Is there anything more Aaron Judge can do for an encore?
TAMPA, Fla. — The man ultimately responsible for Aaron Judge’s return to the Yankees, the one who bestowed the third-largest contract in baseball history upon the outfielder in December, pondered for a half-second what Judge’s encore to his historic 2022 season might look like.
“I think great things,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner told Newsday toward the end of spring training during a wide-ranging interview. “Because if you think about that he did what he did [in 2022] — and I’m not just talking about the 61 and Yankees history — with a looming free agency there, that he was still able to do what he did is incredible.”
Judge, as just about every Yankees fan can recite by heart as part of his burgeoning legend, turned down a $213.5 million extension offer just before the 2022 regular season. Then, as Steinbrenner referenced, he embarked on a historic season. He hit 62 home runs — breaking Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 set 61 years earlier in 1961 — and captured AL MVP honors in a landslide over Angels two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani.
Many a player in many a sport have crumbled under the pressure of a walk year that precedes free agency.
Instead, Judge nearly won the AL Triple Crown, hitting .311 with 131 RBIs, a .425 on-base percentage and a 1.111 OPS (he led MLB in the latter three categories, among others, tying the Mets’ Pete Alonso for the RBI title).
“I mean, that’s off the table now,” Steinbrenner said of walk-year pressure. “He’s broke the record, that’s off the table. So, and I think I was talking to [Aaron] Boone about this a few weeks ago, I think he may just have another incredible year. I really do.”
Dating to his AL Rookie of the Year season in 2017, when he hit a then-rookie-record 52 homers, Judge has publicly shooed away superlatives about his game and overall performance.
He can rack up the “it’s-all-about-the-team-and-individual-numbers-don’t-matter” cliches with the best of them, but, according to those behind the scenes with the Yankees, he means it 100%. If he’s ever uttered anything approaching a me-first or at-least-I-got-mine sentence, Yankees teammates, coaches, clubhouse staff, etc. have yet to hear it.
But make no mistake: Judge, a serial preparer when it comes to the game, doesn’t lack for confidence, either. Never has.
And that confidence occasionally will come out in public.
“We’ll see,” Judge said with a smile of matching or perhaps even surpassing 62 homers this season. “I don’t really like putting a number on it. I like going out there and trying to control what I can control. But you never know what could happen, so we’ll see about 62.”
If there’s one player in the clubhouse who knows what it’s like to come off the kind of season Judge just had, it’s Giancarlo Stanton.
In 2017, his last year with the Marlins before getting dealt to the Yankees, Stanton hit 59 homers en route to capturing the National League MVP award.
Stanton grinned when asked about the challenges Judge will face in 2023 and his advice regarding the best way to handle it.
“Not try to hit 62,” Stanton said. “Not even worry about it. Have no number set, just put good at-bats together, get the barrel to the ball, and he can be in the ballpark [of 60] again.”
Indeed, with continued health — Judge was able to appear in a career-high 157 games last year, which played a significant role in the season he had — the prevailing feeling around the team is that another monster campaign is not only possible but likely (various injuries, including a right wrist fracture and an oblique strain, limited Judge to 28 games in the 2020 COVID-19-shortened 60-game season, to 102 games in 2019 and to 112 games in 2018).
Health, of course, is one factor, but there’s also this: Judge is an obsessive practitioner of his sport. By all accounts, he is one of the team’s hardest workers and has been for years.
Like the player he is often compared to, Derek Jeter (and the comparisons often are lazy because they are very different in a multitude of ways), Judge maintains a home in the Tampa area. And like Jeter, he typically starts in early January and is a consistent presence at the club’s minor-league complex in Tampa for offseason workouts.
But Judge surprised some longtime employees at the complex this winter with a.) his physical condition when he showed up around the New Year and b.) the ferocity with which he attacked those workout sessions.
“You would have thought he was coming off a [expletive] year,” one of those employees said. “And you definitely [would not have thought] he had just signed that kind of contract.”
In his manager’s eyes, what would be a fair measure of success for Judge in 2023?
“To continue to be one of the best players in the sport,” Boone said.
“He is obviously highly competitive. And he is one of those guys, certainly since I’ve known him, and even my understanding going back before me, the way he was in the minor leagues coming up in his early career here, a guy that’s always trying to get better.
“That’s why he’s so good at the little things within the game, the little details, how under control he is and how fundamentally sound he is, for example, on the defensive side of the ball.
“He’s always looking for ways to be a little bit better. And I think that’s what most great players, most great athletes do. They’re never really satisfied and know that there’s always room to get incrementally better. And that’s something he’s done a great job of really his entire career.”
For that reason, Judge said it wasn’t difficult to quickly put 2022 behind him, perhaps enjoying it for “a day or two,” but that’s all.
“You kind of soak it in,” Judge said. “For me, when I was reviewing the season, reviewing my swing, stuff I need to improve on and kind of soak it in, when you look back on some of the moments that happened and [say], ‘I can’t believe that happened or that situation happened.’
“But for me, it’s easy to turn the page because by the time we got kicked out of the postseason, there’s teams that are already a couple of weeks into their offseason and have already turned the page and already made improvements. So I can’t sit back and say, ‘I did X, Y and Z.’ I have to keep moving forward. So you acknowledge it, appreciate it, but understand we still have a long way to go and there’s work to do.”
And that work, Judge said, is the “unfinished business” of notching World Series title No. 28. No. 27 is a distant memory for a lot of the fan base; it came in 2009, four years before Judge was drafted.
“That’s why we play this game. You play to win, you play to be on top,’’ he said. “When you play in New York, that’s the one and only goal . . . besides [first] going out there and winning your division and putting yourself in a good spot for the postseason. That’s what drives me day in and day out.”
Judge for yourself
Aaron’s career highlights:
Yankees captain: 16th in franchise history
AL MVP: 2022
AL All-Star Team: 2017, 2018, 2021, 2022
Hank Aaron Award: 2022
Rookie of the Year: 2017
AL Silver Slugger: 2017, 2021, 2022
AL single-season HR record: 62 in 2022