So this is Aaron Judge.
He hits a home run that goes 437 feet, and the first thing you’re thinking is he didn’t get all of it. He hits a home run that goes 437 feet, and it’s not even his hardest hit ball of the day.
This is Aaron Judge, and this is why so many people were always so fascinated by him. This is why the question was always whether he would make enough contact, and never what would happen if he did.
What would happen is what has happened so far this week, and again Wednesday. The 6’7”, 282-pound, 24-year-old New York Yankees outfielder would become a fearsome force, a star for an era in which we can actually put a number to how hard all those balls were hit.
The 437-foot home run Wednesday, off Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, Judge’s third home run in the last three games? It came off the bat at 108.6 mph, according to MLB.com’s Statcast. The base hit an inning earlier, the one that nearly took Rays pitcher Jumbo Diaz’s head with it as it rocketed into center field? That one was 116.5 mph, and the people who run Statcast say it was the hardest-hit base hit in the major leagues so far this season.
Judge still has plenty to prove, things that can’t be proved in an eight-game start to the season. His strikeout rate is way down, for sure, from 44.2 percent in his 27 major league games in 2016 to 20.6 percent in his first eight this year. His simplified mechanics and smaller leg kick might be working, and his comfort level at playing in the big leagues might be going up.
“These are big league at-bats,” ex-big leaguer John Flaherty said on the YES Network after Wednesday’s 8-4 Yankees win.
They’re big league at-bats, with big league Statcast numbers. Daren Willman, who analyzes Statcast numbers for MLB.com, tweeted this after Judge’s home run:
Daren Willman @darenw
Aaron Judge today 116.5 MPH 108.6 102.1 Im noticing a pattern for hardest hit balls by @Yankees this year Dude is gonna give Stanton a run https://t.co/84K4z0d5nV2017-4-12 20:14:20
Stanton is Giancarlo Stanton, the 6’6”, 245-pound Miami Marlins outfielder, the baseball player Judge is most often compared to (he also gets compared physically to Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin).
This season, Judge has five of the top 11 hardest-hit balls overall, if you include those that became outs.
If you didn’t see the 116.5 mph single Wednesday (or even if you did), take a look at this:
In the long run, the hard-hit balls and huge exit-velocity numbers will only be oddities if Judge can’t keep making contact at a decent rate. The advance scouts are watching, and opposing pitchers and pitching coaches will look at those videos a lot more often and with a lot more interest than you and I just did.
Judge’s home run Wednesday was an especially encouraging sign, because it came on a 94 mph fastball a little bit up and a little bit in. As Flaherty said on YES, that’s exactly where a pitcher would want to work Judge.
The Yankees would like to think Judge is simply settling in and figuring things out in his second shot at the big leagues, just as he did in Triple-A. He had a .224 batting average and a 28.5 percent strikeout rate at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2015, then returned and hit .270 with 19 home runs and a 23.9 percent strikeout rate in 93 Triple-A games last year.
Stanton showed similar improvement at Double-A between 2009 and 2010. He was in the big leagues in June 2010, at age 20, and he’s been there ever since. He still strikes out more than you’d prefer (28.5 percent of the time for his career), but he also has 209 career home runs, and he’s still just 27.
Judge is getting a later start in the big leagues, but he’s getting a big chance now. The Yankees want to win but more than that they want hope for the future, and weeks like the one Judge is having give them a chance at both.
Judge has helped them to three straight wins and a 4-4 record, and he’s helped take the focus away from an injury that has talented young catcher Gary Sanchez on the disabled list for a month or more.
At best, he’s given a preview of what he can become if it all works out. At worst, he’s punished a bunch of baseballs and left us with some pretty good video.
Either way, it will be very interesting to watch where he goes from here.
Stats via MLB.com or FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.