Yankees rightfielder Aaron Judge makes a catch at the fence...

Yankees rightfielder Aaron Judge makes a catch at the fence on a long ball from Seattle Mariners' Teoscar Hernandez during the eighth inning of a baseball game Monday, May 29, 2023, in Seattle. Credit: AP/Lindsey Wasson

SEATTLE – The Yankees had it slightly wrong in one respect when it came to their evaluations of Aaron Judge before drafting him in 2013.  

Back then their amateur scouting department, led by Damon Oppenheimer, saw everything Yankees fans have seen in the outfielder’s seven-plus seasons in the big leagues – prodigious power, the cannon throwing arm, alert base running, a team-first mentality and advanced skills and grace, especially for a player his size, in centerfield, Judge’s primary position at Fresno State.

“The fact that he's a good defender is not a surprise to us,” Oppenheimer said by phone Tuesday, taking a break from his preparation for next month’s draft. “The fact that he's on our scale, probably an 80 (the highest rating scouts, who use a 20-80 scale, assign to an element of a given player’s game), that’s probably something that nobody went to.”

Monday night, Judge had what Yankees manager Aaron Boone, called “one of the great individual games you’ll see.” The 2022 American League MVP went 3-for-4 with two homers, a double and a walk, but it was a defensive play that captured most of the postgame attention. It occurred in the eighth inning of the 10-4 victory when Judge, after drifting back to the rightfield wall on a drive by Teoscar Hernandez – and momentarily taking his eye off the ball to measure how close he was to the fence – perfectly timed his jump with his 6-foot-7 frame and, reaching what appeared several feet above the wall, robbed the Mariners’ rightfielder of a home run.

“I take pride in my defense,” Judge said late Monday.

Which has been the case since his days at Fresno State, Oppenheimer said. And those capabilities have steadily grown because of consistent work.

“We thought he was going to be an above average defender,” Oppenheimer said. “We saw him play centerfield, so we thought he was good out there anyway. But the work he’s done [since being drafted] has just made him Gold Glove. It's not always the catch, it's the ability to keep somebody from taking an extra base with the arm that's got serious strength and great accuracy. Reads [on fly balls]. So, to me, he's a gold Glover out there.”

Oppenheimer added with a laugh: “I don't know if we ever put that in our reports.”

Judge was a finalist for a Gold Glove in 2017 and 2018 but did not win either year. Though Judge has always downplayed individual achievements and gets visibly uncomfortable when asked about them – he described his robbery of Hernandez “just another catch” and in the category of “just doing my job” – it is also not a huge secret that the 31-year-old very much would like to add a Gold Glove to his career resume.

Not because of the accolade itself but what it would represent: the fulfillment of something Judge has talked about since he was called up in August 2016 for his big-league debut: the importance of not only being seen as a slugger but as a “complete hitter” – a .300 batting average, though devalued by much of the analytics crowd, carries great significance to Judge. And also being viewed as a “complete player.”

Of which defense is an integral part.

“It's just the consistency of his defense,” Oppenheimer said. “Some guys get worse defensively because they don't put in the time, they don't put in the work. And he does.  Everything about his defense has gotten better, from judgment plays to the throws, the accuracy of the throws. The thing that we don't ever get to see him do in the amateur world is how the third deck of a stadium's going to affect [a player] and, obviously, for him, that's nothing.”

Aaron Judge is following up his 2022 MVP season with even gaudier numbers this year. Comparing the past two seasons after the first 45 games:

2022                                      2023

.304           Batting avg.         .302

.373           On-base pct.        .408

.655           Slugging pct.        .679   

1.028          OPS                   1.087

17              Home runs            17

37              Runs                      39

36               RBIs                      38

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