Aaron Judge is nearly unstoppable. He thinks he can be better.
By James Wagner
Six home runs over five games is more than enough proof that a batter is locked in at the plate. But New York Yankees star outfielder Aaron Judge, perhaps guided by humility or a constant search for perfection, insisted it was not.
After blasting two more home runs Sunday, including a two-run shot in a 9-7 win over the Boston Red Sox, Judge said he was still searching for that final bit of comfort while hitting. Baseball, after all, is a sport of daily failure.
“Locked in for me is if I’m going 5 for 5 every night,” he said. “I still got out a couple times and chased a couple pitches. So there’s some times where I’m not really locked in.”
Those around him, though, felt otherwise.
“There’s a reason he almost won the MVP, and he’s in a groove right now,” said Yankees first baseman Luke Voit, referring to the award Judge narrowly missed out on in 2017. “I’m excited to see what he can do in 60 games this year with how he’s raking right now. He’s a guy you don’t want to take your eyes off when he’s hitting.”
Had the Major League Baseball season started as planned March 26, Judge would not have been on the field, still recuperating from an injury. He fractured his rib during a play in the outfield last September, which led to a partially collapsed lung. He fought through some lingering discomfort in his side and shoulder the rest of the season, the playoffs and throughout the offseason.
The fracture, however, was not identified until spring training, after nearly a dozen tests. So while the start of the MLB season was delayed for four months because of the coronavirus pandemic, Judge used the extra time to recover. When he was cleared by doctors just before summer workouts began July 4, it “lit another fuse” for Judge, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
Injuries have kept Judge off the field for parts of the previous two seasons. He missed 45 games in 2018 after a pitch fractured his wrist and was out for 54 games last year with an oblique strain. He still hit 27 home runs with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage over .900 in each of those seasons.
“He’s really on a mission right now,” Boone said. “When he got that clean bill of health right before summer camp started and started ramping up, there’s just been an intensity level and an energy level to the work. He’s just a great player that you can tell is feeling really good.”
Entering Monday’s 6-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, who had not played since July 26 because of the ripple effects of the Miami Marlins’ coronavirus outbreak, no one in baseball had more home runs (six) or RBIs (14) or was hitting the ball harder (an average exit velocity of 98.3 mph) than Judge. He was on pace to smash 45 home runs this season — which would amount to (a very unrealistic) 122 over a normal 162-game season.
Judge has accomplished all of this without one of his favorite hitting tools: in-game video. Because of MLB’s health and safety protocols for this season, the replay review room at each stadium is closed to players and coaches at all times to ensure social distancing and to keep them isolated from other personnel. (Following the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, MLB and the players union have worked on new rules governing these rooms.)
During past games, Judge said that he, like many other players, would run to that room after an at-bat to check his swing or the pitch he swung at or — in his words — slam his fist down and get mad at himself. But now after he makes an out, Judge turns to his companions in the dugout for their feedback. He said it might even be more helpful than the video that has become so prevalent in modern baseball.
“This is kind of taking us back to the travel ball days,” Judge said.
Case in point: Judge, 28, said he was riding home with his fellow Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who is also off to a resounding start after an injury-marred 2019 season, after a recent game and mentioned how he was not hitting some breaking balls properly. Stanton offered a small tip — keep your head down a click longer — which Judge said proved fairly useful.
“We don’t have the video like we usually do,” Judge said. “But now it’s just us, using your teammates’ eyes and your own eyes, and just talking some baseball.”
(Players and coaches can still watch video on MLB-supplied tablets, but not real-time footage from a live game since the content is loaded only before or after games.)
Judge has a few factors working in his favor, too: After starting the season against the defending champion Washington Nationals, the Yankees have faced two opponents (the Baltimore Orioles and the Red Sox) with poor pitching, and he is sandwiched in the lineup between other talented Yankees’ hitters — 2019 All-Star infielders D.J. LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, and Stanton.
After possessing MLB’s highest-scoring offense last season, the 8-1 Yankees are off to a similar start this year. Judge said he was simply trying to do his part. He more than has: Five of his six home runs have given the Yankees the lead. Entering Monday night’s game, he had homered in five straight games — the first Yankee to do so since Alex Rodriguez in 2007.
Judge did not extend that streak Monday against the Phillies, but he went 2 for 4 — raising his season average to .314 — in support of ace Gerrit Cole, who allowed one run over six innings in his home debut as a Yankee. Gio Urshela had a pivotal three-run homer in the sixth inning.
“For me, right now, it’s about not missing my pitch,” Judge said after Sunday’s game. “Pitchers are making really good pitches and hitting their corners. But when there’s times they leave one over the plate, I’ve got to do some damage on it. Fortunately enough, I’ve been able to do that.”