Aaron Judge was a first-round draft pick, so no one was surprised when he rose quickly through the minor leagues. Last season's trade deadline deals paved the way for Judge's debut on August 13th. His mammoth home run to dead-center field in his first major league at-bat began his meteoric rise to fame.
Enthusiasm for Judge was somewhat tempered with his high strikeout rate last season, but he won a spring training competition with Aaron Hicks to earn the starting job in right field. Since then, he has mounted a rookie campaign that ranks among the best in baseball history.
The Baby Bomber has wowed fans all year with his spectacular home runs. Judge hit a 495-foot blast on June 11th against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium, the longest measured by Statcast this year. He also holds the top four marks for home run exit velocity in 2017, with the highest being 121.1 miles per hour.
Through 83 games this season, Judge has hit a league-leading 30 home runs. It's the second most by a rookie in the first half of a season behind Mark McGwire, who hit 33 in 1987. Judge passed Joe DiMaggio on Friday night to claim the mantle of most home runs by a rookie in Yankees’ history.
Judge has been more patient and selective at the plate this season, drawing a league-leading 60 walks. He also leads the league with 75 runs scored, a .449 on-base percentage, .697 slugging average, and 1.146 OPS. He ranks second in the league with 66 runs batted in, behind Nelson Cruz (68). He is third in the league with a .330 batting average, behind Jose Ramirez (.332) and Jose Altuve (.342).
The rookie phenom has been at or near the top in all three Triple Crown categories for the entire season. If voting were held today, he would be the runaway winner for the Rookie of the Year Award, and would have to be considered a favorite to win the MVP Award.
Judge has done all this while dramatically reducing his strikeout rate. Last season he struck out 42 times in 95 plate appearances (44.2%), while this year he has 106 strikeouts in 361 plate appearances (29.4%). His strikeout-to-walk rate has improved from 21.4% last season to 56.6% this year.
Pitchers have issued more intentional walks to Judge this season, and they have also tried to get him to chase pitches out of the zone. To his credit, he has remained patient and hasn't chased. He has shown maturity in working the walk and passing the baton to the next man in the lineup.
The young outfielder has impressed with his defense as well, frequently showing off his range and arm. In short, Aaron Judge has done everything right. Baseball fans have recognized him for it, too.
Judge was the leading All-Star vote-getter in the American League, and second overall behind Bryce Harper. The young star becomes the third Yankees position player to be selected to start the All-Star Game in his rookie season, following legends DiMaggio and Hideki Matsui.
DiMaggio made his major league debut on May 3, 1936, going 3-for-6 with a triple and a RBI. DiMaggio propelled the Yankees to victory in his first four games. He went 9-for-21 with five runs batted in and six runs scored. The Yankees were one-half game out of first place when DiMaggio joined the team. They were 10 games up at the All-Star break and well on their way to returning to the World Series after a three year absence.
The Yankee Clipper had an 18-game hitting streak from mid-May to early June. He played in 57 games before the All-Star break, reaching base safely in 49 of them. He also had 31 multi-hit games. He finished the first half of the season with 11 home runs, 61 RBI, 61 runs scored, 27 doubles, and seven triples. He hit .354 with a .373 on-base percentage, .627 slugging average, and 1.000 OPS. He struck out only 14 times in 280 plate appearances.
DiMaggio was the first rookie from any team to play in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. He started in right field and hit third. DiMaggio went 0-for-5 and made an error in what would be his first of 13 All-Star appearances.
Joltin' Joe finished his rookie campaign with 29 home runs, 125 RBI, 132 runs scored, 44 doubles, and 15 triples. He hit .323 with a .352 on-base percentage, .576 slugging average, and .928 OPS. He struck out only 39 times in 668 plate appearances, and finished eighth in the MVP Award voting.
Matsui, on the other hand, took a different path to the majors and to rookie All-Star glory. He was a star in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, swatting 332 home runs over 10 years before signing with the Yankees prior to the 2003 season. The Yankees were keen to get back to the World Series following an early playoff exit in 2002. They signed Matsui to be a middle-of-the-order producer. He did not disappoint.
Fans anxiously awaited Godzilla's arrival in the Bronx. His first game at Yankee Stadium during the home opener was one for the ages. Batting with the bases loaded in the fifth inning, the sellout crowd stood and started chanting his name. Matsui hit a 3-2 pitch into the right-field bleachers for his first MLB home run. The grand slam proved to be the game-winner. Matsui was the first Yankee to hit a grand slam in his first game in the Bronx. He called it the "greatest moment" of his life.
In 93 games before the All-Star break, Matsui hit .299 with 30 doubles, nine home runs, 66 RBI, and 46 runs scored. He had a .356 on-base percentage, .449 slugging average, and .805 OPS. Matsui was a model of consistency, with hits in 70 games. He scored or drove in a run in 59 games, and was a big reason the Yankees held a two game lead in the AL East at the All-Star break.
Godzilla hit seventh and was the starting center fielder for the American League All-Star team at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. He was 1-for-2 with a single in his first of two consecutive All-Star appearances.
Matsui completed his rookie campaign with 16 home runs, 106 RBI, 82 runs scored, and 42 doubles in 163 games. He hit .287 with a .353 on-base percentage, .435 slugging average, and .788 OPS. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year Award voting, a mere four points behind Angel Berroa.
The excitement over Judge matches that which we witnessed for DiMaggio and Matsui. Like his legendary predecessors, he is beloved by fans not just for what he does on the field, but by the way he carries himself. He seems to always do and say the right things. He's a perfect fit for the Yankees. What will the second half of the season bring for Aaron Judge? No one can predict that. One thing is certain: It's going to be exciting to watch it unfold.