Aaron Judge has arrived, and the baseball community has taken notice. Pitchers shy away from him. Opposing hitters watch his batting practice sessions in awe. His own teammates cling to the dugout railing when he steps into the box. In a few short weeks, Judge has become a budding superstar, a role model, and a folk hero. How about that for a rookie?
When news of a player’s success spreads, the exaggerated comparisons surely follow. We’ve seen a number of high profile analogies in recent years. Mike Trout is the next Mickey Mantle, Zach Britton the next Mariano Rivera, the list goes on. Now it’s Judge’s turn, as comparisons to Derek Jeter have reached critical mass in the last few days.
"He is a little bit like Derek for me," Yankees manager Joe Girardi told ESPN. “I understand that is a big comparison, but I remember Derek when he was young. He grew into that leadership role, but that was Derek. Derek loved to have fun, loved to laugh and loved to play the game."
Girardi isn’t the only one who likened Judge to the Captain. Yankees radio announcer John Sterling compared Judge’s over-the-wall catch at Fenway Park to Jeter’s 2004 dive into the stands. The YES Network booth made similar comments during their broadcast. Even some national writers are in on the game. A plethora of commentators and fans alike have driven home the “Judge is the next Jeter” narrative.
In some ways, this makes sense. The human mind craves order. When it comes to information processing, the brain looks for patterns and attempts to assign meaning. Baseball is not immune to this line of thinking. Judge and Jeter share certain qualities, and while the former is just beginning his career, the latter’s numbers belong to history. In an attempt to grapple with the unknown of Judge’s future, it’s tempting to compare him to Jeter. Psychologists call this the representativeness heuristic.
There are several reasons why these comparisons prove troublesome. First, as mentioned earlier, they’re cliché. They also have a tendency to create unreasonable expectations. Jeter will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He accrued an insane 71.8 fWAR over a 19-year career. It’s not fair to impose those standards on anyone, even a player as talented as Judge.
More importantly, however, those comparisons rob us of an opportunity to enjoy Judge for the player he is. I write this as he just smashed his 13th home run of the season. Every at-bat has become must-see television. Whenever Judge makes contact, the crowd at Yankee Stadium gasps. It’s not a stretch to say he brings a level of excitement to the Bronx, one largely absent since 2009.
Earlier this week, Kunj Shah wrote that it was okay for Yankees fans to enjoy the club’s April record. This holds true for Judge as well. It’s fine to appreciate his performance for its own sake. Who knows where his career will take him. In five years, he might be perennial MVP candidate. He could also be entirely out of baseball. Heck, anything could happen. There’s no guarantee that baseball will still exist in five years time. Enjoy the show Judge is putting on now. Leave the comparisons for another time.
For their part, both Judge and Jeter have handled the situation admirably. “There is only one Derek Jeter,” Judge told reporters. “It is a great compliment. I'm honored to be in the same sentence. I'm trying to be the best Aaron Judge I can be."
Jeter recently spoke highly of the the Yankees right fielder. “I’m a fan of his,” he told Yankees.com. In typical Jeter fashion, he avoided direct comparisons. There exists a mutual respect, a healthy acknowledgement of talent. This represents a far better alternative than the heir apparent narrative.
During his prospect days, I was the high person on Judge. I thought he had a legitimate chance to be an above average everyday player. So far, he’s blown me away with his mammoth power and disciplined approach. He just might be the superstar the Yankees have lacked over the last several season. While it might feel comfortable to reach for the Jeter comparison, hold off for a little while. You might miss the fun of the ride.