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Jerry Sullivan: Hard-hit balls a spectacle, and a bit frightening

Column as I see 'em, MLB edition:

On Saturday at Rogers Centre, the Yankees' Aaron Judge hit a ball on a low line to dead center field. Toronto's Kevin Pillar, a great defensive outfielder, froze for an instant, then sprinted back toward the wall and leaped. The ball clipped the top of his glove and went for a double.

My mouth hung open in awe. I wasn't sure I had ever seen a baseball hit that hard. Of course, nowadays, it doesn't take long to find out how hard a ball has been struck. Within seconds, MLB's Statcast system had informed us that Judge's shot had left his bat at an exit velocity of 116.2 mph.

It wasn't even Judge's hardest hit this year. According to Statcast, which was installed in all 30 MLB parks in 2015, Judge has driven the ball at a faster velocity on five previous occasions. His best, which leads the MLB, was a homer against the O's Kevin Gausman which left the yard at 119.4 mph on April 28.

Judge, who is 6-7, 282 pounds, has 11 of the 35 highest velocity hits of the season. He also has the second-fastest at 119.0 mph, on a double against the Cubs' Kyle Hendricks in early May. Miami's Giancarlo Stanton is next with four of the top 35 and Baltimore's Mark Trumbo has three.

"We talk about it," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "We watch it. We see what he does in batting practice and the game. It's got to be somewhat concerning when he hits the ball through the middle."

Every Judge at-bat has become an event. At Yankee Stadium, the video board shows a gavel with the words "All Rise" before his first trip to the plate in each game. Fans rise in unison. But as Girardi suggested, you have to wonder if the risk to opposing pitchers is rising, too.

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The batters keep getting bigger. Stanton stands 6-6, 245 pounds. Avisail Garcia of the White Sox, who has the highest-recorded exit velocity at 125.2 mph last season, is 6-4, 240. The pitchers are getting bigger and throwing harder. It stands to reason the balls would be flying off bats faster.

"The other day, we were in Baltimore and Trumbo hit one like that over Judge's head," said Yankee left fielder Brett Gardner. "I thought to myself, 'He got a taste of his own medicine, because he does that to guys all the time'. It's ridiculous how hard the ball comes off his bat."

Gardner agreed that it's becoming dangerous for pitchers on balls hit back through the box. Not to mention his own teammates.

"Friday in the first inning, I was on third base getting my lead, 20, 25 feet down the line," Gardner said. "I'm 65-70 feet from home plate. Hopefully, he won't turn on a slider foul, because I'm right there. You got to have your head on a swivel, because it can get on you in a hurry."

It's a real concern. Ten years ago this July, Mike Coolbaugh died instantly when a foul line drive struck him in the neck while he was coaching first base in a minor-league game in Arkansas.

In recent years, pitchers J.A. Happ, Brandon McCarthy and Alex Cobb were struck in the head by line drives. Happ suffered a fractured skull. McCarthy suffered an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture. Cobb had a concussion and suffered from vertigo for months.

All of them recovered and are still pitching in the big leagues. But with balls flying off bats at such great speeds, you wonder if it's only a matter of time before another pitcher gets seriously hurt, or worse.

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* * *

Want more evidence that MLB players are getting stronger and more powerful? Home runs and strikeouts are again trending at all-time high levels. Strikeouts are on pace to increase for a staggering 12th straight season, by a comfortable margin.

Last season, there were 8.03 K's per game per team, the first time it reached eight. This year, it's up to 8.23 per game.

Look at the box scores. The Rangers struck out 18 times against Houston on Saturday. The Brewers fanned 26 times in a 12-inning loss to the Dodgers late Friday. The Reds and Phillies both whiffed 15 times Wednesday. The Rangers struck out 20 times in a nine-inning loss at Boston on May 25.

As a fan of box scores, I notice when a batter has taken the dreaded "golden sombrero" by striking out four times. It used to be pretty rare. Now it seems to happen at least once a day. The Phillies' Odubel Herrera struck out five times against the Rockies. Is that a platinum sombrero?

Home runs, which were up 30 percent from 2014-16, are up again to 1.23 per team per game. The record is 1.17, set in 2000 at the height of the steroid era. Last year was No. 2 all-time at 1.16 homers per game.

It's all about power nowadays. And the trend keeps pointing up.

* * *

Speaking of power, an MLB record seven grand slams were hit on Saturday. There had never been five in one day before. The sixth slam of the day was also Albert Pujols' 600th career home run.

The Angels' Pujols went deep on a hanging slider from the Twins' Ervin Santana, his fellow Dominican. He's the ninth player in the 600-homer club. The others are Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Alex Rodriguez (696), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630), Jim Thome (612) and Sammy Sosa (609).

Pujols, 37, is the first player to hit a slam for his 600th homer. He's younger than Bonds was when he hit his 600th. At the same age (37 years, 4 months, 18 days), Bonds had 567 home runs. He hit 195 more. As we know, he had a little performance boost in his twilight years.

* * *

Jacoby Ellsbury was supposed to take batting practice Friday, but the Yankees' veteran outfielder suffered recurring headaches from a concussion and was shut down. Ellsbury, who was injured banging into the center-field wall at Kansas City on May 24, is expected to see a neurologist when the team returns home from Toronto.

The Yanks haven't missed Ellsbury much. Aaron Hicks, a former top prospect who struggled in his first three years in Minnesota and in his first season as a Yankee, has blossomed into one of the top hitters in the AL.

Hicks, 27, was a .220 hitter and poor slugger his first four seasons. But through Saturday, he was ninth in the AL in batting (.321), second in on-base percentage (.434) to Mike Trout and third in slugging (.582) behind Trout and Judge.

Girardi was determined to give Hicks, a switch-hitter, more at-bats this season. He began the year as the fourth outfielder, but his hot bat and fine defense bought him more playing time and he took over as the center fielder when Ellsbury got hurt.

Ellsbury, who has a base salary of $21 million, will play if he's healthy. But it'll be hard for Girardi to keep Hicks out of the lineup. At any rate, it's looking like they got a bargain when they got him from the Twins for catcher John Ryan Murphy.

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