Batting practice is a part of the daily routine in baseball, but Aaron Judge has turned it into a spectacle that fans and opposing players want to see. Swing after swing, he deposits baseballs into all corners of the bleachers, the bullpens and, at Yankee Stadium, Monument Park.
As he took his turns before Friday night’s game against Milwaukee, several Brewers took up positions in the third-base dugout to get an eyeful.
Tomorrow in Miami, this sight will not be just a delightful appetizer but the most anticipated part of the main course as Major League Baseball holds its annual Home Run Derby.
Judge can go into it with confidence because he has a hand-picked partner for the event, Yankees batting-practice pitcher Danilo Valiente. The 51-year-old Cuban, who has worked in the organization for a decade, also is the choice to serve ’em up for Gary Sanchez in the competition.
Valiente likes it when he gets crushed.
“I don’t tell him where to throw, but he finds my sweet spot,” Judge said with a wide smile. “I kind of like it up and in. And he finds it every time.”
Said Sanchez, “He’s a guy that can really throw strikes. If I need it in a certain location, I can count on him to put it there. I already gave him instructions and I told him I’m going to want it middle and in, just a little bit in.”
Valiente, who hails from suburban Havana, arrived in the United States in 2006. He said he got some work with the Yankees soon after and was officially hired in 2007. He held a few field staff positions for affiliates in the Rookie League and with Class A Staten Island and Tampa and said: “Little by little, I started pitching BP and they kept calling me back to do that. That became what I was known for . . . I guess people liked the way I pitched.”
When he played professionally in Cuba, he started pitching BP to teammates because the clubs didn’t have staff to do it. In the United States, it became his art form. On a typical day, he throws 200 to 400 pitches from the artificial mound in front of the pitcher’s mound — all four-seam fastballs in the 55- to 60-mph range.
“[He throws] a good speed. He’s got a good tempo and . . . he doesn’t miss my barrel,” Judge said. “Even the days I don’t feel good in the cage with my swing, he somehow finds a way to make me feel good [for the game] at BP.”
“He is very consistent,” Sanchez said. “He throws strikes.”
First Judge and then Sanchez asked Valiente to lay ’em out for them in Miami, and each said his face lit up. Sanchez said Valiente is “excited for the opportunity to go out there and pitch to us.” Judge said, “I’m just happy he’s going to be there. He always hits my barrel in BP, so we’ve just got to keep that going.”
Valiente will join the Yankees’ All-Star contingent on a private jet to Miami after Sunday’s game. On Monday night, he will be performing his art in front of more people than ever and a national TV audience.
“I am sure a lot of people will be paying attention to that event,” Valiente said. “I have to go out and do my job, keep focused and give them good pitches to hit. I’m a little nervous right now.”
Valiente’s job will be a little different. Players typically ask him to throw to certain zones in BP that either emulate the pitcher they are about to face or help them practice hitting balls in certain spots.
Both Judge and Sanchez are going to be looking for one type of pitch this time: fat.
“Where they want it, where they feel comfortable,” Valiente said, “that’s where I’ll try to put it.”