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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Aaron Judge's hitting slump stands out among raking Yankees

Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge returns to the

Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge returns to the dugout after he strikes out swinging against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The only reason people repeatedly ask what’s wrong with Aaron Judge is not a complicated thing to figure out.

It’s because he’s Aaron Judge.

Other players are afforded slumps, or cool stretches, or regressions to the mean. They get to say “It’s baseball” and we all shrug, because everyone realizes that hitting is difficult, and this is a frustrating sport built on failure.

But when Judge uses those same valid explanations, as he did Wednesday following the Yankees’ 6-5 victory over the Orioles, we still push for more. There has to be something else. 

It defies logic that Judge has only one home run in his last 25 games, and after Wednesday’s 0-for-4, which included three strikeouts, he’s batting .158 (12-for-76) with a .250 slugging percentage over his past 20.

That didn’t stop the Yankees from rolling to a 16th straight victory over hapless Baltimore, and Judge’s fractured season — he missed two months with a left oblique strain — hasn’t prevented them running away with the AL East, currently standing at 40 games over .500 (81-41).

Judge’s recent malaise just stands out more, because almost every other Yankees’ position player is doing serious damage, and far outperforming expectations. Take this year’s dismantling of the Orioles. Of the 13 Yankees with 20 or more plate appearances against Baltimore, Judge is the only one with a slugging below .500 (he’s at .362), according to MLB.com

“Yeah, it stinks,” Judge said. “You want to help out the team any time you can. You go up there and you don’t produce, it’s tough. But the team keeps winning, which is the most important thing. So I just got to keep doing my job and keep trying to play good defense and try to get something going at the plate.”

That “something” appeared to kick in during Tuesday’s win, when Judge delivered a two-run double, and also smoked a 115-mph grounder — but directly to an Orioles’ infielder. Those at-bats seemed to flip the Judge narrative. The scuffling All-Star was dangerous again.

But Wednesday suggested that maybe Judge wasn’t quite out of the woods yet. In the third inning, Judge took a Dylan Bundy fastball on the outside edge of the plate (it was inside the Statcast box) and then turned to have a few words with umpire Mark Carlson. Next time up, in the fifth, Judge looked at another fastball for strike three, and this one got much more of the plate. After getting rung up, Judge calmly placed his helmet, bat and gloves neatly on top of the plate, then walked slowly toward rightfield.

Judge was more aggressive in his seventh-inning trip, taking big hacks at three of the four pitches from O’s reliever Shawn Armstrong, the last a 95-mph heater. Strikeouts are part of the package with Judge, so that in itself is not a specific red flag. The recent lack of power is most surprising, and that could be attributed to a lingering effect from his oblique strain, something that Judge would never admit to.

And his manager uncharacteristically showed some teeth when I asked if maybe Judge was struggling through one of “those years.” Granted, it was a poorly-worded question. I only meant that Judge’s season had been broken up by the oblique issue, and did that make it more challenging for him to get back to producing on a more consistent basis? Still, Aaron Boone quickly jumped to Judge’s defense.

“No, no, not one of those years,” Boone said, with emphasis on the last word. “It’s been a tough couple weeks. The game’s hard. He’s not good — he’s a great player. One of the game’s best. And really it’s just been a couple weeks where he hasn’t been locked in. But you still look at the body of work. You look at the some of the games where he has really hit into some tough luck. That’s what we’re seeing.

“I still contend it will be a matter of time before he gets it rolling and we’ll hop on his back and he’ll go through a stretch where he’ll really carry us. It’s been a tough couple weeks where he’s grinding through it and he’ll get through it.”

Breaking down Judge’s post-oblique performance suggests Boone makes a legit point. In his first 26 games back from the April 20 injury, Judge was hitting .330 (30-for-91) with six homers, 17 RBIs and a 1.032 OPS. As I mentioned earlier, he nose-dived immediately afterward and hasn’t leveled off yet during the next 20.

“The most important thing is winning,” Judge said. “If I keep going 0-for-3, and we keep winning, I think we’ll be fine.”

But it’s not the other Yankees people are worrying about. Just him.

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