You probably didn’t see it at about 1 a.m. Friday, after that three-hour rain delay in Chicago, but Aaron Judge officially became the most feared hitter in baseball this season when the White Sox gave him the Barry Bonds treatment, intentionally walking him with nobody on base.
OK, nobody has intentionally walked him with the bases loaded yet, as Buck Showalter once did Bonds, but that could be next.
The White Sox were leading, 4-3, at the time, with two outs in the seventh inning. They brought in a lefty reliever, Dan Jennings, to get Brett Gardner for the second out, and then walked Judge to let Jennings go after another lefty, Didi Gregorius.
The strategy paid off, as Gregorius grounded out to first to end the inning, and though the Yankee shortstop is hitting .333 against lefties this season, the White Sox strategy should be enough to convince Joe Girardi that Gary Sanchez needs to hit behind Judge.
Forget matchups; Sanchez is the one other Yankee hitter who strikes enough fear into pitchers — and opposing managers — to make them think long and hard about walking Judge in such a situation, considering the White Sox were putting the tying run on base.
In any case, it was the third walk of the night for Judge, who leads the majors, and the ultimate commentary on the Yankee slugger’s remarkable rise.
In fact, as the season reaches the halfway point, at least numerically, a number of storylines have emerged, but nothing compares to what Judge is doing, not just leading the majors in home runs but in most offensive categories as well.
His at-bats remain must-see events, not just because you want to see it live when he hits one 500 feet, but his cat-and-mouse game with pitchers is fascinating: Judge still strikes out a lot, but his plate discipline is worlds better than last year, and pitchers are forced to decide whether to give him something to hit.
Bottom line, even in a season when home runs are flying out of ballparks at a record pace, Judge has taken the wow factor to another level.
As such he sets the table for and obviously figures prominently in my First-Half Awards. And just for the fun of it, I’m including my predictions that ran in the Daily News preview section, mainly because my World Series pick of the Astros over the Dodgers looks a lot better at the moment than most of my predictions in recent years.
AL MVP: AARON JUDGE
Duh. Who’d have thought, but Judge is running away with it, and looks like a lock at the moment as long as the Yankees don’t fall out of contention in the second half. Even then he might win as Mike Trout did last year on a non-contender, simply because his impact is staggering.
Trout’s torn thumb ligament has pretty much taken him out of the running, and Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer are all having big seasons for the front-running Astros, probably lessening their individual chances. Chris Sale is in intriguing dark horse, having a huge impact in his first season in Boston.
My preseason pick: Altuve
NL MVP: PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT
Finally, one of least-recognized stars in baseball could get his due. Goldschmidt is having his typically great season with the bat and the glove at first base, but this year the surprising Diamondbacks have the second-best record in the NL, putting a spotlight on him.
He’s no lock, though, especially if Cody Bellinger continues to hit home runs at a record pace for the Dodgers. Ryan Zimmerman deserves consideration after a monster first half, and Bryce Harper is in position to make a run at a second MVP.
My preseason pick: Corey Seager
AL CY YOUNG: CHRIS SALE
Dallas Keuchel, 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA, would be the obvious front-runner if not for his neck injury, which has him on the DL for a second time this season, and likely to limit his innings total to 150 or fewer.
Sale, meanwhile, has been everything the Red Sox could have hoped for when they traded big prospects to get him from the White Sox. As of Friday he was 10-3 with a 2.77 ERA, averaging over seven innings per start and taking a lot of heat off of David Price. Can’t forget surprise first half by Jason Vargas.
My preseason pick: Aaron Sanchez
NL CY YOUNG: MAX SCHERZER
At age 32 Scherzer could be on his way to winning his second straight Cy Young Award, third overall. At age 32 he has been as overpowering as ever, with 151 strikeouts in 113 innings through 16 starts, to go with a league-leading 2.06 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, causing one long-time scout who saw him recently to say, “This is as good as I’ve ever seen him.”
Clayton Kershaw (12-2, 2.32) has been just about as dominant, however, and this is shaping up as quite a two-man race over the second half.
My preseason pick: Jacob deGrom
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: JUDGE
Judge appears to be on his way to pulling a Fred Lynn, who doubled up on the Rookie and MVP Awards in 1975, and Ichiro Suzuki (2001). Not much competition for this award, though Mitch Haniger made a big splash early for the Mariners before missing a month with a hamstring injury. Andrew Benintendi, Trey Mancini deserve mention.
My preseason pick: Benintendi
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: BELLINGER
NL home run leader Bellinger is the Dodgers’ version of Judge, at least in power numbers, and so unexpected that he started the season in the minors. Scouts do wonder if pitchers will eventually be able to take advantage of his long swing, though to this point he has been quick enough to handle being pitched inside.
Preseason favorite Dansby Swanson has been a big disappointment, hitting .223, but has been solid for the Braves since a horrendous first six weeks.
My preseason pick: Swanson
AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: A.J. HINCH
The Astros have a ton of talent but Hinch is a bright guy with front-office experience, and by all accounts is good with players as well.
My preseason pick: Hinch
NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR: TOREY LOVULLO
In his first season, Lovullo has to get some of the credit for Diamondbacks’ huge turnaround. He was highly-regarded around the game as bench coach with the Red Sox in recent years.
My preseason pick: Terry Collins
In the unofficial category…
MOST DISAPPOINTING AL PLAYER: MASAHIRO TANAKA
Better lately but still toting around an unsightly 5.56 ERA, third-worst in the AL, while allowing 21 home runs, second-most in the AL.
MOST DISAPPOINTING NL PLAYER: KYLE SCHWARBER
Stunningly futile at the plate after he became a folk hero last October, hitting .412 in the World Series after missing the season due to knee surgery. Was hitting .171, worst in NL, when the Cubs finally sent him to the minors last week.
And some team awards…
BEST AL TEAM: ASTROS
Spectacular nucleus of position players, but the surprise has been the pitching, especially with Keuchel on the DL twice and Lance McCullers once. As of Friday, the ‘Stros led the AL in team ERA at 3.82.
OVERACHIEVING AL TEAM: TWINS
Rays, and Angels deserve consideration, but I’ll go with the Twins, very much in the wild-card race despite a minus 48 run differential and the fourth-lowest run total in the AL. Ervin Santana has been a big key, pitching like an ace.
UNDERACHIEVING AL TEAM: TIGERS
Doomed by the worst bullpen ERA (5.15) in the league, but the Tigers have too much talent to be 35-43. Time to rebuild.
BEST NL TEAM: DODGERS
Bellinger’s power turned a talented team into a juggernaut. Come October, though, same old questions: do they have enough high-end starting pitching? Can Kersh aw finally deliver them to a World Series?
OVERACHIEVING NL TEAM: DIAMONDBACKS
The Brewers and slumping Rockies deserve mention, but the Diamondbacks, 50-30 as of Friday, are the easy call. Nobody saw it coming after they went 69-93 last season with mostly the same team.
UNDERACHIEVING NL TEAM: METS
Yes, injuries are a major factor, yet the starting pitching and the bullpen have both underperformed, and the defense hasn’t been contender-worthy. Cubs are a close second, still trying to shake off their championship hangover.
Send a Letter to the Editor