On a cloudless spring day in Tampa, Florida, Aaron Judge is doing what he does best: hitting home runs. There’s a distinct thwap that fills the air every time he squares up on a fastball and sends it on a 400-foot journey over the wall – farther than anyone else in baseball. You don’t even to have to look up to know another monster has been launched. The sound alone says the Yankees’ slugger is ready to ambush the American League in 2018.
After hitting 52 home runs and winning the 2017 Rookie of the Year award, Judge is perfectly accessorized to begin a long run as the next legend in the Bronx. At six feet seven and 285 pounds, he’s LeBron in cleats, blessed with the fast-twitch reflexes of a shortstop. Judge’s swing is both beautiful and violent – a symphony of moving parts that begins with him coiling his left leg like a snake and ending with a one-handed ole upon contact. The result is sheer terror for any pitcher: Judge’s 495-foot home run against Baltimore on June 11th was the longest in the American League. He also led the AL in exit velocity, a faddish stat that tracks the speed of the ball as it comes off the hitter’s bat: Judge clocked four blasts going 119 mph or faster. Nobody else in the league had even one.
“I’m jealous,” says Brett Gardner, the Yankees left fielder, who stands eight inches shorter and 90 pounds lighter than Judge. “Just once I’d like to know what it’s like to hit a ball that far or that hard.”
Such praise is not uncommon in the clubhouse. At one point last year, Matt Holliday – then the Yankees designated hitter, and a veteran who’d been a teammate of the legendary Albert Pujols in St. Louis – called Judge “probably the most gifted baseball player I’ve ever been around.”
Judge refuses praise and flattery with the same aw-shucks smile that characterizes his feelings about stardom. “I still have a lot to prove,” he says. “I’m only 25, I haven’t done anything yet.”
Judge has been humbled by the struggles that’ve been sprinkled throughout his climb, and a striking absence of an ego is part of what makes him so compelling. He barely made the roster in 2017, winning the right field job only in the final week of spring training. And despite his rocket-fueled start, batting .312 with 33 home runs at the All-Star break, Judge disappeared into a black hole for most of July and August. Nursing an injured left shoulder that required off-season surgery, the slugger struck out more than once every three at-bats and set a major league record by whiffing at least once in 36 straight games.
Through it all, Judge never hid out from the media, standing at his locker even after the worst nights. He lived in a midtown hotel for most of last season and never hesitated to sign autographs on the street. Given his size, Judge was easy enough to spot and even easier to approach.
“That’s part of my job,” he says. The real chore was figuring what went wrong last summer and how to prevent a repeat in 2018. Baseball is closer to chess than any sport, full of moves and countermoves. “Pitchers made an adjustment to me,” Judge acknowledge. “It’s up to me to come up with an answer.”
The Yankees have done their part, pairing Judge with his National League twin, the 6-6, 265-pound Giancarlo Stanton, in an off-season trade with the Marlins that gives the Bombers the most compelling one-two punch since Mantle-Maris days of the Sixties. Stanton, the NL’s Most Valuable Player in 2017, says Judge “reminds me a lot of myself.” But the newcomer is edgier and less welcoming than his long-ball partner. If Judge is as innocent as a dove, Stanton – who feuded with Derek Jeter, the Marlins’ new co-owner, on his way out the door – is more like a cobra. Even his home runs seem angrier, laser-shot line drives compared to Judge’s towering parabolas.
The combination has predictably catalyzed the fan base. The Yankees sold a half-million tickets in January alone, even before camp opened. Judge and Stanton should easily combine for 100 home runs, and the Yankees could score 1,000 runs for the first time since 1936, making them favorites to get to the World Series. And it is Judge who’ll be out front.
“I’m excited about this season, this team,” he says, giving another aw-shucks smile. “I know a lot is expected of me, but I’m surrounded by some great teammates. The talent here is unbelievable. I can’t wait to see how far we can go.”