July 3, 2017
Two of the first half's top stories were the power-hitting pillars of two of the league’s flagship franchises. Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger have captured the national imagination, and—with the Rookie of the Year trophies almost surely already engraved—they might just capture their league’s MVP awards come November. They’re the perfect new faces for the sport, at least for this part of this season—a spring marked by skyrocketing home run rates, questions about the ball being juiced, and a wave of young talent not only supernally talented, but also impossibly big, strong, and fast.
These are two towering sluggers, but they’re less unusual in that way than they might have been a decade ago, and certainly less so than they would have been in the 1980s or earlier. In fact, the six-foot-seven Judge and the six-foot-four Bellinger are just the latest in a line of very tall power hitters who have been taking over the game in recent seasons. Miguel Sano, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa all are at least six-foot-four. For most of baseball history, conventional wisdom has held that guys with such long levers were too vulnerable strikeouts, too exploitable, too disadvantaged by the larger strike zone with which opposing pitchers could work. That conventional wisdom, to the extent that it’s not retroactively disproven by these superstar sluggers, seems to be eroding. I want to talk about why, and what it can tell us about the game.
Firstly, let’s say this: tall hitters having huge early success isn’t entirely new. In fact, tall hitters seem to have better rookie seasons, on average, than shorter guys—even those who go on to have better careers. Mark McGwire hit a rookie-record 49 home runs when he established himself as a regular in 1987. (The year is important; we’ll come back to that.) Adam Dunn was a force as soon as he reached the big leagues, in 2004. Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton had standout rookie seasons in 2010. Since 1961, 28 players six-foot-four or taller have had an OPS+ of 120 or better as rookies. Being tall correlates (if only loosely) to being strong, and being strong correlates (quite strongly) to hitting the ball hard, and hitting the ball hard is the best thing a hitter can do.
What makes Bellinger and Judge unique, then, might not be their prodigious talent or their stature, but the confluence of those two things and the way baseball is played in 2017. For one thing, sky-high strikeout rates aren’t disqualifying anymore. Judge and Bellinger each strike out at a pace that would have been considered unacceptable in the time of John Olerud and Chipper Jones, but their teams are perfectly willing to let them keep doing things the way they’re doing them, so long as they keep hitting dingers. For another, related thing, it’s more possible than ever before to hit those dingers and make up for those strikeouts, in part because of the juiced ball. That was what allowed McGwire to shatter the rookie record for bombs in 1987, after all; it’s the last time we know the ball to have been juiced in ways similar to the ways in which it’s juiced now.
It’s overly simple to say that the juiced ball is allowing Judge and Bellinger to do this kind of damage, though. That doesn’t get deep enough into the interactions between pitchers, batters, umpires, and catchers that really shapes the fates of hitters with extreme skill sets (or, in this case, extreme physical dimensions). Here’s what I perceive to be the multi-layered, multi-step process by which things like McGwire, Dunn, Stanton, Sano, Correa, Bryant, Seager, Judge, and Bellinger happen.
1. Tall hitter appears, demonstrates power.
We open on any random pitcher; let’s call him Scott Feldman. Working on his 15th start for yet another also-ran hoping to trade him for something, Feldman takes a new ball from his catcher, walks around the mound to the back, rubbing up the new orb. He bends at the waist, rubs dirt on his hand, then between his fingers, then wipes the hand on his right hip. He climbs slowly up the back of the mound, looks up—and does a double take. There’s a huge, hulking Miguel Sano standing where a normal hitter ought to be. The catcher sees the alarm in his batterymate’s eyes, trots to the mound, and gives him the quick scouting report: “This guy can hit it a mile. Struggles with spin away. Keep the ball down.” The game begins as the catcher heads back to the dish, and Feldman starts thinking about how to handle this monstrous guy.
2. Pitcher pitches tall slugger down; slugger takes that pitch away.
Most tall hitters are, naturally and firstly, low-ball hitters. It’s just easier for them to get their arms extended that way, and besides, they’re tall. Most pitches are down on them. Still, pitchers are going to start guys like this by pounding the bottom of the zone against them. It’s harder to lift the low pitch. It’s easier to induce swings and misses, especially when the opponent has such long levers and can be exploited if their timing is compromised. Most importantly, though, it’s where most pitchers pitch just about everyone.
From the time one joins Little League and takes the mound, coaches will say, “Keep the ball down.” Ground balls are fetishized. The bottom of the strike zone is held up as a perfect target, the place where a pitcher can consistently get easy outs and weak contact. Hitters like these violate that expectation. Pitchers try to work them down, and they obliterate the ball. It happens consistently. Tall hitters who can’t do it take a long time to figure out how to succeed in MLB, but those who can do it get off to strong starts and force the opposing pitcher to adjust.
3. Pitcher makes the usual move against a low-ball hitter: go lower than low.
I remember reading this wisdom first from Earl Weaver. The idea is to get hitters who feast on low pitches to think you’re coming into their wheelhouses, only to have the ball dip either below their bat altogether, or past the good part of the wood. It’s a strategy designed to use a batter’s strengths (and then, eventually, their approach and their self-awareness) against them. It often works. I can name only a few hitters in baseball today who are great at hitting the ball even well below the strike zone, and none of them are especially tall.
4. Pitchers try to pitch up; it doesn’t work.
Ian Happ came into the league about two months ago as a guy who could really destroy low pitches. He even took away lower-than-low from opposing hurlers, and did it the hard way, by driving the ball even when he seemed to be taking it off the plate itself. (That’s somewhat easier for the shortish Happ, who stands a flat six feet.) After about a week, though, pitchers adjusted to him. They started pounding the top of his strike zone with fastballs, and it took a relatively major set of adjustments (ones Happ has successfully made, but major and difficult adjustments nonetheless) for him to have any success against that new approach.
Pitching up is, more than ever, a scary and uncomfortable thing for pitchers. Catchers don’t seem to like calling elevated fastballs, either, especially against big guys like these. The result tends to be a catcher awkwardly standing halfway up behind the plate, setting the target with the conviction of a man buying his wife a blouse for Christmas, and then watching as the overgrown slugger attacks a poorly executed fastball with the conviction of a woman buying her husband a shirt for Christmas, putting the thing halfway up the second deck.
Eventually, pitchers will learn to use the whole zone against these big hitters, and that will force them to make a new set of adjustments. It should be noted, too, that the discussion of this pattern (and all of the macro-level reasons why it works the way it does) is not meant to diminish anyone’s appreciation of the remarkable talent it takes to do what Judge, Bellinger, and their recent predecessors have done.
Being a big dude with coordination and technique enough to make consistent contact down in the zone, and with the discipline to lay off the junk below their hitting zone, is hard. Once one can do that much, though, there really are some specific reasons why the next adjustment pitchers must make takes a long time. Those reasons are physical, psychological, and logistical, and resolving all of those issues takes significant time. Until enough pitchers can figure out how to do it, we’re going to continue to see the likes of Judge and Bellinger lay waste to MLB pitching staffs.