In 2010, a big-bodied outfielder from outside Sacramento was chosen by the Oakland A’s in the 31st round of the MLB Draft. He opted, instead, to attend college at Fresno State where his stock rose, turning him into a first round talent and opening the door for the Yankees to grab him as the 32nd-overall pick in the 2013 draft. And though that draft was less than four years ago, it feels like Yankee fans have been hearing about this kid for a decade. In the depths of a championship slump (respectfully, fans of other teams, it’s a slump for us), we began to turn our optimism toward the future—and he was top of the docket. Then, it happened.
On August 13th, 2016, we finally met Aaron Judge.
The dog days of August were kind to the Yankees in 2016; trades were made, veterans retired, and prospects entered. During what was supposed to be a complete retooling of the franchise, the new Yankee youth injected energy into the team and helped record the best month of year (17-11). No moment led to more sweaty summer high fives between friends, family, and any person on the street wearing a Yankee hat than Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge making their major league debuts with back-to-back homers. On that hot Saturday afternoon, the kid we’ve heard so much about stepped to the plate—a larger-than-life figure—and crushed a larger-than-life, 446-foot bomb off the windows in center.
Now, eight months removed from that legendary day, we look back at Judge’s 2016 campaign that saw 4 HR, 10 RBI, and a whopping 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances before being cut short by injury, and wonder what’s in store for his future.
Despite his obvious size, power, and strong arm, Judge was always a bit of a gamble. Scouting reports from his time at Fresno and the Cape league touted his offensive potential, but were weary of his ability to make solid contact and keep his strikeout totals down. We saw the evidence of that last year. However, Judge put in the work in the offseason to control his swing, become more patient at the plate, and try to improve those damning strikeout numbers. And—though it’s a small sample size—so far, it’s paying off.
After a tough, early start to the 2017 season (as it was for most young Yankees), Judge has begun to take off. He’s now putting up a strong .276/.364/.621 slash line on the season with three homers in his last four games. And these aren’t exactly cheap shots. He’s tearing the cover off the ball. He is also complementing that offense with some solid play in right field. The biggest sigh of relief comes from his seven strikeouts in 33 PA, yielding a much more favorable 21.2% strikeout rate to last year’s 44.2%. Most importantly, he looks comfortable and confident up there, seeing more pitches and shortening his swing.
The 2017 season, much like Number 99’s career, is young and full of hope. And, man, the Yankees would love to see him reach his potential. At this point, we can only speculate as to what that can be. After the show he’s put on over the last few games, is it outrageous to peg him as a 40-HR guy? What about 50? 80? Ok, pull it back. Sorry, it’s easy to get carried away with this kid. But, that’s the fun in a guy like Judge; we can daydream all we want and, in our minds, turn him into whatever player we want him to be. Without this sounding too much like a mean-old-Mr. Mertle Sandlot speech, it’s why we love the game. Irrationality is rational when it comes to baseball fandom. There’s no reason that an adult should believe that wearing a tee shirt inside-out and screaming at the TV is going to help other adults win a baseball game, but that doesn’t stop me from doing it and making my neighbors hate me. That’s just what the game does to us. So, yes, I take back my take-back: Aaron Judge could be an 80-HR guy. Because, why not?
Wild claims aside, Yankee fans want to see this guy become a star because, he’s our guy. He’s a homegrown Yankee that we’ve been hearing about, seemingly, forever. He possesses a physical presence and calm demeanor that makes him easy to love (hence the Bleacher Creatures dressed in Judges’ robes on a 70-degree Opening Day).
Judge also carries himself well and handles the media just like the Captain did—always attributing success to his teammates and putting winning in the forefront. As we know, with an organization like the Yankees, those intangibles go a long way.
For now, let’s just hope he can continue to have productive at bats, keep his strikeouts at bay, and move closer to the elusive “potential” we all dream of for the honorable Aaron Judge.