John Smoltz on Aaron Judge vs. Barry Bonds, Dodgers’ injuries, AL Central, Rickwood

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John Smoltz found himself on the receiving end of nine Barry Bonds home runs during his prestigious 21-year career, but the Hall of Fame pitcher did strike out the all-time home run leader in their lone face-off during Bonds’ record-setting 73-homer season.

In today’s game, the closest power equivalent we have is Aaron Judge, who is slugging over .600 since his 2017 Rookie of the Year season and leads MLB this year in homers, RBIs, slugging and OPS.

As part of our weekly conversation with Smoltz, the MLB on FOX analyst provided his thoughts on how Judge compares to the game’s top power threats he faced in the ’90s and 2000s, what he thinks the Dodgers should do after a devastating weekend of injuries and what he makes of the surprisingly formidable American League Central as he gears up for this week’s MLB showcase at Rickwood Field.

Kavner: You’ve had a front row seat to Aaron Judge recently, who’s looking like himself again and currently leads baseball in homers, RBIs and OPS. He also appears to have dodged a bullet, as scans on his hand came back negative following a hit by pitch Tuesday night. How would you compare what he’s done over the past six weeks, or even the past few years, to Barry Bonds and some of the top power guys you faced in your career? 

Smoltz: There’s some similarities with Bonds, no doubt, in the power, the average and the ability to drive the ball. But I’d say the difference is, Barry was at times unpitchable. He didn’t miss pitches in the zone, whereas Judge is closing up some of those chase numbers. That’s why he’s having the two historic years; he used to chase and swing and miss. He was one of the unique guys that many people would challenge, even when he had 62 home runs. I think he’s closing those doors to, where in time, if he continues his progression, pitchers are going to start pitching around him a little bit more in tight and big situations. 

So, that’s the biggest difference. His size works against him. That’s what’s so amazing about him; he’s an elite defender, and so was Barry. I’m sure if Judge wanted to start running and stealing bases, he could do that. Barry in the early days did that quite well because he made you pay for the walks. If you pitched around him, he made you pay. But both do the uniquely same thing and make the rest of their lineup so much better by having their presence in the lineup. Whether he gets to hit or not, he has a long effect on the pitching staffs trying to get through the Yankees lineup. 

When you were pitching, would you rather face a guy who could take you deep but was maybe prone to strikeouts, or someone more likely to put the ball in play who wasn’t as much of a power threat? 

It’s a no-brainer: I faced and had a lot of success against the big sluggers in our era. They’re gonna get you every once in a while, but I feel like the swing and miss was more toward my pitching repertoire than the guy who was going to make contact. Statistically, if you looked at some of the [contact] guys, they had high averages, and it was frustrating. So, there’s no doubt that I would give up some home runs in today’s era, but I’d have a lot more strikeouts because there’s now a different philosophy. 

I would not want to face Luis Arráez and I would not want to face some of those guys that basically put it in play and aren’t going to over swing. I liked over-swing guys. With the exception of Albert Pujols and Bonds, I had success against just about every other guy that was known as a home run hitter. For me, especially a right-handed hitter, I felt like I could get any right-handed hitter out. But a left-handed controlled swing guy with power, that was kryptonite for me. So, I would still rather face the sluggers.  

Aaron Judge smashes MLB-leading 26th HR out of Fenway Park

It was a pretty brutal injury weekend for the Dodgers, with Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Mookie Betts both going down. With neither injury expected to be season ending, how aggressive do you think the Dodgers need to be before the trade deadline? What would you target right now, if you were them?  

I don’t think they have to be desperate. I think they’re gonna win the division, obviously, unless somebody really gets hot in the NL West. They have that going for them and they can be patient and kind of cherry-pick. But if they do show desperation and really go after pieces that alter their future with some of the prospects they have, I just think it’s going to be a wait-and-see scenario. I think they’re good enough with their roster to win the division easily. 

Now, I don’t know how important having one of those two best records is to them. But they’re in a great spot, despite some of the bad injuries. You look at the two front-runners before the season started, both the Braves and Dodgers have lost a significant pitcher and a significant player. And everyone else seems to be OK when it comes to some of the injuries. Although Philadelphia has had their share of injuries recently, they’re getting Trea Turner back. It’s kind of a hold, hold, hold, and then cherry-pick a player when one of those teams falls off.  

The AL Central surprisingly looks like one of the most formidable divisions in baseball, with three of the six best records in the American League. Who do you think is the favorite between the Guardians, Royals and Twins and do you expect multiple teams from the division to end up making the playoffs?  

It’s definitely an interesting scenario to watch play out because the Royals has been building for a while and they’re exceeding expectations. The Guardians, I don’t think anybody saw this kind of rate of winning, which is a credit to them and their organization. I think everyone expected Minnesota to be better. And they’ve shown signs of it. They got off to a horrid start. And now they’ve been very streaky. So, the way it’s shaping up right now, I don’t think anybody would have thought three teams could come out of the Central. 

I think everybody felt that the West and the East were going to gobble up the remaining playoff teams. But that’s not what it looks like. Houston got off to a bad start. The Rays, the Rangers and even the Red Sox are hanging in there — they look like a team that might push somebody out of a playoff spot if they continue. It’s a very mixed bag. And that’s OK, that’s good for the game. And if we get some surprises, that’s good for the game, as well. 

Highlights from Twins’ 6-2 win vs. Athletics

You get to call Thursday’s game between the Giants and Cardinals at Rickwood Field (7:15 p.m. ET on FOX); that should be a pretty special experience. What do you think about MLB’s move to start integrating Negro League stats into its record books? Can you shed some light on the importance of recognizing what these players have done in the past? 

I think it’s fantastic because I don’t know that the history of the game is well known from that degree, all the way back to the Negro Leagues and how many great players there were. I visited the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame down in Kansas City, and it’s phenomenal. It was life-changing for me. With Thursday’s game, you get to know about players who maybe you never would have known, and the stats just reinforce it. When we talk about the greatness of our game, it starts with the Negro Leagues, and some of the players that had a chance, that didn’t have a chance, and were some of the most dynamic players in all the sport. 

It really gets people to investigate, look in, dive into baseball. And I think it’s great. I know some people may think that it’s not relative in some of the stats, but I’m telling you that it is relative when you think about how the game was formed and what they did for the game, what they did for society, and what they did in general. So, I’m excited about not doing a traditional game, because it won’t be traditional, which is cool. And we’re going to have two baseball teams, the Giants and the Cardinals, but it’s going to be a bigger picture that both organizations represent what happened back in 1910 and so on. 

What else did you take from your visit to the Negro Leagues museum?

I could not believe, you felt like when you were there, you were walking into that time frame. They did a great job of explaining the history, how Hank Aaron wasn’t even the best player on his team. And the names that you would never know were some of the greatest players, and then some of the things that they went through. Just the whole dynamic of the history of that was so enlightening. I know now that players are starting to get to go there. When they go through Kansas City, their teams are taking them there. I think it’s a must. They should. I think that they’re trying to renovate, redo, and shine up this great history of ours, in the game of baseball. 

John Smoltz, a first-ballot Baseball Hall of Famer, eight-time All-Star and National League Cy Young Award winner, is FOX MLB’s lead game analyst. In addition to calling the network’s marquee regular season games, Smoltz is in the booth for the All-Star Game and a full slate of postseason matchups which include Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series assignments.

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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