ST. LOUIS -- As the New York Yankees prepared to draft Aaron Judge and assessed what he might be in the future, his ability to judge a ball from a strike was always part of the attraction. They knew he would strike out a lot, that he would hit homers and that he would draw more than his share of walks, bolstering his on-base percentage.
As he has evolved from a hitter who struggled badly in his first taste in the majors in 2016, into the runaway front-runner to win the American League MVP Award -- and perhaps the league's Triple Crown -- his plate discipline has been at the root of his success, another sign that he's going to be a really great player for a long time.
That discipline was tested in June, when opposing pitchers and catchers seemed to wave a white flag and concede that Judge is too dangerous to pitch to under some circumstances. After drawing 13 walks in April and 15 in May, Judge drew 30 walks in June. Only one rookie in history drew more walks than Judge did last month.
Judge has 58 walks this season and is on pace to draw well over 100 walks in his rookie season, which would be historic, as these numbers dug out by Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information show:
Judge is on a pace to draw 120 walks, which would be even more history.
Players are pushed to the big leagues faster than ever before. Dansby Swanson had barely a year in the minors before he was promoted by the Braves, and the same was true with Andrew Benintendi and others. Judge had almost three full seasons in the minors, getting at least 400 plate appearances at every level, something he probably needed given the unusual challenges that his size and expanded strike zone present. Judge piled up 131 strikeouts in his first year in the minors, but also drew 89 walks, and in 2015, he had 53 walks and 144 strikeouts. Last year, before his promotion to the majors, he had 47 walks and 98 strikeouts in Triple-A -- not a great ratio, but enough to indicate walks would become part of what he contributed on offense.
His walk rate in 2017 shows he understands a lot of principles that some hitters never conquer. A common response to a thriving young hitter is to tempt him with pitches out of the strike zone, and so far, Judge has demonstrated unusual discipline. As of Saturday morning, his chase rate was 24.4 percent, 30th best in the majors and better than old pros like Dexter Fowler, Logan Morrison, Matt Holliday and Buster Posey.
Joey Votto is regarded as a master of plate discipline, perhaps the best example of a great hitter who will not swing at pitches out of the zone, and Votto's chase rate in his first full season was 24.4 percent -- exactly Judge's percentage now.
Sunday Night Baseball: Nationals at Cardinals
Sharper slider could get Cardinals' Martinez to his second All-Star Game
Carlos Martinez, who will pitch against Max Scherzer on Sunday Night Baseball, has ascended into the upper echelon of starters in the last couple of years. Scherzer would seem to be the favorite to start the All-Star Game for the National League, and it will be a surprise if Martinez isn't selected. He was also chosen in 2015.
During the offseason, Martinez said he worked on sharpening his slider, and it is a pitch with which he has had a lot of success this year: Only four pitchers have thrown sliders that have yielded a higher value, according to FanGraphs. One of those pitchers is Scherzer.
Martinez averages just 20.2 seconds between pitches, and the only starter in the big leagues working at a quicker rate is the Royals' Jason Vargas, at 19.7 seconds. Martinez said that he has always had this habit, as an amateur splitting time between pitching and shortstop through his promotion to the big leagues. When Martinez was in his first couple of years in the big leagues, Yadier Molina sometimes had to work to slow him down, going to the mound, or just waiting to get into his crouch to call signs. But Martinez said that he knows himself well enough now that he mostly does this himself -- stepping off the rubber, taking a deep breath, that sort of thing.
Martinez revealed in a piece posted on MLB.com Friday that he nearly became a priest. In a conversation Saturday, Martinez explained that he had been baptized at age 12.
“I started to get very involved in the church, and I liked that,” Martinez said, who was part of a seminary for four years, preparing for the possibility of becoming a priest. “I decided it wasn't my calling, but I learned a lot along the way.”
His family was happy with his study, Martinez said, “because in the Dominican Republic, there are very limited opportunities, and they were proud that I was choosing the right path. And it went with my personality, because I was very calm and very low-key. It hasn't been until now” -- in baseball -- “that I'm much more outgoing, with a bigger personality.”
Nationals could have trouble finding relief
The Nationals have 29 days to make deals to upgrade their bullpen, but some factors are working against them.
The Nationals already tried to conclude a deal during the winter for the White Sox's David Robertson, who might be the best available closer now. But Washington's ownership wouldn't give final approval to the cost in salary that would have to be absorbed in a Robertson deal, and the price for the right-hander has only gone up since then.
Around the league
• Some executives are becoming increasingly convinced that the trade market will play out much later in July, as teams like the Twins, Royals, Blue Jays, Rangers and Brewers wait to decide on the buy-or-sell question. There are some exceptions: The Rockies are said to be ready to add pitching right now, and the same is true with the Astros -- although rival evaluators believe Houston is big-game fishing and targeting high-end starters.
• The Reds' stated willingness to work out a long-term deal with Zack Cozart reflects a reality in this summer's market for position players. Cozart has long been a good defender and is having the best season of his career at the plate through a more patient approach in his at-bats, and he has been leading the All-Star voting for shortstop.
All good, right?
Well, there just isn't a market for shortstops, partly because of the great wave of young shortstops -- Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Trevor Story and other newbies all play for contenders. Seattle was close to a deal for Cozart last summer, but over the winter, they added Jean Segura and just signed him to a long-term deal. Two shortstops were lost to the disabled list this week after being hit by pitches -- the Diamondbacks' Nick Ahmed and the Nationals' Trea Turner. Would either of those teams give up the sort of prospect package the Reds want for a two-month rental? Probably not, especially with the Nationals, whose primary focus remains on improving the bullpen.
The Braves swapped Andrelton Simmons to the Angels when they did -- for pitcher Sean Newcomb -- because they were concerned about making sure they could move Simmons's contract in a market without much shortstop demand.
So it makes sense for the Reds to identify some middle ground with Cozart to keep a productive veteran player -- and it makes sense for Cozart, who would fall right into the same logjam of shortstops as a free agent.
• The Diamondbacks' dysfunction in 2015 and 2016 was the stuff of lore before sweeping changes were made to the front office during the most recent offseason. Still, some evaluators have noted that through the work of Dave Stewart Arizona collected good players who are now blossoming for a team that is a front-runner to win a wild-card spot in the NL. Robbie Ray was considered a decent prospect when Arizona acquired him from Detroit in a three-team deal, but Ray has become one of the better left-handers in the NL. In swapping Miguel Montero to the Cubs, Stewart and the Diamondbacks acquired Zack Godley, and Godley has become a good starter.
• David Price's confrontation with Hall of Famer and NESN analyst Dennis Eckersley was his second with a member of the media in the course of a month, and in both cases, he may have felt he was speaking on behalf of unhappy teammates. As Price chastised Eckersley, other players were said to be encouraging him with their response.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
On the podcast this week:
Friday: Chelsea Janes on the injury to Turner, and its impact on the Nationals' work to fix their bullpen; Justin Havens and Karl Ravech on the NL and AL All-Star starters; and Jessica Mendoza on Scherzer and "A League of Their Own."
Thursday: Orioles rookie Trey Mancini offers a lot of first impressions about the major leagues -- the toughest pitcher he has faced, favorite ballpark, chattiest baserunner, etc.; Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago on Kris Bryant's injury and the decision to cut Montero; and Keith Law.
Wednesday: A conversation with the Reds' Cozart about trade talks, his improvement at the plate and Votto; Tim Kurkjian on Montero's comments and whether Scherzer is the king of the mountain among starting pitchers; and Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic on the Diamondbacks, their trade-market intentions and Paul Goldschmidt.
Tuesday: Rays VP Chaim Bloom on the trade for Adeiny Hechavarria; Boog Sciambi on Judge's staggering numbers; and Sarah Langs of ESPN Research plays the Numbers Game.
Monday: The Pirates' Josh Harrison on being confused for the Steelers' James Harrison, on Andrew McCutchen and his season; Jerry Crasnick on trade talks; and Todd Radom's uniform and logo quiz and top-logo rundown.
And today will be better than yesterday.