in the house. So who am I to sit up there and tell them what’s a ball or a strike? I’m not getting paid enough to do that.”