It is a somewhat forgotten footnote to a historic season Aaron Judge described as “an incredible ride.”
A player likely to finish first or second in voting for the American League MVP (Judge is a virtual lock for AL Rookie of the Year), didn’t win his job until the last day of the Grapefruit League season.
“Looking back on it, yeah, that’s kind of crazy [to think about],” CC Sabathia said with a laugh this week. “But that’s just the way the game is sometimes.”
The date was March 30, the location Joe Girardi’s office at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.
It was there, spring training all but over, that Girardi made it official: Aaron Judge had won the competition to be the everyday rightfielder, beating out Aaron Hicks.
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Judge batted eighth in the season-opener April 2 in St. Petersburg against the Rays and did so the next three games after that.
“You talk about not putting too much on a young player’s plate and you kind of earn your way up the line,” Girardi said at the time. “If he hits the way he’s capable of, there’s a good chance he’s going to move up. But we’re just trying not to put too much on him too early.”
Judge, of course, would prove more than capable of handling it.
And just about everything else thrown his way in a whirlwind 2017, Judge’s first full season in the big leagues.
Judge hit an RBI double off the Rays’ Chris Archer in his first at-bat of the year at Tropicana Field, sparking a first half that would see him voted into the All-Star Game as a starter — he hit 30 homers with a 1.139 OPS the first half — and emerge as the frontrunner for MVP honors. The 25-year-old even had MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, at an All-Star Game event in Miami, saying Judge had the potential to become “the face” of the sport.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Girardi said last week. “As we left spring training, what I said was, ‘if he gets the barrel of the bat to the ball he’s going to do a lot of damage, and if he does it on a consistent basis he’s going to have a huge year for us.’ And that’s what he’s done. I’m not sure I would have expected this [though]. I mean, this is a great year for any superstar, and being a rookie, it’s really remarkable.”
The numbers are certainly remarkable.
Judge, preparing for his first taste of postseason baseball as the Yankees are set to play host to the Twins Tuesday night in the AL wild-card game, leads the AL in homers (52), runs (128) and walks (127). He hit No. 52 Saturday afternoon in the Yankees’ 2-1 win over the Blue Jays. It was his 33rd homer at home, breaking the Yankees’ record by Babe Ruth.
Judge is second in RBIs (114), on-base percentage (.422) and slugging (.627). Not bad for a player who struck out in 42 of 84 at-bats last season after an August call-up and left the spring among the bigger question marks on the 25-man roster.
Judge’s 50th homer, hit Monday against the Royals, established a rookie record, breaking the 49 that Mark McGwire hit in 1987.
The overall numbers are especially impressive given the horrific slump Judge went through coming out of the All-Star break. Judge went 0-for-3 in his first game after the break against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the start of a nearly seven-week stretch in which he slashed .179/.346/.344 with seven homers and 16 RBIs. That slump could end up costing him the MVP, though his September outburst could allow him to catch the frontrunner, Jose Altuve of the Astros.
Regardless, as the rookie has made clear several times when asked about it, that’s the furthest thing from his mind.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” said Judge, who has 15 homers this month and a 1.352 OPS. “Just like the [rookie] record, I don’t try to think about that, especially with what this team’s got going on with this playoff push. That’s more important to me right now. I’d rather be in a good position in the playoffs and holding up a World Series trophy than an AL MVP trophy.”
If that kind of answer sounds familiar, it’s because Judge has consistently expressed a lack of enthusiasm for topics relating to his accomplishments.
Flash back, for a moment, to March 30 when he was awarded the job. Pressed on the achievement — being named, as a rookie, the Opening Day rightfielder for the Yankees — Judge gave the smile that would help land him a “Tonight Show” bit in May that would go viral and have Madison Avenue repeatedly knocking at his door, as well as an endless flood of media requests, by the end of April.
“Now the real work starts, I’m about trying to keep it,” Judge said that afternoon of the starting job. “To be honest, you’ve seen the guys we have in our minor-league system. Now I have to really stay on top of my game. Now it starts for real. I’m looking forward to the next thing.”
Not all rookies who garner the kind of attention Judge did, and has continued to, are so quickly embraced by veterans. But there was no rocky transition for Judge, who even as he deferred to his veteran teammates, was developing into a leader, one whom Girardi described as having “a big-brother” effect on the club.
“You just got the sense from him the whole time that he was a good kid and very mature and you always saw that from Day 1,” said Sabathia, who is not prone to hyperbole. “It’s been amazing just to watch what he’s done and how he’s carried this team. Through the ups and downs he’s always been the same . . . he’s the total package.”
Todd Frazier, another veteran, joined the Yankees via trade July 19 and quickly took to the rookie, just as Brett Gardner did after Judge’s call-up last year and Matt Holliday, a free agent signing last offseason, did during spring training.
“Proud to know him,” Frazier said. “Proud to see what he’s been through this whole year, for him to take it and be as humble as he’s been the whole year, it’s been truly an honor to play with him.”
TAKING OUT FRUSTRATION
It is not a coincidence Sabathia and Frazier reference Judge’s handling of his second-half struggles as it was something, not that it was needed, that further solidifying his standing in the clubhouse.
“I saw frustration but I didn’t see him getting down, I never saw him stop working, I never saw him not believe in himself,” Girardi said. “But I saw frustration, which I think is probably the emotion that you want most players to have when they’re not doing well, and that frustration led to him continuing to work and he took it the right way.”
Judge shrugged off his difficulties while they were occurring and reflecting back on them he didn’t dig too deep either.
“I don’t really have an explanation,” Judge said. “It’s baseball. Sometimes it’s going to roll your way, sometimes it’s not. That’s the thing with any sport. It’s a long season, it’s a grind. You’re going to have ups and downs and the best thing is just to stay even-keeled with it.”
But there is a bit more when Judge, a first-round pick of the Yankees in 2013 out of Fresno State, considers a season in which his prodigious home runs have allowed him to pass names like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, just to name a few, in the record book.
“Just getting a chance to play one game with the Yankees is quite an honor,” Judge said. “To have your name with those greats, it’s something as a kid I never dreamed of. In Linden, California, I never dreamed of being here and being in position to help the Yankees go to the playoffs. It’s kind of a dream come true.”