Through 86 Yankees games this season, Aaron Judge is ahead of...

Through 86 Yankees games this season, Aaron Judge is ahead of his AL record-setting home run pace from 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Toward the end of May — with Aaron Judge in the midst of a historic month that begat a June that was just as good, if not better — a rival American League coach spoke by phone about game-planning for the outfielder.

“Honestly, when he’s going like this,” the coach said, “you’re really just hoping he gets himself out.”

He laughed.

“Pretty sound strategy, right?” he added.

Still, not much else has worked the last two months.

Judge, the American League Player of the Month in May after hitting .361 with a 1.397 OPS, 14 homers and 27 RBIs in 28 games, just finished a June in which he hit .409 with a 1.378 OPS, 11 homers and 37 RBIs in 25 games.

Judge, the 2022 American League MVP, is halfway to his home run total from that season, when he hit an AL-record 62. He entered Monday’s off day hitting .316 with 31 homers, 82 RBIs and a 1.144 OPS in 84 games. He leads the majors in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage (.708), is one point behind the Angels' Luis Rengifo for the MLB lead in batting average and, at .436, is one point behind teammate Juan Soto for the MLB lead in on-base percentage.

In his last 50 games, beginning on May 4, Judge has a .398/.507/.932 slash line with 25 home runs, 64 RBIs, 70 hits and 36 walks.  

All of that after ending April hitting .207 with six homers, 18 RBIs and a .754 OPS in 31 games. His batting average dipped to .197 on May 2, and then he took off.

“It’s really how you see guys grow into greatness,” hitting coach James Rowson said Sunday in Toronto after Judge went 2-for-4, including his 31st homer,  in the Yankees’ 8-1 victory. “You watch him, he’s grown into greatness.”

Rowson, the Yankees' first-year hitting coach, has had a unique vantage point watching that growth.

Rowson served as the organization’s minor-league hitting coordinator from 2014-16, connecting with Judge, a first-round pick of the Yankees in 2013, just as his professional career was starting. After stops elsewhere — which included serving as the Twins' hitting coach from 2017-19 and the Marlins' bench coach from 2020-22 — Rowson returned to the Yankees this season.

“He’s always had all the characteristics, he’s always shown all those things coming up,” Rowson said. “But the experience he’s had in the big leagues, the adjustments that he’s made . . . he’s great now, but many will kind of forget, he had to work at it. He didn’t just come here and have that. He worked through it and he became what he is today.”

Just about every Judge devotee can tell you about the then-prospect homering off Rays righty Matt Andriese in his first big-league at-bat on Aug. 13, 2016, at the Stadium. They might recall Judge homering in his second game, too, and starting his career 5-for-10 with two homers in his first three games.

Less remembered are the 24 games that followed, when Judge hit .135 and had a .447 OPS, striking out 40 times in 74 at-bats. His season ended when he suffered an oblique strain on Sept. 13, his .179 batting average in the books forever.

It's a number that, to this day, glares at Judge every time he opens the Notes app on his phone. It is there that he keeps an extensive log of pitchers’ tendencies and strategies used against him — past and future — but also where he jots down things he might have learned that day during batting practice or work he’s done behind the scenes in the cages. And much, much more.

But upon opening the app — a multiple-times-a-day occurrence for Judge, an obsessive-compulsive when it comes to preparation — there it is always: .179.

“Just a reminder that, hey, you’re never a finished product,” Judge has said over the years.

That provides at least some insight into why Judge in public will never, ever cop to feeling “locked in” at the plate. He'll never say anything that comes close to suggesting he has figured out a game that defies figuring out.

“He’s so smart. He’s a smart player,” Rowson said. “This is a guy who spends time looking at how he’s going to be attacked. He spends time on understanding opposing pitchers as much as he spends time on his swing and trusting his swing. He covers all the bases.”

Rowson added: “I don’t think there’s a specific way where you can say, ‘We’re going to get him out this way.' Because he’s not going to allow you to continue to do the same thing to get him out. He’s going to make adjustments. I think he’s shown that throughout his career, his ability to make adjustments. When you adjust, he’s going to adjust.”

Multiple rival scouts have said that one of the most impressive things  about Judge over the years is his ability to close the “holes” in his swing.

“If there’s a hole, I can promise you, it won’t be open long,” Rowson said. “Because he’s going to make the adjustment and close that hole on his own.”

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