Not to be the bearer of bad news, but the Yankees lost their captain more than a month ago. (Contain your surprise.)
Oh, sure, Aaron Judge is ever-present in the dugout — a leader ready to offer insight and encouragement. But there's no replacing that menacing lineup presence and nothing that can approximate one of the most intimidating challenges in baseball: toeing the rubber against a 6-7 body that’s been expertly honed to unmoor pitchers and uncork dingers.
Almost nothing, that is.
“Giancarlo [Stanton] has always been one of the most uncomfortable at-bats for me when I faced him,” Gerrit Cole said Saturday, still in awe of the home run Stanton hit off the facing above the club level in leftfield — the first of his two homers in the Yankees' 6-3 win over the Cubs. “The probability of the ball coming back up the box, you think about it. I mean, you do. There’s not a whole lot you can do if he puts 118 [mph] right back at you.”
Added Aaron Boone: “He’s as unique as they come.”
And then: “He feels a responsibility to be a wrecking ball.”
“Captain” and “Wrecking Ball” are two different clubhouse roles, and no one is saying that Stanton can replace Judge.
But what a producing Stanton can be is the sort of gut-churning lineup presence that can change a game.
If the Yankees are to survive Judge’s injury — if they’re to salvage this season despite their wilting offense and make good on the phenomenal pitching they’ve gotten all year — Stanton will need to embrace a leadership role on and off the field.
He doesn’t have to do it Judge's way. He’s quieter than Judge in front of the cameras, and his fingerprints aren’t all over the franchise the way Judge’s are. But if he’s locked in — and granted, that's a big if — he has the skill set to make those around him better. He’s also got that special something: a physicality and strength that leaves even seasoned major-league baseball players gaping in awe.
Can you imagine what it must’ve felt like to be Drew Smyly and realize that it was an actual human, and not some sort of alien demigod, who just used a thin piece of wood to propel your 92.7-mph sinker 447 feet with an exit velocity of 118.1 mph? It probably didn't feel great.
Thing is, Smyly isn’t the only one who has felt that way. Stanton has 13 career home runs of at least 118 mph since Statcast began tracking the data in 2015. Judge has five such homers. No one else in baseball has more than one.
That’s the type of improbable skill we’re dealing with here. But even numbers like that don’t mean much if you’re not making contact, and for the first part of this season, Stanton really hasn’t.
After suffering a hamstring injury that forced him to miss more than half of the Yankees’ games, Stanton entered the day hitting .199 with a paltry (for him) seven homers. He had struck out 39 times in 141 at-bats.
Those numbers look worse when you sprinkle in the “War and Peace” length injury report he’s compiled since signing a 13-year, $325 million contract ahead of the 2015 season. In that span, he’s hurt his foot, Achilles, calf, quadriceps, hamstring (a few more times), knee and biceps. He's been booed on Opening Day and played a total of 41 of 222 games in 2019-20.
And look, he knows all that.
No one wants Stanton to succeed more than Stanton does. He talks about not making the moment too big and working to find his rhythm and timing. Everyone with eyes recognizes that he’s a streaky hitter, and the Yankees must be hoping beyond hope that Saturday's 2-for-3 game, which came with a walk and a hard lineout, was the start of a torrid stretch. He has 10 RBIs in his last 11 games.
Stanton said he doesn't feel an extra responsibility in Judge's absence — "I have a job to do, period," he said in response to that question — but there's no denying he knows what it's like to sit in the dugout while your teammates carry the load. It would be only natural to want to repay the favor.
It helps when you can do it in such a grand fashion.
“I do think a home run like that should count for two,” Josh Donaldson said of Stanton's first-inning shot. “Maybe Rob [Manfred] will think about it when he’s making these other new rules.”
It was a joke, but Stanton’s unfathomable feats tend to inspire those types of thoughts, and this team could use a little more unfathomable these days.
No one can replace Judge — that's a given — but different jobs sometimes can call for different tools.
For now, the Yankees need their wrecking ball.