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Aaron Judge hits monster home runs, but he’s a humble giant

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees celebrates his

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees celebrates his fifth-inning home run against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Friday, April 28, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

CHICAGO — There are days in the life of Aaron Judge when there’s not enough of him to go around. Sometimes, you’re too big. And it has nothing to do with the size of the uniform.

Those days are increasing in frequency for Judge, and as long as he keeps making baseballs disappear, the more they will come at him. During the past week, Judge was besieged at his locker by reporters, before and after every game at Yankee Stadium.

Only Joe Girardi, whose managerial responsibilities include twice-daily media briefings, has faced a similar barrage lately. Walk into the Yankees’ clubhouse, and there is Judge, literally standing head and shoulders above the semicircle of questioners, a half-moon that usually goes two or three deep.

Judge could not be more accommodating. He smiles easily. Jokes occasionally. His default response leans toward the team-first dynamic. But the tide of attention never subsides. Every season brings the potential for a new iconic figure, and Judge, at 6-7, is an oversized magnet, with even greater gravitational pull.

This is not a normal existence, even by professional baseball standards. But one that a select few of the game’s elite young stars have become acutely familiar with. Such as the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, who as the reigning NL MVP — at age 25 — can speak to what Judge must endure under this sort of scrutiny.

“It’s always there,” Bryant said Friday before the Yankees opened a three-game series at Wrigley Field. “I think that’s the toughest thing.”

With the Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 last season, magnify that by a thousand for Bryant. But when the conversation turns to Judge, he brings up a college connection the two shared, the 22-inning marathon between his San Diego State and Judge’s team from Fresno State. The 2011 Mountain West Conference game stretched for seven hours, 12 minutes, with Fresno winning, 3-2.

Bryant went 3-for-8, with an RBI and three strikeouts. Judge 2-for-8, and struck out five times. On Friday, at Wrigley, after Judge doubled and later reached third, he stood on the base and chatted with Bryant about the epic game between their two schools. They both have come a long way from that day at Fresno’s Beiden Field, with Bryant going No. 2 overall to the Cubs in the 2013 draft — and Judge being selected No. 32 by the Yankees.

MVP numbers

After a relatively brief divergence, could Judge now be on a similar MVP track as his former college foe? He already made history this week by becoming the youngest player (25 years, 7 days) to crush at least 13 home runs through his team’s first 26 games, and after two more hits in Friday’s 3-2 win over the Cubs, Judge is batting .337 (31-for-92) with a 1.250 OPS.

“I just take it one day at a time,” Judge said. “Try to forget about what I did the day before. Go out there like every day is Opening Day.”

Those words may sit on a page like eye-rolling cliché. But from Judge, they come off as earnest strategy, a process that — if bought into completely — might actually work. It did for another Yankee, Derek Jeter, which is what prompted Girardi to boldly compare Judge to the former captain a few days ago. There are some common threads as far as overall demeanor, and people within the organization have noted leadership qualities in Judge. Anyone that’s been around Judge since spring training this year has witnessed that development, which general manager Brian Cashman describes as the player’s “super-deluxe professionalism.”

“Even Jeter wasn’t Jeter when we drafted him,” Cashman said.

The truly special players keep climbing toward their own ceilings, until they smash right through. Look at Judge, who homered in his very first at-bat on the day he was called up last season, a monster shot that caromed off the blacked-out windows in centerfield, then dropped on to the netting above Monument Park. But from there, Judge steadily went downhill, at varying speeds, before going into free-fall, striking out once every 2.26 plate appearances as he finished the season batting .179. In 27 games, Judge had four home runs and 10 RBIs, numbers that represent a decent week for him in 2017.

The Yankees were concerned about his performance, but Cashman insists they weren’t rattled. The team’s evaluators still believed in his plate discipline, even with Judge’s lost confidence apparently creating havoc with his at-bats, and slotted him to compete with Aaron Hicks for the rightfielder’s job in spring training. The Yankees didn’t decide to award Judge the title until three days before the season opener at Tampa Bay, a delay that almost feels comical now. If not for the lengthy internal debate, this Judge phenomenon would never have happened. At least not yet.

“He didn’t do this in March,” Cashman said.

The Judge Factor

The flip side of his record-setting power surge, however, is that Judge is ratcheting up the expectations to video game levels. Obviously, it’s fantasy to continue a pace that would result in 78 home runs, five more than Barry Bonds’ 2001 all-time mark. With more and more detailed analysis, opposing teams will work to explore the holes in Judge’s supersized swing, and Judge will do his best to combat those strategies.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who helped revolutionize how MLB teams play defense during his previous stint with the Rays, alluded to the “due diligence” they put in to prepare for Judge’s arrival. And yet he still had two hits, including a double to the right-center gap with an exit velocity of 119 mph, according to Statcast. As in the NFL, it’s very difficult to contain strength and speed. These days, merely keeping Judge inside the park is a victory in itself.

“He’s definitely Frank Howard all over again,” said Maddon, referring to the legendary 6-7 slugger “Hondo,” who finished his 16-year career with 382 home runs. “If you make a mistake, it’s going to get hit far.”

Bryant has played those cat-and-mouse games with the opposition every day for more than two seasons, and hasn’t been neutralized yet. At 6-5, he’s also on the taller side, so Bryant is familiar with what Judge faces in trying to cover a larger strike zone, to protect against those low pitches. He remembered watching video of himself in the minors, how awkward his stance looked compared to the more polished approach now. Those are the same refinements Judge is making and continues to strive for.

“I always use the word perspective,” Bryant said. “We’re always trying to be better than the previous year, better than the previous day. We’re always trying to outdo ourselves. That’s probably the biggest challenge in all of this. To try to keep it all in perspective.”

Just by the way he conducts himself, Judge appears to have that part down cold. When told that Jeter was a fan of his, Judge called it “incredible” and “humbling” on the same day he was named the AL’s Rookie of the Month for April.

His perspective is on point. It’s everyone else that gets caught up in the hyperbole, from marveling at his spectacular batting practice rockets to dissecting the velocity and loft angle of every game-changing blast. The statistic Judge is probably most proud of? Through Friday, the Yankees were 11-0 when he hits a home run.

That’s a topic he’ll never get tired of talking about.

THOSE NUMBERS

92 AB

28 Runs

27 RBIs

13 HRs

1.250 OPS

.815 SLG

*Last night’s game not included

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