July 19, 2024

Why Aaron Judge loves center field, Gunnar Henderson’s ascent and more MLB notes


Mookie Betts prefers playing infield in part because he runs a shorter distance from the dugout to his position than he does to right field. Aaron Judge, in becoming the New York Yankees’ regular center fielder, took on what generally is considered the most demanding spot in the outfield. Yet, just as he did in 2022 while playing more center than right, he is putting together a mind-boggling season.

Judge’s major-league lead in OPS, home runs and RBIs is all the more remarkable considering how much energy he also expends on offense. Only his Yankees teammate, Juan Soto, is on base more often. And while Judge needs to only trot on his homers, he also pushes himself running the bases and sliding, all at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds.

After the Yankees acquired Soto in December, former hitting coach Sean Casey said on his podcast that he hated the idea of Judge playing center, pointing out the increased risk of injury. Judge, however, relishes being in the middle of the diamond, just as he was in college at Fresno State.

“You’ve got a great view (from there),” Judge said. “When they were talking to me about getting (Alex) Verdugo and Soto, (I said) wherever I need to play, whether it’s left field, center field, second, DH, whatever I’ve got to do, I’ll do it so these guys can feel comfortable and come in here and play their game. I love center field.”

Judge, who has started 58 games in center and 13 at DH as well as four in left and three in right, is holding his own defensively according to the leading public metrics, outs above average and defensive runs saved. And, in an effort to conserve energy, he has reduced his pregame work. He said Saturday was the first time he took batting practice outdoors in two or three weeks.

“Coming out here, the steps you take, hitting BP, going out there on defense, it wears on your body,” Judge said. “I’ve kind of tweaked the workload a little bit. But it’s just about being smart. After six, seven, eight years playing the game up here, you start to figure out little things.

“Even talking with (Giancarlo) Stanton, that’s something he told me — you don’t need to take that many swings. I would hit early, hit before BP, hit in BP, hit before the game, in between at-bats … he said you don’t need to do all that. Your swing’s your swing. Just go out there and have fun and be smart with it.”

Hawk-Eye, which powers Statcast, is the main technology teams use in games to track player movement. Some clubs supplement that information with GPS technologies pregame. Yankees manager Aaron Boone has suggested Judge is running the same amount or less in center than he does in right. And with Stanton out for at least the next month with a strained left hamstring, Judge figures to get more time at DH.

“I use the DH a fair amount with him anyway,” Boone said Sunday when asked about Judge in center. “But yeah, I think it’s gone really well, and he’s obviously playing really well.”

In 2022, Judge hit an American League-record 62 home runs with a 1.111 OPS and won league MVP. This season, with the schedule nearly half-complete, he is on pace for 57 home runs and his OPS is 1.109. And playing center field will only enhance his chances for another MVP.


Gunnar continuing to ascend

A few weeks back, when I asked 11 American League players, coaches and managers to choose between the Orioles’ Gunnar Henderson and Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr. as the league’s starting All-Star shortstop, the vote was almost even.

Well, one of the managers reached out to me over the weekend asking for a do-over.

“Gunnar changed my view,” said the manager, who — like the others — was granted anonymity for his candor. “He’s the top shortstop in the league. Game changer. Witt is not that far off.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker, speaking to the Fox broadcasters on Saturday, also raved about Henderson.

“He might be Corey Seager,” Snitker said. “Big, physical, athletic.”

Henderson, who turns 23 on Saturday, is listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Seager, 30, is 6-4, 215. But while their builds are similar, Henderson runs better than Seager ever did.

Through Sunday, Henderson ranked in the top 11 percent in sprint speed and had stolen 13 bases in 14 attempts. Seager, who generally ranks in the bottom 25 percent in sprint speed, is 17-for-24 in stolen-base attempts … for his career.

Henderson also was tied for fourth among shortstops in the two leading defensive metrics, outs above average and defensive runs saved. And as MLB.com’s Thomas Harrigan wrote Monday, he was on pace to produce historic numbers for both a shortstop and leadoff man.

At his current pace, Henderson would hit 50 homers, becoming only the second shortstop to finish with that many in a season. Alex Rodriguez hit 52 or more twice but admitted to using performance-enhancing substances in those seasons, 2001 and 2002.


Charlie in the twilight

Braves right-hander Charlie Morton is one of the game’s most thoughtful players. An interview with him often provides a window into his soul.

As Morton spoke Friday, on the eve of his latest start against the Yankees, he sounded conflicted both about his present and future.

At 40, Morton said he is unsure of his identity as a pitcher. In Pittsburgh, he was a sinkerballer. With Houston, he was a strikeout specialist. Now he doesn’t throw quite as hard and occasionally wonders, “Are my strengths still my strengths?”

His curveball still has elite spin, but his average four-seam fastball velocity has declined from 95.5 mph in 2021 to 93.8 this season. At times, in seeking the right balance, he has gotten away from his trademark four-seam fastball/curveball combination and gone more with a two-seam fastball/cutter, east-west mix.


Charlie Morton is 88-46 in the past eight seasons. (Brett Davis / USA Today)

In 14 starts, he has performed at roughly a league-average level, some nights looking like the Morton of old, other nights not so much. Married with four children, he has pondered retirement the past several seasons. And he is thinking about it again.

“You start to really wonder. What am I doing? What am I trying to accomplish?” Morton said. “I’m not pitching to go to the Hall of Fame. I’m not pitching to win a Cy Young. I’ve made enough to do well by my family. And I’m feeling it. Physically, I’m feeling it.”

He wants the game to tell him when it’s time to walk away but knows his choice might not be that clear.

“Maybe that’s my fate — I get to decide,” he said. “Be a grown-up for 20 minutes, Chuck, and make up on your mind on your own.”


The Guardians’ not-so-hidden edge

The Guardians’ offensive transformation — 27th in runs per game last season, third this season through Sunday — remains one of the biggest surprises of 2024. As far back as February, The Athletic’s Zack Meisel documented the team’s desire for its position players to hit the ball harder, even if it resulted in more swing-and-miss.

A rival manager, however, pointed out another reason the Guardians are so problematic for opposing pitchers: They always seem to hit with the platoon advantage.

For the Guardians, this is nothing new. As a low-revenue club, they historically have gravitated to switch hitters — from Carlos Santana to Francisco Lindor to José Ramirez — as a way of gaining an incremental edge. The more switch hitters they use, the better positioned they are to platoon at other positions with players who are not as skilled from one side.

The Guardians play two switch hitters every day, Ramirez and shortstop Brayan Rocchio. Through Sunday, they had the highest percentage of plate appearances with the platoon advantage by a wide margin, according to Stats Perform.

The top five, by percent:
Guardians, 71.3
Orioles, 65.5
Rangers, 62.7
Reds, 62.7
Twins, 61.3

The bottom five, by percent:
Blue Jays, 39.2
Rays, 43.9
Astros, 44.3
Rockies, 44.6
Royals, 46.0

These figures can be deceptive. The Astros, for example, feature a number of established hitters who play every day regardless of whether the pitcher is lefty or righty. The Guardians, meanwhile, began the week only 11th in the league in batting average with the platoon advantage. The Dodgers were first.

Still, teams look for advantages on the margins wherever they can find them. And the Guardians present more matchup problems than any other club.


Stroman looks back on London

It was right around this time last season when right-hander Marcus Stroman began to slide. He attributes his difficulties, which included more than a month on the IL with a hip problem, to the Cubs starting him in London on four days rest.

Stroman entered that start with seven straight outings of six or more innings. The travel, he said, produced added physical strain. He entered the London game with a 2.28 ERA. He finished the season at 3.58.

“They skipped over two starters to throw me on (the fifth day) with all that travel,” Stroman said, referring to Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly. “It just wasn’t a smart move. It never gets discussed. But me and my trainer know … looking back, that kind of derailed that year.”


Marcus Stroman is 7-3 in his first 16 starts with the Yankees. (Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

The London game, against the Cardinals, was June 25. Former Cubs manager David Ross said before the series that Stroman liked to stay on turn, and that he wanted to use his best pitcher in a division game. Taillon had a 6.71 ERA at the time, and the Cubs, down to one lefty in the bullpen, wanted Smyly available in relief.

The Yankees, to this point, are using Stroman, 33, less frequently on four days rest. With the Cubs last season, Stroman made 15 starts on four days rest and 10 on five or more. With the Yankees, he has made seven starts on four days rest and nine on five or more.

Entering Monday, he was 13th in the AL with a 3.15 ERA.

“My body feels great,” he said.


Trade notes

So now what do the Marlins do? The losses of lefties Jesús Luzardo and Braxton Garrett not only robbed them of two potential trade chips but also might make it more difficult for them to move lefty Trevor Rogers, the only healthy remaining member of their Opening Day rotation.

Luzardo is expected to miss four to six weeks with a lumbar stress reaction. Garrett, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017, is out with a forearm flexor strain. The problem with trading Rogers, then, would be covering major-league innings the rest of the season.

The Marlins still should get a decent return for left-handed reliever Tanner Scott, a pending free agent. But while Scott has a 0.71 ERA in 25 appearances since April 14, his walk rate is at a career-high level. His ERA for the season is 1.64. His expected ERA, according to Statcast, is 3.52.

The Royals are in an interesting position. General manager J.J. Picollo told MLB Network on Sunday that he plans to be aggressive at the deadline. But he also indicated he does not want to be too aggressive, lest he compromise the team’s long-term goals.

The decisions might become easier if the Royals fail to snap out of their 3-11 skid and fade from contention; at that point, Picollo would buy only modestly, if at all. At the moment, the Royals are prioritizing bullpen help over their outfield needs, according to a source briefed on their thinking. Through Sunday, their ’pen was last in the majors in strikeout rate, and their outfield ranked next-to-last in OPS.

The Blue Jays, losers of seven straight and sitting last in the AL East, clearly are trending toward selling. But trades of potential free agents such as lefty Yusei Kikuchi and righty reliever Yimi Garcia would bring back only so much in return.

First baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., up to a .797 OPS, would carry greater value, especially to a team such as the Mariners. And if the Jays are smart, they at least would consider moving a starting pitcher such as Chris Bassitt or even Kevin Gausman, given the shortage in the market.

Of course, a larger sell-off would reflect poorly on the tenures of team president Mark Shapiro, who is signed through 2025, and general manager Ross Atkins, who is signed through ’26. The Jays, then, remain a team to watch. What they do — or don’t do — will be telling.

And finally, here’s an American League executive, granted anonymity for his candor, talking about the Mass of Mediocrity™ that is the NL wild-card race:

“You can look at it two different ways. You can say, each marginal win makes a massive impact on our playoff probabilities. So, we want to be more aggressive. Or, you can look at it the other way and say, there are so many teams involved that even if we improve by a little bit the odds are still against us.

“You can make a compelling argument either way. I think a lot of it’s going to come down to organizational/ownership mindset. The positions of the GM, how recently have they won, how much pressure they’re feeling to win now.”

In other words, stay tuned.

(Top photo of Aaron Judge: Adam Hunger / Getty Images)



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