When Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Wilmer Font threw a full-count slider that just nicked the inside corner of the strike zone on Saturday, umpire Dan Bellino’s right fist thrust forward and then back. Strike three.
The call made the batter, Aaron Judge, cringe.
It was early on — and the moment had little consequence in the Yankees’ 4-0 loss to the Rays — but it was another example of what is becoming an issue for the Yankees’ best player. Judge, like his teammates, has been told to avoid baseball’s dated practice of swinging at any close pitch when facing two strikes.
But if Judge, who stands 6 feet 7 inches, has the biggest strike zone in baseball, it seems to come with loosely defined edges.
Entering Saturday, whenever Judge had looked at a pitch outside the zone this season, it was called a strike 4.6 percent of the time — second only to Washington’s Anthony Rendon’s 5.1 percent — according to Statcast. The called strikeout on Saturday was his 13th this season on a 3-2 pitch, the most in the majors. He has walked 22 times on a full count.
“For me, the strike zone has always been: If it’s something I can drive, it’s most likely a strike,” Judge said Saturday. “I feel like if it’s a ball I really can’t do much with, it’s most likely a ball. So that’s just always been my approach.”
The central tenet of the Yankees’ hitting philosophy is to control the strike zone: Don’t swing at a pitch unless you think it’s a strike, even if it is a borderline pitch, even if it comes with two strikes. Yes, there might be some painful called third strikes, but over the course of 162 games, the benefits will largely outweigh the costs.
“The goal is to get on base and break the dam,” Manager Aaron Boone said.
If a hitter is deep in a hole, Boone does not mind if he swings defensively to try to spoil a tough pitch, but with a count of 2-2 or 3-2, the manager wants the Yankees to trust their knowledge of the strike zone.
“The reward for getting on there versus swinging at a pitcher’s pitch that you’re not going to do anything with is a win if you have the discipline to lay off,” Boone said. “And it takes courage, because you’re going to get rung up on a borderline pitch or maybe a pitch just off every now and then.”
This philosophy has served the Yankees exceedingly well so far. For a team that leads the majors in home runs, slugging and runs per game, getting on base is powerful fuel for the engine. In recent days, though, the offense has screeched to a halt, having scored just once in 25 innings.
Saturday’s loss ensured that the Yankees would lose a series for the first time in a month, since they dropped two of three at Texas late last month.
“As hitters, we’re not coming through in big situations,” shortstop Didi Gregorius said.
Boone acknowledged that the Yankees had not been swinging the bat well over the last few weeks — they have been held to four runs or fewer in 13 of their last 16 games — and his actions backed up the point. He pulled the infield in with the Yankees trailing by 2-0 in the second inning, only to have Willy Adames ground a ball into left field off Sonny Gray, bringing home Daniel Robertson from third with one out.
As on Friday night, the Yankees hit the ball hard a number of times, but too often into the teeth of the defense, which turned a pair of double plays. Their situational hitting also suffered: Greg Bird struck out with a runner at third with one out in the second, and Neil Walker could not advance Austin Romine after a leadoff double in the third.
The Yankees’ best chance came in the sixth when Judge reaped the reward for a patient approach, taking a full-count fastball from Font just off the outside edge to draw a two-out walk. Judge advanced to second on a passed ball before Gregorius, facing the left-hander Jonny Venters, reached on an infield hit that Robertson knocked down at second base to keep Judge at third.
The Rays summoned Ryne Stanek — who opened the game Friday night — to face Giancarlo Stanton and dispatched him on four pitches, the last a 98 mile-per-hour fastball that Stanton swung through.
If the Yankees, who have not lost three in a row all season, could use another advantage, it might come from a suggestion made to Boone recently: that Judge could be more demonstrative with umpires when he disagrees with a strike call. In a rarity, he was visibly upset on Friday night after taking two called third strikes — one of which prevented him from moving a runner to third with nobody out.
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