Last weekend, while his team was being pummeled by Bunyanesque New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter joked: “If they start letting me shift guys into the bleachers then maybe I can get Judge out.’’
Given how hard and how far Judge hits baseballs, even that strategy might not work.
Less than an hour after Showalter’s proposed shift, Judge smashed a ball that traveled 495 feet, the longest blast in the new Yankee Stadium and the farthest a homer has flown since Giancarlo Stanton’s 504-footer last August. Had Judge’s prodigious drive not been impeded by a fan’s hands beyond the left-centerfield bleachers, who knows how far it might have gone—perhaps through the back wall of the big ballpark in the Bronx and all the way to Albany.
Earlier in the series, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound rookie hit a shorter but harder homer that was clocked by Statcast at 121 mph off the bat. It was the hardest-hit ball ever recorded by the tracking firm, which has been measuring velocity and distance in big-league ballparks since 2009.
Judge’s at-bats have become must-watch events because you never know where his next homer might land. Heck, he is so strong, even his swings and misses produce oohs and aahs, not to mention enough of a breeze to make flags flap.
It is dangerous to rush to “judgement.” The sample size for Judge is still small, but as of this writing he was leading the American League in the three triple-crown categories—homers, runs batted in and batting average—and conjuring memories of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson, three Bronx Bomber legends with reputations for launching baseballs to destinations never before visited.
We’ve seen other sluggers explode onto the scene, only to become flashes-in-the-pan. But I’d be shocked if Judge becomes a one-season wonder. He’s just too good a ballplayer, and, reportedly, a good guy to boot.
A native of Linden, Calif., a tiny farming town southeast of Sacramento, Judge has won over teammates with his flashy bat, glove and arm and humble demeanor. Although he literally stands out in a crowd, he revels in being one of the guys. Veteran outfielder Brett Gardner, who has taken him under his wing, loves busting his chops.
“He’s just a gentle giant, a big kid who loves playing this game,’’ Gardner told a reporter. “There are no airs about him. As great as his talent is—and it’s off the charts—he is all about the team. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to help us win.’’
That was never more apparent than a few weeks ago when he helped the Yankees win two games with his glove. His catch of a foul ball while tumbling into the stands at Fenway Park in Boston provoked memories of a similar snag by Derek Jeter against the Red Sox years earlier.
The comparisons with Jeter, of course, are inevitable. Though dramatically different ballplayers, they do seem to have similar personalities. Judge’s modesty comes through in interviews. Like Jeter, it is difficult to get Judge to talk much about himself. He is quick to change the subject, deflect praise to others.
The 25-year-old right fielder is having a season that no one, not even him, could have envisioned after last year’s major-league cameo, in which he struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats and finished with a paltry .179 batting average. Some thought Judge’s size, particularly his huge strike zone, would result in him becoming a huge disappointment. To his credit, he has worked diligently on laying off pitches out of the strike zone. By becoming more selective, he has drastically reduced his strikeouts while leading the league in walks. Judge’s discipline is sure to be tested as the season progresses because more teams are going to pitch around him rather than risk having him launch a ball to Jupiter.
Not surprisingly, fans have come to love him in a way reminiscent of Jeter, Mantle and Ruth in their primes. The “Judge’s Chambers” for robe-wearing fans in right field at Yankee Stadium has becoming one of the happiest places in sports.
Major League Baseball was worried about who would become its face once Jeter retired. Mike Trout, who is still the best player on the planet and maybe the best athlete on the planet, should have ascended to that throne. But the two-time Most Valuable Player has the misfortune of playing for the Los Angeles Angels on the left coast. Trout’s greatness often occurs while 70 percent of the country is asleep. Had he been playing for the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles or Washington Nationals, he’d be a superhero by now.
Judge recently passed Trout as the top American League All-Star vote-getter among fans, and his pinstriped No. 99 jersey is the hottest seller in sports. MLB officials have to be ecstatic because Judge checks all the boxes for them. His home runs already have become the stuff of legend. He plays for the most famous sports franchise in the world’s largest media market. He has an infectious smile and humble personality and is gracious with everyone he meets. And he could become the African-American ballplayer who lures more black kids to take up the game and more black fans to watch it after a generation of migration away from baseball to other sports.
Judge could have migrated to the NFL as a tight end or the NBA as a small forward. He certainly has the build and the talent. But baseball has always been his passion. And, for that, lovers of the game should be grateful.
The verdict on this Judge won’t be rendered for years. But I think this phenom has a better chance of becoming the next Mickey Mantle than the next Mickey Klutts.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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