Return of Aaron Judge Home Run Barrage Makes Yankees a Postseason Nightmare

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2017

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge (99) watches his first-inning, solo home run off Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Ervin Santana in a baseball game against the Twins in New York, Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Associated Press

 

Move over, Mark McGwire. After following up two homers on Sunday with two more on Monday afternoon, Aaron Judge now has an incredible 50—setting the new all-time MLB rookie home run record. McGwire's total of 49 lasted for exactly 30 seasons.

Judge's reign over baseball has returned, and if he can carry his hot streak into October, the AL better watch its back.

The New York Yankees haven't won a postseason game since 2012. In the Bronx, that counts as a drought.

On Saturday, the Yankees clinched an American League wild-card berth with a 5-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. They're a near lock to wrap up the top wild-card spot and host the play-in game, though they have virtually zero chance of catching the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox, whom they trailed by five games entering play Monday.

Aaron Judge has eased doubts with 11 home runs in September.
Aaron Judge has eased doubts with 11 home runs in September.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Here's the thing: However the Yankees get in, they're more than a token October entrant. Thanks to a variety of factors, they're a nightmare matchup for any opponent.

Near the top of that list is Judge's very loud awakening.

Judge's second-half struggles were well-documented. After looking like Babe Ruth reanimated as a 6'7", baseball-destroying demigod prior to the All-Star break, Judge crumbled into a heap of strikeouts as the dingers dried up.

He hit 30 homers in the first half. At the end of August, his total was 37. Was he hurt? Did the Home Run Derby short-circuit his swing? Had opponents figured him out?

There may have been truth to each theory, but Judge has silenced the doubters by clubbing 13 homers in September.

The Yankees would likely hand the ball to 23-year-old right-hander Luis Severino in the American League Wild Card Game.
The Yankees would likely hand the ball to 23-year-old right-hander Luis Severino in the American League Wild Card Game.Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Overall, Judge has 50 homers to go along with 108 RBI and a 1.038 OPS. The AL Rookie of the Year trophy is his, and he will garner MVP votes.

It's not just Judge, either. New York has a deep, balanced lineup populated by other rising stars such as catcher Gary Sanchez (32 homers, .880 OPS), whose stout sophomore season has been overshadowed by Judge's rise.

Meanwhile, veterans like left fielder Brett Gardner (20 homers, 23 stolen bases), shortstop Didi Gregorius (25 homers, 85 RBI) and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.382 average and 1.047 OPS in September) have contributed to the cause.

"They're very young, talented," Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons said after the Yankees' clincher in Toronto, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch. "They've got a lot of pop in their lineup. They've got some good pieces to go along with it, some speed with Ellsbury and Gardner. They've got a good ballclub. They've got good starting pitching, and like I said, arguably one of the best bullpens, if not the best. When they get to the playoffs, they can be awfully tough."

That's a nice segue into New York's other notable strengths.

The Yankees would likely hand the ball to Luis Severino (3.03 ERA, 221 strikeouts, 187.1 innings pitched) in the do-or-die AL Wild Card Game.

If so, they'd have trade-deadline acquisition Sonny Gray (3.31 ERA, 151 SO, 157.2 IP) chambered to pitch a division series Game 1. Things get a tad dicier after that, with creaky but competent veteran CC Sabathia, fallen ace Masahiro Tanaka and rookie left-hander Jordan Montgomery among the options.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Then again, countless teams have stormed through the playoffs on the strength of two excellent starters. Severino and Gray fit the bill, at least in theory. It's worth noting Gray has thrown in the postseason only once, in 2013, and the 23-year-old Severino has never pitched past Game 162.

As for the bullpen Gibbons name-dropped, it can sure enough be great, shortening games to six- or even five-inning affairs.

After posting a 9.00 ERA in August, closer Aroldis Chapman has twirled nine scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts in September while converting four of four save opportunities. Behind him, Dellin Betances has battled bouts of inconsistency but has also fanned 99 batters in 57.2 innings.

Old friend and deadline acquisition David Robertson might be the most reliable arm in the 'pen. The former closer and current overqualified setup man owns a 1.16 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 31 innings since re-donning the pinstripes.

The Yankees aren't a perfect team. The back of the rotation is a gestating weakness, especially if Severino and/or Gray falters. Leaning on untested youngsters like Judge and Sanchez to carry the offense under the game's brightest glare is a risk.

For what it's worth, among the AL's division winners or leaders, the Yanks have a winning record against the Sox (11-8) and losing records against the Cleveland Indians (2-5) and Houston Astros (2-5).

They're coalescing at the right time, however. The ingredients are in place for a deep, "drought"-busting run.

As Sabathia slyly put it, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post, "That rebuild went quicker than anyone thought."

Indeed.

           

All statistics accurate as of Sunday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference.