Aaron Judge hit the dick off the baseball again last night:
This one “only” traveled 435 feet, but it was part of Judge’s first career three-hit game and played a big role in the first-place Yankees’ comeback 8-6 win over the Blue Jays. Judge is a Statcast darling—eight of the 23 hardest-hit balls this season have been his—and his towering home runs make him the most fun player to watch in baseball. But it’s so much more than entertainment. It’s May, and right now Aaron Judge just might be your MVP.
Judge leads the AL in home runs, and is tied for the lead in RBIs. He leads the league in slugging percentage and OPS. He’s fourth in OBP and seventh in batting average—he has not just been a one-dimensional slugger. He has, not for nothing, also played an excellent right field.
Judge says he hadn’t been this hot at the plate since “maybe tee-ball.” It was not supposed to be this easy, and maybe it never will be again.
The Yankees took Judge at No. 32 overall in the 2013 draft, a compensatory pick for Cleveland signing Nick Swisher. He wasn’t an obvious pick—his size a mark against him. Now listed at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, if Judge can merely stay in the majors for a couple of seasons he’ll join some elite company. Only 12 hitters in MLB history 6-foot-6 or taller have recorded more than 1,000 career plate appearances. But eight of them were All-Stars.
A big man’s swing is going to take longer, and his strike zone is going to be bigger, and he’s going to be prone to getting busted inside. But the Yankees gambled that Judge’s athleticism could make up for some of those natural holes—the fact that Judge played center field in college was their first piece of evidence that this wasn’t some hulking stiff.
“It wasn’t just Herman Munster out there,” said Yankees scout Brian Barber. “This was a super-big, super-strong athletic guy.”
You can see it in the field now, like with this diving catch on Tuesday:
Or in this leaping catch in Pittsburgh last month:
So maybe it’s not so strange that the Yankees didn’t exactly peg Judge as a pure power hitter. Because of Judge’s rounded skillset, and his habit of driving balls back up the middle (even with his taters, he’s clearly a line drive hitter at heart), scouts projected him as more of a hitter than a slugger. Obviously there would be power, but the power is almost incidental to a batter who tries to stay on top of the ball. The Derek Jeter comparisons—offered up by manager Joe Girardi this week, among others—aren’t inapt.
The biggest difference is that Judge was never a sure thing, not with the obvious red flag of contact issues. With his size and his developing power, Judge ran into the expected challenges in the minors—he couldn’t stop striking out. In 2014 in A-ball, he struck out once every 3.56 at-bats. In 2015 in double- and triple-A, he struck out once every 3.32 at-bats. In a 2016 call-up to the big leagues, Judge struck out 42 times in just 84 at-bats.
(So far in 2017, he’s got 27 Ks in 88 ABs, plus 15 walks.)
He made adjustments to his swing, but none of them seemed to take. GM Brian Cashman acknowledged this offseason that it had been a struggle.
“His history in the last two years of promotion in the Triple-A level and then last year with us was failure, adjustments, success,” Cashman said. “He experienced some failure at the major league level, and so I think that whole experience in the short sample will serve him well as he approaches 2017. And he’s got options. If he’s not quite ready, he gets to go down [to Triple-A] and finish himself off and wait until he’s ready.”
Judge, who turned 25 last month, had to win the right field job out of spring training, and while everyone’s a little pleasantly baffled by the intensity of the turnaround, they point to one recent adjustment—cutting down on his leg kick—as a big reason for his improved contact. By keeping his lower half quiet rather than propelling his body forward, he’s able to keep the barrel of his bat in the zone longer, and his timing and patience seems better. “I think he’s in his legs more,” Girardi said, which is a very baseball sort of phrase, but you can tell what he means.
None of any of this is to dare imply that Aaron Judge will be donging moonshots for the next decade. A team that’s seen luminaries like Kevin Maas, Shane Spencer, and Shelley Duncan rapidly flame out knows this. Major-league pitchers figure out hitters. They adjust, and then it’s on the young slugger to adjust right back. The Yankees are especially optimistic that Judge will be able to make those adjustments because he’s already had to make significant ones just to get to the majors. He’s a great athlete who’s not stuck in his ways, and shouldn’t be wedded to the long ball to be effective.
Nothing’s as sexy as the long ball, though, and Judge is already hearing “MVP” chants from a Yankee Stadium crowd that expected rookie-of-the-year runner-up Gary Sanchez to be the one leading the team’s youth movement. (Sanchez, who missed the last month with a strained bicep muscle, is playing in rehab games this week.) The crowd definitely didn’t expect the Yankees to be contenders in 2017, let alone 17-9 and a game off of baseball’s best record. So New York is Judge’s.
Still, there are perks to playing in a city that’s bigger than even the biggest beefiest home run boy. Judge says he can walk around town without being hassled for autographs.
“People are busy. They’ve got stuff to do,” he said. “They’ll be like, ‘Hi, how you doing? I’ve got to get to work or do something.’”
There is still plenty of room aboard the Aaron Judge bandwagon. You don’t even have to root for the Yankees to love what he’s doing. Though it certainly helps.