Aaron Judge at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 16, 2022.

Aaron Judge at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 16, 2022. Credit: Jim McIsaac

One of the primary driving forces behind Aaron Judge’s historic season stares back at the outfielder every time he opens the “notes” app on his phone.

Which is pretty much multiple times every day for the obsessed-with-the-game Judge.

And contrary to Judge’s season-long — and, really, career-long — protestations when it comes to discussing personal accomplishments relating to numbers and their relative meaninglessness to him, this number  serves as a constant source of motivation.  

It  is .179.

Don’t remember?

It’s OK.

Judge, who is one home run shy of becoming only the third player in American League history to hit 60 in a season as the Yankees begin a six-game homestand Tuesday night against the Pirates,  does. 

Just about every Yankees fan remembers Judge homering in his first big-league at-bat off Rays righthander Matt Andriese on Aug. 13,  2016, at Yankee Stadium, a towering bomb to centerfield that landed, some might say appropriately, in the netting overhanging Monument Park.

Judge aficionados may recall he homered in his next game, too, and went 2-for-3, including an RBI double, in the game after that.

At that point, he was 5-for-10 with two homers and three RBIs in three games — off and running.

Until he wasn’t.

What is remembered far less in the Judge legend that has steadily built since his breakout AL Rookie of the Year season in 2017, when he hit a then-rookie-record 52 homers, is what happened after the initial bliss of those first three games.

Judge proceeded to hit .135 with two homers and a .447 OPS in the next 24 games,  striking out 40 times in 74 at-bats.   When he suffered an oblique strain on Sept. 13, his season ended — and he had a .179 batting average.

Aaron Judge strikes out to end a game against the Blue...

Aaron Judge strikes out to end a game against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 16, 2016. Credit: Jim McIsaac

“Homered my first at-bat, homer the next day, hit a go-ahead double my third game and you think you’ve got things figured out,” Judge said in a quiet moment in the visitor’s clubhouse at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park last month. “And then fast-forward to the end of the year and I’m hitting .179 and getting booed. If I take one pitch, I get booed. Getting booed in the outfield. It’s part of it. But for me, it’s just a reminder that, hey, you’re never a finished product."

The .179 first showed up early in 2017 written on his cleats in dark marker. It soon moved to a handwritten notebook and, not too long after that, to his phone.

“I write notes on different pitchers,” Judge said. “Like after I face certain guys, I write down what I saw, what the slider, what [other pitches] looked like, how he attacked me. I’m writing down things that I do in the cages. I’ve got a bunch of different things in there, but every single time I open the notes, it’s right there at the top.”

Not big on personal glory

After each benchmark approached and achieved this season, his interactions with reporters have had an element of unintended comedy: Judge, always politely and with a smile, responding with an all-about-the-team answer of some kind, all but dismissive of whatever buzz his individual efforts that day or night caused.

"It’s not too difficult if your main objective and your main focus is to go out there and win a game,” Judge said Sunday in Milwaukee of the challenge of blocking out the excitement and noise accompanying his pursuit of Roger Maris’ American League and franchise record of 61 home runs set in 1961. “I’m focused on doing what I can to be a good teammate, help the team win.”

Those kinds of answers, familiar as they’ve become, didn’t begin this season.

Rewind to March 30, 2017, inside the cramped visitor’s clubhouse of the Phillies' spring training home.

Earlier in the day, in the manager’s office at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, before the 30-minute bus ride to Clearwater, Joe Girardi told Judge he had prevailed in a battle with Aaron Hicks — who himself had a pretty good spring training that year — for the starting job in rightfield.

It is a somewhat forgotten part of recent Yankees history that Judge, though the favorite, was guaranteed nothing.  The competition was real. Judge entered that spring training surrounded by questions, most of them a result of how 2016 ended.  

“Nothing really changes,” Judge told a small group of reporters after coming out of that afternoon’s game in Clearwater. “Now the real work starts. I’m about trying to keep it.”

Asked a handful of different ways about the accomplishment of being named the starting rightfielder for the Yankees as a rookie, Judge, each time flashing the smile that fairly early on in the regular season had Madison Avenue beating down his door, refused to luxuriate in the feat.

“To be honest, you’ve seen the guys we have in our minor-league system,” Judge said. “Now I have to really stay on top of my game, which is preparing the right way and playing hard and competing . . . Now it starts for real. I’m looking forward to the next thing.”

'This is a humbling game'

The next thing was a rookie year filled with one titanic home run after the other, a had-to-be-there-to-truly-get-it performance in winning the Home Run Derby in Miami, and leading a Yankees team that entered 2017 with relatively low expectations to Game 7 of the ALCS against the Astros.

Only a roughly six-week slump after the Derby cost Judge — dealing with a balky left shoulder he only begrudgingly acknowledged a year later — more votes for the AL MVP, which went unanimously to Houston’s Jose Altuve.

Throughout that 2017 season, and the ones that have followed, Judge showered praise on anyone and anything other than himself.

Yankees players and staff say that if Judge has uttered anything behind the scenes relating to his numbers this season — home run chase or otherwise — they have yet to hear it.

“It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, I just don’t like it,” Judge said in Seattle of questions after a standout game  that essentially can amount to various versions of “tell us how great you are.”

Judge continued: “I’m just doing a job, just like everybody else in this room is trying to do a job. We’re getting paid to play a kid’s game and I never try to take that for granted . . . this is a humbling game, so that always sticks out to me. Even on your best days, the next day you could be the worst player in baseball, so don’t get too high, don’t get too low.”

This season, has been pretty much one continual high (although Judge, who forgets little, instantly recollects his rough two-week start to the season, which included some boos at home after the Yankees took the unusual step of publicizing the $213.5 million extension offer he turned down before Opening Day).

Still, it’s the ultimate low he felt in 2016 that he most of all can’t forget.

And won’t.   

“No matter how good you do, no matter how bad you do, just keep pushing yourself,” Judge said. “Keep going because even when you think you have it figured out, you might end up hitting .179 that year.”

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