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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #16 Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge is moving up the list of all-time greats every year.

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New York Yankees v Texas Rangers - Game Two Photo by Ben Ludeman/Texas Rangers/Getty Images

Name: Aaron James Judge
Position: Outfielder
Born: April 26, 1992 (Sacramento, CA)
Yankee Years: 2016-present
Primary number: 99
Yankee statistics: 835 games, .282/.396/.586, 257 HR, 137 2B, 572 RBI, 560 BB, 164 OPS+, 165 wRC+, 57 DRS, 21 OAA, 41.5 rWAR, 41.8 fWAR

Biography

Walk into Yankee Stadium on any given day this season, and you will see Aaron Judge everywhere. Jerseys with the number 99 plastered across the back will outnumber every other number, and it won’t be particularly close either. Head out to right field on the first level, and you’ll see the Judge’s Chambers, a partitioned section in the seats dedicated in honor of the team captain. Stop by the second level before the fifth inning, and grab yourself a 99 Burger, a made-to-order burger that was so popular the team abandoned the “only 99 are made every game” gimmick soon after the season started. Swing by one of the team stores scattered throughout the stadium, and judge-themed memorabilia will be so prominent, someone unfamiliar with baseball would be forgiven for assuming Judge was the only good player on the league’s worst team.

Aaron Judge is the undisputed face of the Yankees, and remains alongside Shohei Ohtani one of the faces of Major League Baseball. Now entering his eighth full season, he finds himself in the elite company of the Yankees’ all-time greats. He holds the Yankees record for most home runs in a single season with 62 (also the AL record), joining Babe Ruth and Roger Maris as the only three players in AL history to hit 60 or more home runs in a season. His 257 career home runs ranks 10th in franchise history, his 41.8 fWAR 14th. He is one of 15 Yankees to have won an AL MVP, one of nine to win Rookie of the Year, and just the second to do both.

So long as Judge stays healthy, he’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Even were he to retire today, he’d be guaranteed a place in Monument Park, and his number is destined for retirement. That is enough to put him 16th on our all-time list of Yankees, and that number is sure to continue going up.

Early Life

Born April 26, 1992, Judge was adopted the next day by Patty and Wayne Judge, teachers in Linden, California. While a student at Linden High School, the towering three-sport athlete attracted attention on the football field, basketball court, and the baseball diamond. As a tight end, Judge set the school record for touchdowns, and put together a dominant senior season in which he caught 54 passes for 960 yards and 17 touchdowns. On the basketball court, he averaged a double-double with 18.2 points and 12.8 rebounds per game as the starting center.

While, as far as I can tell, Judge did not receive college offers for basketball, college football programs were throwing themselves at Judge: with Stanford, Michigan State, Notre Dame, and UCLA presenting him with offers to play wide receiver, defensive end, or tight end. It was his baseball career, though, that caught the most attention. Fresh off a senior year in which he posted a .500 batting average with seven home runs in 74 plate appearances as a first baseman while employing a nasty splitter to produce a 0.88 ERA in 48 innings on the mound, Judge was given an offer to join the Fresno State baseball team and was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the 31st round of the 2010 draft.

Tempting as it might have been, Judge turned down the A’s offer and honored his commitment to Fresno State. That turned out to be the best decision he could possibly make. While his large size and great athleticism surely drew eyes, many scouts were skeptical due to the small local leagues he had been playing in; they wanted to see him against tougher competition before truly assessing his talent.

From the time he first stepped on campus at Fresno, Judge showed that he had not been a large fish in a small pond, but a world class athlete. Moved to the outfield because Fresno already had the NCAA home run leader, Jordan Ribera, at first base, he was named Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American and Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year.

At the time, Judge was known more for his speed than his power — he stole 36 bases (compared to just 18 home runs), and was so fast that he was banned from the baseball team’s flag football league. Even so, he occasionally flashed the power that lay hidden underneath — perhaps hidden by his inability to find a bat large enough for him. The Bulldogs would later retire Judge’s No. 29 in the fall of 2023.

The Steady Climb

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

When Yankees scouts first looked at Judge out of high school, they were largely unmoved. When area scout Troy Afenir saw him in his junior year, however, he at once contacted Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees head of scouting. Impressed by not just his power potential but also his defense, baserunning, and ability to go to all fields, the Yankees scouts immediately recognized that he had showed himself as a five-tool athlete capable of being of a superstar. With three picks in the first round, the Yankees selected him with the 32nd overall pick of the 2013 draft, the compensation pick for allowing Nick Swisher to walk in free agency.

As would become a bit of a trend as he worked his way through the minors, things did not start smoothly for Judge, who tore a quad muscle soon after arriving with the organization that kept him out for the rest of the season. Because of the injury, Judge was sent to the team’s training facility in Tampa, where he met then Yankee Captain Derek Jeter. Bryan Hoch tells the story in 62:

It was not the start he’d envisioned, but one that allowed for an auspicious meeting. Judge recalled sitting at his locker one day, when Derek Jeter walked through the clubhouse, having just completed an on-field workout.

That year was a nightmare for Jeter, who was grinding to return after fracturing his left ankle in the previous year’s American League Championship Series. Jeter sized up the youngster in his line of sight, extended his right hand, and said, “Hey, Aaron, good to meet you.” Judge was stunned; he could not believe that Jeter knew his name.

“I’ve always remembered that, because he could have just walked by me, and he didn’t,” Judge said. “I’ve tried to learn from that and treat teammates the same way.”

Over the following three seasons, Judge slowly climbed the Yankees’ farm system, starting with the Low-A Charleston RiverDogs in 2014. Every time he reached a new level, he struggled, but in time, he would make adjustments and would begin dominating the level. By the middle of 2016, he was posting a .270/.366/.489 slash line for Triple-A Scranton, and with the major league team stumbling, the Yankees decided to cut Alex Rodriguez loose and promote their large prospect.

Immediately before Judge’s first big-league at bat, fellow rookie Tyler Austin, also making his MLB debut, belted a fly ball to right field that reached the short porch for a home run. No. 99 followed that up with a 446-foot mammoth of a blast, becoming just the third person to hit the ball off or over the sports bar above Monument Park. It was the first time in baseball history that two hitters making their debuts homered in their first time at the plate, and it happened back to back. Judge had etched himself in the history books, and not for the last time.

Unfortunately, that first game would be the highlight of his 2016 season, which was cut short due to an oblique strain. He posted just a .179/.263/.345 slash line, and struck out 42 times.

Rookie of the Year

Headed into spring training in 2017, Judge’s spot in the Bronx was far from secure. While the team was high on him, they were frustrated in his decision to forego the team’s workout plan and work with outside coaches to retool his swing, and his struggles the previous season meant the team wanted him to compete with Aaron Hicks for the right field job. Well, his training, designed to get his bat through the zone quicker, worked like a charm, and not only did he win the right field job — he put together one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time.

The 2017 Yankees came out of nowhere to reach the ALCS, and Judge was the big reason why. Batting eighth in the Opening Day lineup, he drove in Starlin Castro with a double for the Yankees’ first run of the season, and then never stopped. As the Yankees shook off a 1-4 start to the season, Judge began to heat up. On April 28th, he helped the team overcome first a 9-1 deficit, then an 11-9 one, with the first two-home run game of his career.

On May 28th, he hit his first career grand slam, helping the Yankees to a 9-5 win over the Athletics.

By the time June rolled around, Judge had hit a league-leading 17 home runs, won Rookie of the Month twice, and had claimed the third spot in the batting order — it was at this point that the Yankees, confident in Judge’s continued success, built the Judge’s Chambers.

July came, and the accolades continues. He added Player of the Month honors for June to his third straight Rookie of the Month. On July 5th, he tied Joe DiMaggio’s record for most home runs by a Yankee rookie with 29, then broke it two days later. He was named to his first career All-Star team, leading the AL in votes. While in Miami, he entered the Home Run Derby alongside then-teammate Gary Sánchez and future teammate Giancarlo Stanton, easily taking home the win.

Judge struggled a bit after the All-Star break, having agitated a shoulder injury from a few weeks prior during the Home Run Derby. This slow stretch — from July 14th to August 31st he slashed just .179/.346/.344 with seven home runs — is what ultimately robbed him of both his first AL MVP and his first shot at 62. Even so, he still managed to put together impressive highlights in that time, such as this monstrous home run in Safeco:

Ryan Ruocco’s “Good gosh, where is that going to land?” is still one of my all-time favorite home run calls.

Although it required offseason surgery, Judge’s shoulder got healthy enough during September that he won Rookie of the Month for the fourth time. All told, Judge’s final stat line looks ridiculous: .284/.422/.627, 52 home runs, 8.8 fWAR. The Rookie of the Year Award was never in doubt, and in truth, AL MVP should have been his too, even without the trashcan-induced controversy to come.

That October, Judge saw his first postseason action, and got his first playoff home run out of the way with a home run in the Wild Card Game. The Yankees made a run that October, but unfortunately fell short, losing to the Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS. At the time, it looked like it was the start of a beautiful period in Yankee history.

2018-21

How do you follow up a rookie campaign like that? While Judge wasn’t quite as dominant in 2018, he was still one of the game’s premier hitters: on July 26th, he had a .285/.398/.548 slash line and had hit 26 home runs. Then, he was plunked in the wrist by Kansas City Royals pitcher Jakob Junis; tests revealed a fractured bone, and he would not return to the lineup until the middle of September.

Thus was the beginning of an unfortunate pattern in Judge’s career. Since then, in every year except 2021 and 2022, Judge has suffered an injury that has kept him on the shelf for several weeks, often of a freak nature. On April 20, 2019, he strained his oblique, and he would go on to miss two months. During spring training in 2020, tests revealed a stress fracture in his rib and a partially collapsed lung, likely dating back to a game the previous year when he dove for a fly ball and felt a “crack and a pop” in his chest. While the delayed start to the 2020 season meant that he did not need to miss any time, a pair of calf injuries limited him to just 28 games that year.

Healthy for the first time in three years, Judge put together a very strong 2021 campaign, as he posted a .287/.373/.544 slash line with 39 home runs and 98 RBI in 148 games. He finished fourth in AL MVP voting after carrying a lackluster lineup to an AL Wild Card appearance, and although the team lost to the Red Sox in Fenway, the fact that they made it there at all was a testament to Judge’s consistent production day in and day out throughout the season.

62

On April 8, 2022, the Yankees and Aaron Judge called a press conference, in which the two sides announced that they had not come to terms on a long-term contract extension, and that Judge would be hitting free agency at the end of the season. It was not the start to a contract year that anybody — Judge, the Yankees, or the fans — wanted, and many were worried that this would become a distraction. Although Judge got off to a strong start to the year, he did not hit his first home run until the sixth game of the year, on April 13th, and he didn’t hit his second until more than a week later, on April 22nd. Was the pressure getting to the star outfielder?

Nonsense. Once the home runs started, they never stopped. Despite getting a late start to the home run party, he hit his league-leading 10th home run on May 10th — the first walkoff home run of his career, a monster three-run blast off Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano, which to this day ranks among the greatest games I have had the pleasure to recap here at PSA.

I’m still not sure exactly what Michael Kay meant by “This place would be up for grabs if he hits the long ball” as he tried to will the walk-off into existence, but “Up for grabs!” has become one of his most famous home run calls since then.

Judge continued to pile up home runs all summer, putting himself in the record books several times as he did so. A grand slam on July 6th marked his 30th home run, making him just the fourth player in franchise history to hit 30 before the All-Star Break — and the first to do it twice. On July 30th, he hit his 42nd home run, setting the record for most home runs before the end of a July in AL history; it was also the 200th of his career, making him the second-fastest in history to reach that mark (behind only Ryan Howard).

The 2022 Yankees, who looked so dominant early on, stumbled in August and the beginning of September, but Judge was not at fault. From August 1st to September 19th, he posted an unreal .362/.505/.759 slash with 16 home runs to bring him up to 59 on the season with 16 games to go. While his 34 runs batted in over that stretch was partially the result of Aaron Boone batting him leadoff to maximize his chances at the plate, it was more reflective of the fact that, aside from Judge, the Yankees offense was stuck in neutral for seven weeks.

Fortunately, when home run 60 came, it came in an instant classic. With the Yankees down 8-4 against the Pirates, Judge led off the bottom of the ninth with his 60th homer of the season, punctuated by Michael Kay’s call: “Slide over, Babe! You’ve got some company!”

To make sure that this game could get listed as a Yankee Classic without anyone feeling weird about it, his teammates picked up the slack. Anthony Rizzo doubled, Gleyber Torres worked a walk, Josh Donaldson singled, and Giancarlo Stanton hit the Yankees’ second ultimate grand slam in a month to complete the comeback.

At this point, opposing pitchers stopped pitching to Judge, not wanting to become the answer to a trivia question, and Judge began to slump a bit, clearly pressing as he tried to get the monkey of 61 and 62 off his back. With Roger Maris Jr. following the team around, and with college football fans getting irritated that their broadcasts would cut to the Yankees every time Judge came to bat, the home run leader did not hit another long ball for another week.

When it finally did come — off Tim Mayza in Toronto — Kay paid homage to Phil Rizzuto’s call of Roger Maris’s 61st with “This could be it!”

Six days later, on the penultimate day of the season, came 62.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, the postseason was not nearly as fun as the regular season. Although they managed to down Cleveland in the ALDS, the entire team struggled against their kryptonite, the Houston Astros, falling in a sweep. Judge in particular struggled, visibly exhausted after a draining month of September that saw him unable to take a day off as he chased history.

The disappointing end to the season, however, must not color Judge’s 2022 campaign. To call him dominant would be an understatement. He led the league in home runs with 62, 16 more than runner-up Kyle Schwarber, the largest lead since 1932. His 209 wRC+ was 20 points higher than Yordan Alvarez, and his 11.6 fWAR two wins more than Shohei Ohtani. He was, bar none, the best player in baseball that year, the worthy recipient of the AL MVP, Hank Aaron Award, and a Silver Slugger.

And it was the greatest walk year of all time.

Free Agency and Securing a Legacy

The tale of Aaron Judge’s free agency could be a book in itself. Starting with the perhaps ill-advised press conference at the start of the 2022 season, people began to wonder whether Judge actually wanted to return to the Bronx. He did, after all, grow up a San Francisco Giants fan, and the Giants had both a need in the outfield and a massive pile of money they were begging somebody, anybody, to take.

Throughout the process, Yankees fans panicked, first as they saw Judge very prominently visit San Francisco in November, then as he arrived in San Diego, the site of the Winter Meetings without telling the Yankees, then as Jon Heyman famously tweeted “Arson Judge appears headed to Giants.”

In the end, it all worked out: Hal Steinbrenner, on vacation in Italy, called Judge from Milan. With the Yankees offer “not close” to either the Giants or the Padres, the Yankees owner gave Judge the ninth year he wanted, completing a nine-year, $360 million contract designed to make Judge forever a Yankee; at the same time, he named Judge the team captain, the first one since Derek Jeter retired in 2014.

How did Aaron Judge follow up that 2022 campaign? By drilling the first home run of the 2023 season, that’s how.

Judge’s 2023 campaign marks, in my opinion, the greatest “What if?” season in recent memory. His final numbers are absolutely stellar — 37 home runs, a .267/.406/.613 slash line, 88 walks. However, due to an early-season hip injury and a torn ligament in his toe — the latter of which happened when he literally ran through a wall to make an incredible catch — he missed a significant portion of a season once again.

When Judge went on the shelf on June 4th, the Yankees had played 60 games, and he had 19 home runs, and that was despite missing two weeks with the hip injury. Had he remained healthy all year, another 60-homer campaign was not out of the question.

Despite missing so much time, Judge put together some impressive highlights, including his first career three-homer game (a game which yours truly was in attendance for).

Although Judge missed out on performance-based accolades due to the missed time, he did receive Major League Baseball’s most prestigious honor last year: the Roberto Clemente Award. Nominated for the work of his All Rise Foundation, which supports kids in both his native California and in New York, he became just the fourth Yankee to receive the award, alongside Jeter, Ron Guidry, and Don Baylor.

As we get ready for the 2024 season to get underway, it’s hard to truly quantify what Aaron Judge’s Yankee legacy is right now. All we can say, though, is that during that brief period in 2022 where we thought Judge was going to play for the San Francisco Giants, we all felt a pit in our stomachs, and I’m sure many would have pondered whether they would have needed to take a step back from baseball if he had signed elsewhere — myself included.

For this generation of Yankees fans, he’s their Derek Jeter, their Don Mattingly, their Thurman Munson, their Yogi Berra, their Joe DiMaggio, their Lou Gehrig: the homegrown hero, their face of the franchise. Decades from now, when we’re all old and turning gray, Aaron Judge will be the player we will talk to our children and grandchildren about, saying, “I watched Aaron Judge play.”

He has the Rookie of the Year, he has the AL MVP. The number will be retired, the plaque will be placed in Monument Park. Judge’s Yankees legacy is all but secure, and is missing just one thing:

A ring.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Staff rank: 16
Community rank: 17
Stats rank: 22
2013 rank: N/A

References

2013 Baseball Roster: Aaron Judge.” Gobulldogs.com. Accessed January 20, 20

Aaron Judge named recipient of the 2023 Roberto Clemente Award presented by Capital One.” MLB.com. October 30, 2023.

Apstein, Stephanie. “Powerful Yankees slugger Aaron Judge stands out, but all he wants to do is blend in.” Sports Illustrated. May 9, 2017.

Crouse, Jake. “Judge slams way into history with 30th homer before break.” MLB.com. July 7, 2022.

Cwik, Chris. “Yankees, Aaron Judge fail to reach contract extension before 2022 MLB season.” Yahoo! Sports. April 8, 2022.

Baseball Almanac — Aaron Judge

Baseball Reference — Aaron Judge

BR Bullpen — Aaron Judge

FanGraphs — Aaron Judge

FanGraphs — Yankees hitters, career

Frey, Thomas. “Potential American League home run king Aaron Judge was three-sport high school star in California.” MaxPreps.com. September 29, 2022.

Hermann, A.J. “New York Yankees MVP winners through the years.” YES Network. November 11, 2020.

Hoch, Bryan. 62: Aaron Judge, The New York Yankees, and the Pursuit of Greatness. New York: Atria Books, 2023.

Rivera, Marly. “Yankees’ Aaron Judge says rib improving, also had collapsed lung.” ESPN. May 20, 2020.

Rosenthal, Ken. “Aaron Judge’s free agency: How a small inner circle and a 3 a.m. phone call kept him a Yankee.” The Athletic. March 9, 2023.

Rosenthal, Ken et al. “Aaron Judge, Yankees agree to contract: Why he chose New York over Giants, Padres.The Athletic. December 7, 2022.

Yankees Awards.” MLB.com. Last updated August 19, 2013. Accessed January 20, 2024.

Previously on the Top 100

17. Red Ruffing
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