Maybe the wisdom on this comes from Buck Showalter, who told me this earlier this season when I asked him to explain a slump one of the hitting stars of the game was experiencing.
"Sometimes it isn't anymore complicated than this s---t being really hard," is the way Buck put it.
So it has been hard for Aaron "All Rise" Judge lately after he was not just one of the hitting stars of baseball in the early innings of this season, but the biggest; who looked like 40 home runs would be easy for him the way he was going and 50 might be in reach. He wasn't just a kid hitting home runs this way, he was a Yankee hitting home runs in Yankee Stadium, breaking rookie records along the way, hitting baseballs so far and so hard they seemed to break everything except the debt ceiling.
He took the spotlight away from Mike Trout even before Trout got hurt. He took the spotlight away from Bryce Harper and all the other gifted young players at a time when baseball is so rich with them. Joe Girardi talked about how Judge is built like a defensive end at 6-foot-7 and 270 or whatever he is. Everybody talked about what a polite and respectful and decent young man Judge is. And even when he had started to slump, he hit a home run at Citi Field during the recent Yankees-Mets Subway Series that didn't end up in Flushing Bay, or Vermont, because the upper deck got in the way.
I wasn't the only person who started to think that Judge could be the home run hitter to make 60 a magic number again in baseball, the way it is supposed to be, the way it always was before the juicers came along. Then came the show that Judge put on in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby the night before the All-Star Game in Miami, when he hit balls out of Marlins Park as if hitting golf balls with a souped-up driver. In baseball's home run season, Judge's were the home runs that we were all talking about. He was the home run kid everybody wanted to see.
Only now things have gotten hard.
Doesn't mean they will stay that way for Judge. Maybe on Sunday, at home at Yankee Stadium against the Mariners, he busts out again and goes back to trying to bust up television screens beyond the outfield walls, the way he did at the Stadium during batting practice one day. But for now, the kid who was the great big action hero of April and May and June has looked quite human, and not nearly as big as he did.
For now, the Yankee home run hitter to talk about once again, the way he was at the end of last summer, is Gary Sanchez. Sanchez is the one who hits balls out of sight, at least when he's not trying to hit members of the Detroit Tigers, and there has been a lot of talk lately in New York about moving Judge lower in the batting order, even as his batting average remains around .280. There is still a long way for him to go. But Judge reminds us all -- again -- just how long the season has been already. And maybe how Atlas can shrug sometimes, even though there were times earlier in the season when he made pitchers in both leagues look as if they were throwing him meatballs in the Home Run Derby.
Over the first half of the season, Judge hit .329, with 30 home runs, 66 RBIs, a 1.139 OPS and a 29.8 percent strikeout rate. So far in the second half, he has hit .176, with seven homers, 16 RBIs, an OPS below .700 and about a 35 percent strikeout rate. And there was the stretch when he struck out in 37 straight games, the most ever for a position player.
"He's not Dave Kingman, OK?" one scout said this week, taking that comparison off the table, but trying to explain what baseball has been seeing from Judge lately. The kid hasn't suddenly become a wildly undisciplined hitter, after the wonderful discipline and bat control we saw from him early. But one thing you hear is how pitchers have been trying to use Judge's size against him lately, doing everything possible to get him off-stride and off-balance. No matter how new you are in baseball, this is all as old as the distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate.
Here is another scouting report I got from a smart young baseball guy I know:
"Early in the season they tried an east/west approach across the strike zone -- prototypical soft away. But at some point Judge started to get a lot of low strikes against him and started to look to protect that area, so they started working him north/south mostly with hard stuff. It's mostly mental for him but they are expanding the zone up on him to change his eye level. It's fantastically simple. But, apparently it's worked … Now timing is off on his swing."
It doesn't take much. It has never taken much. In the old days with the Mets' Keith Hernandez, when he would have a bad slump, he would talk about being in a "deep, dark forest." Buck's batting star, Manny Machado, was having a terrible year for someone with his talent and his eye and bat speed, and then all of a sudden, it was as if somebody threw a switch and nobody could get out Machado. He hit three home runs in one game against the Angels, the last a walk-off grand slam. He hit a 12th-inning walk-off home run to beat the A's on Wednesday.
Sanchez of the Yankees, who effectively started the season late because of injury, was completely obscured by what Judge was doing, as if he were the one who had been eclipsed. Then Sanchez was the one who started hitting home runs again, in bunches, and wouldn't stop. Sanchez, who hit 20 home runs last season in 53 games, now has hit 27 this season in 95 games. That means 47 in his last 148 games. He might not catch Judge by the end of September. But he might make a run at him, might finish this season the way Judge started it.
The reason may be as simple as Judge getting tired. Hitting a wall instead of bombs. He has already seen the benefits that come with becoming the kind of star he did this season in New York. Now he experiences a slump in the same place and, whether he shows it or not, must sometimes feel as if he is carrying the weight of the slump and expectations and the Yankees' need to make the playoffs this season around like a backpack. He ended up on the bottom of the pile during the big brawl between the Yankees and Tigers the other day. Miguel Cabrera says that Judge hit him in the throat. Judge, who didn't earn a suspension for his part in the fight, denies that.
The kid will get up. Not Kingman. Buck's right, though. Hard game. Really hard, even after you just made it look easy.