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Knock, Knock. Who’s There? A Cortisone Shot?

Aaron Judge was the most exciting player in baseball; then all of a sudden, he wasn’t.

2017 for the phenom resembles a graph that many of you embraced as mathematically inclined baseball nuts, the rest running away in scorn like our friend Don La Greca (just… watch this). It’s the cosine wave. Starting in the positives from square one, it dips below zero into the abyss, only to remerge and reach the same peak it originated at 360 degrees ago. Judge started on cloud nine, fell to cloud negative nine, and heading into the final weekend of the season, finds himself right back where he started (can we call this “cloud BBWAA”?).

The issue I take with the media narratives surrounding Judge’s slump aren’t really issues, but for effect, I’ll consider myself an antagonist. Find any rolling log of Judge’s stats and you’ll observe a gradual peak and subsequent decline for stats like strikeout whiff rate, with the inverse true for metrics like WARP and TAv.

So what happened? Well, what about that cortisone shot?

Joe Girardi & Co. – as reported by the Daily News, NJ.com, and the New York Post – considered this an option. Judge’s shoulder wasn’t getting better, he was in a grotesque slump, and what the public received was the insight that Judge would rest for multiple days, starting on Monday, August 28th. He pinch hit during the first half of the Yankees’ doubleheader on August 30th and went on to start the nightcap. That same day, the reports I linked above started to emerge. To my knowledge, what doesn’t exist is confirmation that two days of inactivity for Judge were enough to heal – completely? – a nagging shoulder that’s a gradual starting point for reasons behind his regression.

Travis Swachik did a fantastic job pointing out what changed during the downturn in Judge’s season. More fastballs, higher in the zone, more spin on said pitches, in tandem with a developing tendency to pitch Judge off the plate. It’s a common adjustment pitchers make against hitters who graduate from “just another guy” to one of the game’s greats. With players of Judge’s size, high-and-tight usually prevents extension of a hitter’s arms and ability to drive the ball – see also, Matt Olson.

While Judge is a Statcast god, he also achieves immortality in the strike zone he possesses. Mark Simon notes not only how large Judge’s zone is, but how umpire’s tendencies in viewing his zone have been called differently. As his season progressed, Judge went from seeing more called low strikes, to called high strikes. Whether that stems from conscious umpire adjustment or natural evolution is beyond my assessment.

As we start to connect the dots, this evolving pitcher approach coupled with umpire adjustment didn’t provide any bridges for Judge to cross back to relevance in the eyes of those worried about the inherent swing-and-miss. While there is rarely just one reason for a slump, singling out this change provides context for what developed in Judge’s approach after his two-day break.

From July 1st through August 29th, Judge barreled just eight of the 360 four-seam fastballs he saw in 200+ plate appearances. A “barreled” ball for those that do not know is a classification of batted balls that fall in the sweet spot of launch angle and exit velocity (Thanks, Tom Tango).  Since this break, Judge has barreled 16 fastballs. Nearly half the amount of plate appearances, nearly double the production. I chose the beginning of July due to our retrospective analysis that this arbitrary point seems to jive with Judge’s downturn midway through 2017, but to make this even more impressive, we can extend the window. If we want to find a period of time where Judge has had such a consistent tendency to barrel fastballs, we’d have to bucket everything from May 1st to August 29th, nearly 500 plate appearances (15 barreled four-seam fastballs during this stretch).

Most interesting is the location of these barreled fastballs.

The flat, dark brown line in the gif above is the 15 fastballs he barreled from our large sample of games stretching from May to August. If we want to isolate just those eight barreled balls during Judge’s slump, it’s a nearly identical heatmap. The following picture in the gif above fast forwards to the torrid stretch of games Judge has put up in the weeks since his two days off. Those barreled fastballs sit around the same space that prior to his break, we saw pitchers and umpires merging together in opposition to Judge. He took what was given and managed to be productive – Mike Trout anyone?

Why do barreled fastballs matter? For one, if you’re barreling a ball, you’re hitting it with an exit velocity over 98 mph. To generate that kind of kick on a ball off your bat, you need bat speed, especially with the knowledge that bat speed provides six times more of an impact on exit velocity than pitch speed. Although data to prove this is not widely available to the public, I would venture a guess that Judge is generating more bat speed in the period of time where he’s demolished fastballs up in the zone, quelling – to some extent – one of the holes in his swing. During this time, Judge posted an .837 slugging percentage with nearly even strikeout and walk percentages; filling the hole indeed.

The change catalyzing these results could be a mechanical tweak, it could also mean that Judge actually put his shoulder and other bodily issues behind him in the pursuit of productivity. A hitter’s lead shoulder – as well as numerous other body parts – are essential to maximizing output. Athletics Nation conducted a fantastic breakdown of front-side hitting mechanics and why the cliche “keep your front shoulder from flying open” holds water, but isn’t the entire story. The front shoulder often leads the way in the hitting, allowing for proper rotation of the upper body and possessing more of an impact on a hitter’s ability to drive the ball than some realize. While it’s true you want to keep your shoulder from flying open too early, that front shoulder is often what starts the hitting motion. The interplay of leading, yet keeping it closed is one of the many intricacies of hitting.

I have a hard time believing Judge could do what he currently is to fastballs up in the zone if his left shoulder wasn’t 100% healthy. I struggle with exactly how much good front-shoulder mechanics matter in terms of bat speed, yet I have no problem saying a nagging shoulder played a part in Judge’s inability to adjust. Improved shoulder health may have played a vital role in providing the chance to barrel fastballs that eluded the 25-year-old for most of the season.

With all this in place, our situation revolves around how much one thinks two days of rest in August could have completely healed his shoulder. I’m not saying with certainty Judge received a cortisone shot when there are no reports that he did, but if the public isn’t as privy to medical decisions as we might think, I fall into the category of reserving some belief that it’s at least a possible alternative to believing that two days of rest solved all Judge’s problems.

Photo Credit: Noah K. Murray / USA TODAY Sports

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