John Smoltz has not pitched since 2009, sparing him the challenge of encountering Aaron Judge. But he knows how he would have reacted the first time he saw the Yankees slugger walk into the batter’s box.
“I would have loved facing a 6-8 guy at the plate,” the Hall of Fame pitcher and Fox analyst said on Monday during a break in preparations for Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. “I would have loved seeing that frame and that strike zone and the opportunity to get him out five different ways.
“But he doesn’t chase up, like you would think he would, and yeah, you can get him down if it’s way below the zone. But he doesn’t chase the two areas that were my bread and butter.
“I would have attacked him with fastballs and sliders, like I did most righthanders, and I wouldn’t have had the fear until all of a sudden you start seeing the fear that he produces with his execution.”
Judge, a rookie, has been the biggest baseball story in New York this season and one of the biggest in the country, fueled by his 30 home runs, 66 RBIs and .329 batting average at the break.
On Monday night, he was to be featured in the Home Run Derby, and on Tuesday night, he will start in rightfield and bat third for the American League in the All-Star Game.
“First and foremost, the kid, what he’s done, maybe four- and five-year players do, making the adjustments that you need to make from year to year to survive,” Smoltz said. “He’s made them in record time. It’s a credit to his athleticism, his ability to make necessary adjustments.
“I mean, he struck out so much last year and nobody expected close to what you’re seeing. His numbers in the first half might have been thought of as an unbelievable year if that was what he did for the whole year. Coming out of spring training, it wasn’t even a given that he was going to be the everyday rightfielder. That as a backdrop is an incredible adjustment.”
Smoltz, 50, said that during his career, which began in 1988, the righties he most dreaded facing were Albert Pujols and Gary Sheffield. The latter, he said, “could scare the you-know-what out of you when he was up there with that bat waggling.”
Judge surely would have posed challenges for pitchers in any era, but Smoltz said he has benefited from the fact that modern pitchers are less adept at hitting spots than pitchers in the past, relying instead on power and velocity.
“He’s not exposing himself, and pitchers have yet to find an area where they can go to,” Smoltz said. “Here’s the problem with baseball today: It has more studs and stars and stuff than ever before but less of the fundamentally correct ability to go to certain areas as a pitcher. It’s not a prerequisite anymore. You don’t have to have pinpoint control.
“And so what he’s done, like a lot of hitters who have success, they’re banking on: I’m not facing [Max] Scherzer and [Clayton] Kershaw a lot, so I’m going to bank on these pitchers’ inability to command the baseball in my weakness spots and I’m going to get what I want.
“He’s crushing the strike zone like I’ve never seen anybody crush the strike zone. No one’s been able to come in and say, ‘Aaah, I didn’t see that, that’s where I can go.’ ”
Smoltz’s Fox colleague, Frank Thomas, recently predicted that Judge will face in late summer what Thomas did in 1991 when he emerged as a young slugger: far fewer good pitches to hit.
Smoltz agreed, to a point, but said 21st-century pitchers are less able to seize control of that strategy.
“I just think that’s something where he’ll take his walks and he’ll crush the mistakes,” Smoltz said. “Frank’s right, but when Frank was playing, if pitchers wanted to walk you, they did. I don’t think guys necessarily pitching around [a batter] today can actually do it. You’re going to see the productivity stick around, in my opinion.”