With the Baltimore Orioles in the Bronx this weekend and Aaron Judge fresh off of hitting his historic 61st home run, it seemed apropos to think back to another Judge dinger, one he hit against Baltimore. It’s one that led me to wonder just how limitless Judge’s power and potential really were.
It’s easy to forget now that Judge’s 2016 cup of coffee with the big club didn’t exactly go all that swimmingly. Notwithstanding his first at-bat, when he hit the latter of back-to-back dingers with Tyler Austin, he struggled at the plate in his first look at major league pitching. There was reason to question what the Yankees would get from Judge as 2017 came around. He had whiffed, after all, at a 44.2-percent rate with a paltry .608 OPS in his 27-game autumn cameo.
But Judge didn’t waste much time in his second go-around putting Yankees fans’ minds at ease. He won the starting job in right field out of spring training, and by the time the calendar turned to May, he had won consecutive AL Rookie of the Month honors and was in double-digits with 10 home runs. Moreover, Judge seemed to be holding a personal grudge against Baltimore (maybe not quite like 2019 Gleyber Torres, but close). By the time the two clubs faced off on June 11th, Judge had already shellacked them to the tune of 6 round-trippers and 13 RBI in 11 games.
In fact, after No. 99 clubbed what was then the hardest-hit homer in Statcast history at 121.1 mph (382 feet) the night before, teammate Matt Holliday gave a prescient quote to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports:
Holliday probably wasn’t expecting the very next day for one of those “silly things” to transpire, but he can’t have been terribly surprised by it either.
On June 11th, Judge took everything to a whole new level. When he came to the dish in the first inning, he knocked a one-out single, later coming around to score on a Starlin Castro base hit. He walked his next time up, in the second, and then mashed a double in the fourth. In the bottom of the sixth, Judge face right-hander Logan Verrett, who unbeknownst to him was making the final appearance of his three-year career.
With one out and no one on, Judge erupted on a hanging slider from Verrett:
Michael Kay sounded like he was having trouble processing that titanic shot and honestly, when I watch it five years later, I’m still as shocked as Didi Gregorius in that clip every time. That four-bagger sailed 495 feet and 118.6 mph off the bat — not as fast as on June 10th, but with a more cartoonish distance. It boggles the mind to see anyone do that, much less a rookie.
Fellow Baby Bomber Gary Sánchez felt the same way.
"I've never seen anything like that. Did it go over the bleachers? I've never seen that." - Gary Sanchez on Aaron Judge— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) June 11, 2017
Judge had already hit some long home runs in his young career, but that one shot him up to the top of the list of guys who can hit baseballs farther than anyone else. Unreal. Don’t blink. Seriously. You’ll miss it.
Anyway, Judge had just smashed a ball 500 feet, give or take a yard or so. To this day, that monster blast is on my Mount Rushmore of Aaron Judge random moonshots. Since no one asked, the other three are probably the Seattle shot that left Ryan Ruocco in awe, the Citi Field dinger that Yoenis Cespedes didn’t even deign to move for, and a bomb at Fenway that prompted Matt Vasgersian to yell almost incoherently in excitement and amazement.
But we’ve gone a bit afield. June 11, 2017 was not over yet, and Aaron Judge was not yet done. He came back to the dish in the bottom of the seventh, and unloaded again for his second home run in as many innings. This one was a two-run shot. When the dust finally settled at the end of the game, Judge was 4-for 4-with a walk, two home runs, four runs scored, and three RBI. Per Bryan Hoch, he was the first Yankee to record such a game since no less a luminary than Mickey Mantle.
Aaron Judge is the youngest Yankee to go 4-for-4 with two homers since Mickey Mantle on May 18, 1956.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) June 11, 2017
Judge’s slash line for the season was an eye-popping .344/.450/.718 with a then-rookie record 52 homers. It was his last multi-homer game until September but it launched him on a trajectory that, even five years later, is hard to fathom.
A little over a month later, Judge headed to the All-Star Game in Miami, ready to show everyone what he showed Baltimore in early June. His performance at the Home Run Derby, a prodigious display of power that defied physics, led to one of the all-time great reactions by his then-teammate Dellin Betances.
Judge ultimately won the Derby by depositing 11 home runs into the seats in the final round. Far from content, he didn’t stop with the Midsummer Classic. The Yankees fought their way into the playoffs as a Wild Card team behind his Rookie of the Year campaign that also earned him runner-up MVP honors.
And in the postseason, Judge just kept on hitting. In his first ever playoff appearance, the young slugger showed off the sangfroid we’ve come to expect from the veteran version, parking a two-run dinger over the left field wall when the Yankees were only ahead of the Twins by one in the do-or-die AL Wild Card Game. All told, by the time New York bowed out after a hard-fought seven-game ALCS against Houston, Judge had clubbed four home runs in his first taste of October baseball.
Five years later, Judge is still crushing baseballs. I think one difference though is that we’re no longer stunned when he belts out some ungodly distance. “Shock and awe” probably wore off for most of us some time in 2017. So while we still appreciate his power, it’s a familiar appreciation rather than that borne of disbelief.
It’s also fitting that, years after he broke into the big leagues by crushing balls that littered the Statcast leaderboard, his 61st home run of the season was his hardest hit roundtripper of 2022, registering at 117.4-mph. Here’s hoping Judge has another towering blast in his bat this weekend. Five years after he unloaded a 495-footer, it’d be quite neat to see him do something similar in pursuit of baseball immortality.