Aaron Judge wanting to play centerfield is nothing new.
During his American League Rookie of the Year season in 2017, Judge would behind the scenes good-naturedly lobby anyone who would listen — including Joe Girardi, then in his final season as Yankees manager — that, hey, if the situation presented itself, he’d be more than willing to man centerfield if need be.
The 6-7, 282-pound Judge, a standout centerfielder in college at Fresno State, has never hid that center is his preferred position.
He didn’t get that opportunity in 2017 but Judge got one opportunity — and only one — in center, in 2018 — March 31 of that season in Toronto.
“I can play center, if you need me to,” Aaron Boone recalled Judge saying early in spring training 2018, Boone’s first season as Yankees manager.
“He’d always tell me my first year or two, ‘I can play center,’” Boone said after Tuesday’s 9-1 victory over the Angels, a game in which Judge started in center and stole a first-inning homer from Shohei Ohtani with a leaping catch at the base of the wall. “I was like, ‘All right, all right,’ and I would kind of dismiss it. But it started in my mind becoming like, ‘Maybe this is something we should do.’ And he took to it right away last year.”
After not playing in center in 2019 or the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, Judge appeared in 23 games at the position in 2021. The opportunity came in large part because of roster issues relating to a lack of healthy outfielders — Aaron Hicks, for instance, was lost for the season in May after undergoing wrist surgery — but the Yankees wouldn’t have kept putting Judge in center had he not at least held his own there.
He more than did, as is the case again this season.
Judge, who was at DH Wednesday night, already has appeared in 17 games in center. He not only has held his own there defensively but, as was the case Tuesday, has proved capable of making the highlight play.
“To me, Judge has always been a Gold Glove-caliber defender,” said one rival AL scout, who has seen the outfielder since his college days. “So seeing him [play well] in center isn’t surprising. He ultimately belongs in right but . . . it’s a good option for them because he’s athletic and a decent runner. He’s fine with everything in front of him contact-wise, and they can make up for any range issues with the positioning, and we know he can catch everything he gets to.”
In the past Judge has said he likes the “read” he gets on the ball in center.
“It’s the best view in the house,” he said.
Judge also likes the take-charge element of the centerfielder, who essentially serves as the quarterback of the outfield.
“I feel I can be a little more vocal,” Judge said Tuesday. “I can talk to the guys, I can move guys around a little bit more because I’m right there in the middle so I can see different things — guys’ swings, what the pitches are. Because in right and left, you’re kind of just reacting, you can’t really see, ‘hey, was that ball in? Is that away? Why did he take a swing like that?’ So just being able to communicate more. I just enjoy it. It’s a fun part of the game out there.”
He has gotten rave reviews, including one by Angels centerfielder Mike Trout, a two-time MVP and nine-time All-Star.
“You never have doubts on Judge,” Trout said before Wednesday’s game. “He’s a superstar in this league. He goes there, does his thing, and obviously you can see the power, everything about his game. And now moving to centerfield. I talked to him about it a little yesterday. He likes it out there, so it’s pretty cool.”
With Anthony Rieber