Before the four-game series against the Boston Red Sox where Aaron Judge failed to go deep and tie Roger Maris’ AL record for home runs in a single season, many wondered why opposing pitchers continued to even give the New York Yankees’ star the time of day.
It’s been confusing at times, too. Judge has seen his batting average jump up 20 points over the last three-plus weeks, so he’s clearly getting pitches over the plate more often than not. Then again, there have been series/stretches, such as this weekend against Boston, where he saw far more balls (58.3%) than strikes (41.7%), despite being challenged on occasion.
In the end, Judge’s 2022 campaign could stand to be the best offensive showing since Barry Bonds from 2001-2004. Speaking of Bonds, he has the most walks and intentional walks in MLB history due to his unrelenting prowess at the plate throughout his career. That gave birth to the term “The Bonds Treatment” when it came to pitchers doing all they could to avoid inevitable embarrassment/failure.
Coincidentally, Bonds is also the all-time leader in home runs (762), so there was really no escaping him. But perhaps there’s a deeper reason Bonds was more frequently issued free passes, resulting in an unbelievable career .444 on-base percentage.
Then again, it might be easy to see why Bonds was exclusively approached in this manner during his time. Looking at runs per game from a historical perspective, 2000, 1999, 1996, 1994 and 2006 were five of the most prolific offensive showings ever. Take out the 1800s and all of those years move up in the ranks. Take out pre-1938, and these are the five highest run-producing seasons of all time. Wild.
Bonds played in all of them. Here were his numbers in all of those seasons:
- 2000 – .306 AVG, 1.127 OPS, 129 runs scored, 49 HRs, 106 RBI, 188 OPS+, 139 total walks in 143 games
- 1999 – .262 AVG, 1.006 OPS, 91 runs scored, 34 HRs, 83 RBI, 156 OPS+, 82 total walks in 103 games
- 1996 – .308 AVG, 1.076 OPS, 122 runs scored, 42 HRs, 129 RBI, 188 OPS+, 181 total walks (led MLB) in 158 games
- 1994 – .312 AVG, 1.073 OPS, 89 runs scored, 37 HRs, 81 RBI, 183 OPS+, 92 total walks (led MLB) in 112 games
- 2006 – .270 AVG, .999 OPS, 74 runs scored, 26 HRs, 77 RBI, 156 OPS+, 153 total walks (led MLB) in 130 games
Bonds was the most dominant player in the most prolific offensive environments, leading to this one-of-a-kind “treatment.” Makes sense! But let’s dig a little deeper.
Bonds led MLB in walks and intentional walks 10 times, walks two more times, and intentional walks two more times. Let’s look at all of those seasons (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007). And let’s make the research a bit more granular, concerning Bonds’ team’s offensive production overall.
Sadly, Bonds only made it to the postseason seven times in his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates (3) and San Francisco Giants (4). He led his team in WAR in EVERY season except four across his 22 big-league years.
Here’s where his teams ranked offensively in regard to runs per game those years, however:
- 1992 – 9th
- 1993 – 6th
- 1994 – 27th
- 1995 – 22nd
- 1996 – 24th
- 1997 – 13th
- 1998 – 8th
- 2000 – 6th
- 2001 – 11th
- 2002 – 11th
- 2003 – 15th
- 2004 – 7th
- 2006 – 22nd
- 2007 – 29th
Only five of those 14 seasons saw Bonds on a team with a top-10 offense, which was largely driven due to his production. So it’s easy to see why he was issued more free passes than anybody in history. Not only was he arguably the best hitter of all time, but more times than not he was surrounded by other hitters pitchers didn’t fear (his 688 IBBs, compared to the second-place Albert Pujols with 316, says it all).
The same can’t be said about Judge, who, while he’s accomplished so much despite the Yankees’ offense fluttering spectacularly, is the leading force on MLB’s No. 2 offense in 2022 (5.07 runs per game), which has a stranglehold over the next-best mark (4.88) as they trail the Dodgers for first (5.31).
The moral of the story is that the Yankees have hitters up and down this lineup that will make you pay. Putting Judge on base only runs a greater risk for New York putting him across the plate. He leads MLB with 99 walks and trails Jose Ramirez (19) in intentional walks by two. Wonder why Ramirez has more? It’s because the Guardians have a league-average offense (literally), with 4.31 runs scored per game.
So for all the Yankees haters out there punching air, wondering why Juan Soto has 32 more regular free passes than Judge while Alex Bregman only trails him by 15, it’s because sometimes you have to take your chances with Judge, who also strikes out a whole lot (Barry Bonds did not, with his career 12.2% rate). Baseball has never been gifted with such detailed/advanced scouting reports. Pitchers should know how to approach Judge so they don’t have to walk him somewhere around 27% of the time, which was pretty much Bonds’ rate during his most successful seasons.
For comparison, in a much smaller sample size, Judge led MLB in walks in 2017 and currently does in 2022. He’s never led in intentional walks. Why? Here’s where the Yankees’ offenses ranked in years where he’s received MVP votes (or will receive MVP votes, aka 2022):
- 2017 – 2nd
- 2018 – 2nd
- 2021 – 19th
- 2022 – 2nd
Then you have the reality that pitching has never had a greater advantage in the history of the sport. If that’s built in, why would teams not opt to challenge one of the league’s best hitters? After all, if they don’t, he’s probably going to score anyway! Judge’s 116 walks and .314 batting average in 2022 have directly led to his 128 runs scored. Additionally, he’s led off a game or an inning a total of 160 times this year and has only walked 11.8% of the time. Why? Because stats show leadoff walks are an absolute killer.
And they’re trying to give him a “Bonds Lite” treatment, but you can see how difficult it is without completely surrendering before the at-bat even begins!
Judge may have gotten a bit lucky with far too many pitchers giving him middle-middle pitches down the stretch, but during his two MVP-caliber seasons, he’s been almost impossible to pitch around given the circumstances surrounding him. Additionally, baseball is largely a game of failure, right? So perhaps many teams didn’t think much of it when Judge was hitting .274 with a .354 OBP back on July 15. Good season! But not Barry Bonds. Not even close. As a result, the pitching attempted to take advantage. And failed. The only weird thing is that they’ve appeared to not learn much of anything, as Judge has put forth his best two full months of action dating back to late July.
Wait! Actually they did learn. He’s walked a TON (53 walks in his last 51 games), but he’s also hitting the ball when presented with a strike (.354 batting average over that same span). And the reason he’s walked so much is because he’s been the Yankees’ leadoff man for a good portion of that, and it’s really difficult to dance around the first batter of the game.
Pitch to him, he’ll probably hit. Walk him, he’ll probably score. There’s no winning in this scenario, which is quite plainly why this guy is the MVP.
On a more basic level, though … who wants to see intentional walks in a depressed offensive environment? Maybe MLB was able to get away with doing that to Bonds so many times because, in most of those years, offense was keeping the game afloat across the entire league. It’s hard to see where baseball’s entertainment value would be this year if you subtract 20 of Judge’s home runs and replace them with walks.
In the end, you just have to play the game.