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Aaron Judge’s journey to becoming the best player in baseball

The path from 32nd overall pick to best hitter in the game.

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

Just one away! After his blast to leadoff the ninth inning of yesterday’s walk-off victory over the Pirates, Aaron Judge now sits at an even 60, just a single home run shy of equaling the AL record set by Roger Maris 61 years ago. So how exactly did the Yankees land the player who just tied Babe Ruth for the second-most home runs in a season in franchise history?

The Athletics drafted Judge out of high school in 31st round of 2010 Draft, but he decided to attend Fresno State. In three years, he batted .345/.451/.529 with 18 home runs and 93 RBI, and was named first-team All-Mountain West as a junior. That breakout junior campaign in addition to the growth during the Cape Cod Baseball League the summer before that got him to that point vaulted Judge into Day One of the 2013 MLB Draft.

Judge was expected to go in the middle-to-late first round, as despite his modest power output in college, teams could dream of unlocking endless pop from his supersized frame. The Yankees had the chance to pick Judge with the 26th overall selection, but took the risk that he’d still be available six picks later and instead used the selection on third baseman Eric Jagielo out of Notre Dame. (Jagielo was traded to the Reds in the Aroldis Chapman deal, played 42 games at Triple-A in his career, and has been out of baseball since 2019.)

Thus, they gave six teams the chance to prevent us from experiencing the awe and excitement that Judge has given Yankees fans. Luckily for the Yankees and their fans, the Reds, Cardinals, Rays, Rangers, and Braves all passed on Judge, and the mammoth slugger fell into the Yankees’ lap with the 32nd overall selection.

Of course, no story of Judge getting drafted by the Yankees is complete without recounting how they wound up with the 32nd selection. Nick Swisher, a free agent following the 2012 season, rejected the Yankees’ $13.3 million qualifying offer and instead signed with Cleveland for four years and $56 million. As a result, the Yankees received the 32nd selection as a compensatory pick and thus wound up with Judge. Of course, the most famous compensatory pick story also involves the Yankees, as the Angels were able to sign Mike Trout with the 25th pick of the 2009 draft, a pick they received as compensation for Mark Teixeira rejecting the QO and signing with the Yankees in free agency. How can you not be romantic about baseball? It’s almost like the universe made it up to New York four years later.

He progressed rapidly through the minors, making it to High-A in his first season of professional baseball, Double- and Triple-A the following year, and ultimately earned himself a second-half call-up in 2016 after spending the first part of the season in Triple-A. He always had high strikeout totals, but maintained a steady supply of well-above-average offensive production at all three levels to make it a no-brainer for the Yankees to hand him his major league debut on August 13, 2016.

We all remember how that debut went, with Judge homering in his very first MLB at-bat, going back-to-back with fellow debutante Tyler Austin who achieved the same feat just moments before. I’m confident many also remember that infamous stat that did the rounds — Judge striking out in half (42 of 84) of his at-bats that debut season as the swing and miss issues that cropped up in the minors reared its ugly head in his first taste of the bigs.

It’s that backdrop that made his AL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2017 so inconceivable. To go from a raw product with glaring holes in his swing to the literal best hitter in baseball just months later is one of the more remarkable 180s any of us will ever see from a player. How fitting then that he is on the cusp of greatness, again achieving feats on the baseball diamond that we may never see again.