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Back to Back: The home runs that ignited the Yankees’ youth movement

Two at-bats encapsulated a shift in the Yankees’ organization.

The date is August 13, 2016. The New York Yankees enter play at 59-56, hosting the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are the only team below the Yankees in an otherwise airtight AL East division race, with the Yankees sitting in fourth place and six games behind the first-place Baltimore Orioles.

The Yankees said goodbye to a franchise icon the previous night, and in the wake of that decision they called up two prospects: Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin. The pair were set to make their major-league debuts that day, and were penciled in back-to-back in the lineup at the seven and eight slots. At the time, their arrival felt like a breath of fresh air after the sudden departure of some key figures in the organization. Before long, it would become an iconic changing of the guard to a new generation in Yankees history.

Before we get into their moment, however, we have to see how they got there.

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Throughout most of the Yankees’ storied history, a setting like this would be the setup to another grueling summer chasing down and outlasting their opponents in the pursuit of a postseason berth and the hope of another World Series title. This time, however, would be different. The Yankees had gotten off to a horrid April start, pushing themselves far down the ladder in the standings, and never got on a run hot enough to entertain the thought of true contention.

Management saw this earlier than the Steinbrenners did, but ultimately Brian Cashman got the approval to sell at the trade deadline and got a significant haul for the two best relievers on the market — Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. These Yankees, for the first time since the early 1990s, are admitting ahead of time that they aren’t primarily focused on pushing for the postseason this year.

Trading off pieces isn’t the only change that the team is making. The night prior, the Yankees held a ceremony celebrating the impromptu retirement of legendary third baseman Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod was a controversial player throughout his tenure in the Bronx, and was just two years removed from an ugly situation in which he sued the Yankees as part of the fallout from his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Rodriguez sat out the entire 2014 season from the inevitable suspension he received and looked near the end of his illustrious career then, but a sudden revival in 2015 appeared to buoy him.

That glimmer of hope saw him smash 33 home runs, the most he’d had since 2010, but it quickly faded in 2016. Rodriguez was a shell of his former MVP form, and came to an abrupt agreement with the team on a release from the final two years of his $275-million mega contract. His finale fittingly had moments of glory and awkwardness, as he went 1-for-4 with an RBI double and took over at the hot corner one last time in the ninth inning, but endured a showering of rain during his ceremony.

Tampa Bay Rays vs. New York Yankees

This was the stage that the two rookies were walking onto. The paths that Judge and Austin each took to get there were vastly different.

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Aaron Judge looked like a professional athlete from the moment that scouts set their eyes on him. It was just a question of which sport and what position he’d play. His 6-foot-7 frame enticed various football and basketball programs to inquire about him, and he received several offers from colleges to play tight end. He settled upon baseball, which offered a variety of choices as well. Judge spent time as a pitcher back in high school, most notably in his senior year where he made 11 appearances and 10 starts on the mound while collecting a 0.88 ERA.

While he was impressive on the mound, he was imposing in the batter’s box. Judge broke out during his senior year at Linden High, batting .500 with seven home runs and 32 RBI in just 27 games. MLB had noticed him, and now he had another major decision to make. The Oakland Athletics selected him in the 31st round of the 2010 draft, and had he signed with the A’s, history would’ve looked a lot different. Instead, Judge opted to go to college while staying local, committing to Fresno State.

In college, Judge continued the developmental path he’d picked up in high school, learning to hit to for contact early and adding power with every passing year. Judge hit only two home runs in his freshman season with the Bulldogs, but by his junior year Judge had become the team leader in long bombs with 12. Along the way he attended the College Home Run Derby, bashing 16 dingers to take the title.

There was no doubt that Judge was becoming an impressive prospect, and he wouldn’t need a senior season to convince teams otherwise. The Yankees selected him with the 32nd overall pick in the 2013 draft — a pick they had earned as compensation from former right fielder Nick Swisher signing with the Indians in the prior offseason — and tossed him $1.8 million to seal the deal.

2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft Photo by Paige Calamari/MLB via Getty Images

Judge began his professional career in 2014 down in Low-A Charleston, and he tore through the league. Judge put together a .333/.428/.530 slash line with nine home runs and 45 RBI in 65 games, earning a promotion to High-A Tampa where he continued to impress. His on-base skills remained constant, and while a slight decrease in his slugging indicated that the tougher competition was felt, Judge put up enough production to warrant jumping up again to start 2015.

By the time Judge broke camp with the Trenton Thunder, he was already beginning to collect accolades as a top prospect. MLB Pipeline had him listed in their preseason rankings as the 68th best prospect in baseball, and for the first half of the season Judge continued to live up to those expectations. His 12 home runs in 63 games had him on pace to not only set a new career mark but smash it, and he earned a promotion again. This time he would be arriving in Triple-A Scranton, the final checkpoint before earning the chance to put on the pinstripes.

His initial attempt at Triple-A pitching, however, didn’t go so well. Judge hit the first roadblock of his career, slashing just .224/.308/.373 and picking up eight more home runs. He still set a new career-high with 20 dingers on the season as a whole, but it was clear that he had cooled off significantly from the torrid pace he’d set earlier in the year.

The roadblock had denied him a chance to make it in 2015, but the stars were still aligning for Judge’s debut in 2016. He ranked 31st in the preseason by MLB Pipeline this time, and a midseason update moved him up to 22nd on the list. His slump in Triple-A last year was looking like an aberration, as the slugger was back to form and crushing baseballs yet again. A few weeks after that midseason update, Judge got the call. The arrival of a long-awaited top prospect was here.

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The road to the show would be lengthier for Tyler Austin. He was also a senior in high school for the 2010 draft class that Judge passed on, but Austin chose a different route. Playing as a catcher, third baseman and a pitcher back then, Austin garnered attention nationally and could expect a decent landing spot in the draft. Here’s a scouting report that Perfect Game had on Austin from 2009:

Well developed strong durable body. Quick transfer behind the plate, plus arm strength, has good athleticism and can shift his feet, works hard, should continue to get better. Prime power bat, extremely strong, projects to plus-plus power, good simple hitting mechanics, compact stroke with small load, outstanding hitting tools. Highest level prospect.

That’s some incredible praise, but things didn’t pan out the way they’d projected it for Austin a year later. Austin was selected by the Yankees in the 13th round of the draft, and decided to sign with the club. He played just two professional games that year, going 2-for-4 with the Gulf Coast Yankees, and made his first strides in the minors in 2011.

In 2012, Austin played across four different levels of the organization, the majority of his games coming in Charleston. Austin was putting together impressive numbers in Single-A, and he got a taste of the next level during a two-game stint with the Thunder. Overall, he slashed .322/.400/.599 and hit 17 home runs while driving in 80, signs that he was reaching the incredible promise that he showed in high school. Interestingly, the Yankees had shifted him away from the infield this year, instead having him play primarily in right field.

New York Yankees Photo Day Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Austin stayed at Trenton throughout his 2013 season, aside from a two-game stint back in the Gulf Coast. He took a significant step back this time, playing in just 83 games with the Thunder and slashing .257/.344/.373. 2014 proved to be more of the same, with Austin playing in 105 games and producing at a similar level, failing to make any notable progress.

The 2015 season began with Austin still in Trenton, but his path soon became blocked with Judge also arriving on the scene. Austin didn’t play particularly well to begin the year, collecting just two home runs and eight RBI in 21 games, but he got called up to Scranton to give Judge the starting role full-time while also opening up reps for Austin. The change didn’t help him much, however, as Austin struggled in Triple-A and Judge wound up earning a promotion of his own to once again take over the right field spot. A change was needed to keep Austin’s dreams of making the big leagues a possibility.

Austin moved back down to Trenton to begin 2016, but a fundamental change in his career had occurred. Austin swapped back to the infield, taking over first base full time. The change kept Austin in the lineup regularly, and the once-promising slugger began to reemerge. Austin earned a promotion back to Scranton after 50 games, and tore through the league with a new-found confidence. Now playing as a complement to Judge in the lineup rather than as a competitor, Austin slashed .323/.415/.637 and smashed 13 bombs in 57 games there. The Yankees, lacking a replacement for the aging veteran Mark Teixiera with stud prospect Greg Bird out for the year, noticed the charge Austin was making through the organization and gave him a shot.

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The two rookies were given the task of debuting against Rays starter Matt Andriese. Andriese was low on the totem pole for the Rays staff, a reflection of how deep Tampa Bay’s pitching prospects have been. Still, Andriese was no slouch and was pitching well for a club that simply couldn’t find enough offense to support its pitchers. The only way to victory for Andriese on that day was to limit the damage as best as he could and hope for some mistakes by his counterpart on the Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka. Andriese was doing his job well through the first six batters, allowing just a single in the first to Aaron Hicks.

After a strikeout from Starlin Castro to leadoff the second inning, Austin walked up to the plate with Judge in the on-deck circle. And the rest is history.

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