Why you should care
Because this young Yankee has a Jeter-size hole to fill.
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Video by Kevin O’Dowd.
Years ago, before batted-ball radar and virtual home-run trackers, the quality of a hit could be gauged by a simple sound test: a sweet, deafening thwack that sends fans scrambling in the bleachers. When Aaron Judge takes batting practice, your ears tell you all there is to know. The New York Yankees’ hulking rookie is putting on a show.
For the first time in more than two decades, uncertainty surrounds the Yankees. Major League Baseball’s winningest franchise has long been a symbol of sustained excellence in sports, but this year, following a season in which the Yanks missed the playoffs, a changing of the guard is in order. A crop of young talent has invaded the starting lineup. Along with fellow rookies Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez, Judge anchors a storied franchise that is both contending and rebuilding. Fans have already dubbed him “New York’s next great power hitter.” Hope is in the air. For the time being, patience is too. But will the first-round draft pick live up to the hype? So far, so good.
A week before Opening Day, at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa, Brian Cashman, the team’s general manager, leans onto the top step of the dugout. As the boss tells it, Judge is still finding his way, but “if he hits, he’s going to hit big. He has potential to be a huge difference maker in the middle of this lineup.”
At 6′7″ and a chiseled 280 pounds, 24-year-old Judge appears more NFL tight end than fleet-of-foot outfielder. Few players his size carve out successful baseball careers; high strikeout rates and subpar defense tend to plague the big men. But Judge’s elite athleticism makes him a nearly incomparable prospect. Still, baseball wasn’t always the obvious path. Growing up in the rural community of Linden, California, he used sports as an excuse to stay outdoors. In fact, Judge figured he would follow in his parents’ — and his older brother’s — footsteps as “a science or math teacher.” By high school, though, the man-child was a three-sport star: baseball, basketball and football. He earned football scholarships from major colleges across the West Coast. But when the Oakland Athletics drafted Judge in the 31st round of the 2010 MLB draft, baseball became his obvious track. Judge, though, wasn’t quite ready for the pros. “It wasn’t until heading into college that I thought I had a [pro] future,” he tells OZY.
At Fresno State, two hours south of Linden, Judge blossomed. In 2012, following his sophomore season, Judge won the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby. That summer, he was named the No. 3 prospect in Cape Cod, the best amateur summer league in the country. Nine months later, the Yankees made him the No. 32 pick of the 2013 draft. Judge inked a $1.8 million signing bonus but missed the 2013 season due to injury. Then, in two and a half seasons from 2014 to 2016, Judge broke out, slugging 56 home runs. Desperate Yankee fans salivated, but Cashman and manager Joe Girardi cautioned that the young phenom wasn’t ready. Eventually the Yankees brass gave in to intrigue. In his first major league at bat, Judge followed a home run by fellow rookie Tyler Austin with a line-drive launch of his own. It was the first time in MLB history that two players hit back-to-back home runs in their major league debuts.
On top of the strong start in New York, that modesty has endeared Judge to fans and teammates alike. It’s also earned him a long leash. Judge followed up his debut with a second slam the next day — after that, he went ice cold. In 95 plate appearances with the Yankees last season, Judge had a paltry .179 batting average. Worse still: 42 strikeouts. Given his size and tendency to swing for power, strikeouts will always be a part of Judge’s game; the goal is to cut that whiff rate from nearly 50 percent to an acceptable 25. Luckily, in New York there’s no shortage of Yankee legends who can provide guidance. “I’ve had a chance to learn from [Derek] Jeter, A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], Mark Teixeira,” Judge tells OZY.
So far, year two is off to a perfect start. Through 14 games, Judge is hitting .277 with 12 RBIs. He leads the team in home runs with five, is second in total bases (31) and, so far, is only striking out at a 22 percent clip. Entering the season, Girardi insisted that Judge was still battling for a starting position, telling OZY that the Yankees were “still evaluating our right fielders.” Three weeks in, Judge has taken the AL East by storm. With rookie superstar Gary Sanchez out until mid-May with a bicep injury, Judge is arguably the most important Yankee in the lineup — one of the few players capable of singlehandedly powering the Bronx Bombers to victory.
But is a lengthy career in pinstripes in the cards? With one of the strongest minor league farm systems in baseball, the Yankees will inevitably need to trade some young stars. Judge’s combination of size, speed and raw power – rivaled only by Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton, who recently signed the largest contract in MLB history — would command a massive return on the trade market. His hot start has surely endeared him to Cashman, but it has also raised his price of potential return.
So, will a Judge plaque one day reside in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park? According to Cashman, his young slugger has plenty of time. Whether that’s in the Bronx or elsewhere remains to be seen. Either way, the crack of Judge’s bat will tell fans where to look.