For the Yankees, the 2017 season was the light at the end of a tolerable-but-not-great tunnel. The prior four seasons saw them mostly toiling in mediocrity, as they played in just one postseason game in that stretch, accompanied by a fair amount of roster turnover. But that ‘17 team had the flair (and youth) many loveable teams do, thanks in large part to their figurative and literal giant rookie. Aaron Judge had a cup of coffee in the majors in 2016, but little could have prepared everyone for just how special his 2017 campaign would be.
2017 Statistics: 155 games, 678 plate appearances, .284/.422/.627, 52 home runs, 114 RBI, 174 wRC+, 8.7 fWAR, 8.0 bWAR
As mentioned, Judge made his debut in 2016. Fitting for the player he’s become, he hit a home run in his first career plate appearance, moments after Tyler Austin did the exact same.
But overall, his debut season was forgettable otherwise, as he managed just a 62 wRC+ in 95 plate appearances.
Come 2017, big No. 99 earned himself a spot on New York’s Opening Day roster. He was the team’s fifth-ranked prospect, and given his obvious and unique athletic abilities, he came with some expectations. These would be expectations he would blow out of the water, and then some. It took him about a week to find his home run stroke, hitting his first of the year in Baltimore. He would hit another in each of the next two games, and would never look back.
Any way you look at it, 2017 was a special season for Judge, rookie or not. His 174 wRC+ was second in all of baseball, behind only an all-time great in Mike Trout. The 8.7 fWAR he managed to put up led all position players by more than a win. And of course, there was his whopping 52 long balls, then a record for rookies in the history of baseball.
From the beginning of the season through the end of June, Judge compiled 27 homers, and hit for a shocking 198 wRC+ over those three months of play. He had burst onto the scene as well as one could, and earned himself a starting spot on the American League’s All-Star team.
July and August were more pedestrian, as the big right fielder stopped producing at such astronomical levels. He was striking out a ton, and began to earn a fair amount of doubters. He responded, of course, by putting up easily his best month of the season in September. He hit 15 homers in the final month, and had a Bondsian 235 wRC+ to wrap up the final stretch of the regular season. He walked away easily with the AL’s Rookie of the Year award, and finished second in MVP voting behind Jose Altuve. He probably should have won that award, but that is a conversation for another day, and one that has probably happened more than enough times.
It was one of the best rookie seasons in major league history. He had the second-best wRC+ ever by a rookie with 400 plate appearances, behind only Joe Jackson, who did it three years after the Model T came out. Judge’s 8.7 fWAR ranked fourth all-time.
All of this said, even bigger than the standout numbers and specific accomplishments, was the aura that he established. He has something that few athletes do, particularly in baseball, in that he demands to be watched. I remember, in 2017, watching his 50th home run on my phone under the desk in a Stats 101 class.
He was (and still is) larger than life. At 6-foot-7, Judge was hitting baseballs in a fashion few are ever physically capable of. He was hitting monster homers at a historic rate, he won the Home Run Derby, and they constructed a section of Yankee Stadium in his honor. He did things in 2017, and has continued to since, that few franchises get to benefit from. As a baseball player, and simply just as a presence on a team.
Aaron Judge’s dominance in 2017 came as a surprise, but it was no fluke. As we’ve seen, he’s been able to maintain that greatness, and we just watched him have an even better season five years after the one highlighted here. Judge is the best Yankees development achievement in recent memory, and he’ll begin play in 2023 under a new nine-year deal. He’ll now look to further cement his place in Yankee history, which he established with a bang in 2017.