Aaron Judge's Home Run Explosion Introduces New Face of Yankees' Future

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 4, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02:  Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees looks on from the dugout in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 2, 2017 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

NEW YORK — Reggie Jackson is a Hall of Famer. Buck Martinez played 17 years in the big leagues and has broadcast major league games longer than that. So who were they talking about when they met behind the batting cage at Yankee Stadium Wednesday?

Aaron Judge. Naturally.

Half the baseball world is talking about Judge, and the other half may soon join in given that Judge's New York Yankees will be at Wrigley Field this weekend to play the Chicago Cubs. There's plenty to talk about.

Did you know Judge and Kris Bryant were drafted out of California colleges the same year (2013)? Judge was taken 32nd overall, 30 picks after Bryant, and plenty of scouts are asking themselves now why he lasted that long.

Did you know the 6'7", 282-pound Judge once played center field at Fresno State (he weighed a little less at that time)? Did you know he's now getting plaudits for his defense in right field?

"I'm impressed," Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, a little after Yankees manager Joe Girardi expressed the same thing and a little before an American League scout brought up Judge's defensive skills.

It wouldn't be a topic if Judge were still striking out in 44.2 percent of his plate appearances, as he did in 27 games with the Yankees late last season. But now that he's hitting home runs in 75 percent of his plate appearances…

OK, so that's a slight exaggeration. Judge only homered in 40 percent of his plate appearances Tuesday, when he became the first Yankee rookie ever to hold sole possession of the American League home run lead (according to the Elias Sports Bureau). He only homered once in the Yankees' 8-6 win over the Blue Jays on Wednesday, when he became the youngest player in major league history to homer 13 times in his team's first 26 games.

And while it's hard to get the ever-polite and ever-humble Judge to talk about himself, he did compare his approach at the plate this season to the one he saw Gary Sanchez use last year.

"I feel like I'm just trying to go out there and have quality at-bats and swing at the right pitches," Judge said. "And that's what I'd seen from Gary last year."

Sanchez was the Yankee rookie who generated all the buzz in 2016, when he showed up just as Alex Rodriguez was leaving and hit 11 home runs in a 15-game span. Now Judge has 13 home runs in his last 20 games, beginning the day Sanchez went on the disabled list with a right biceps strain.

Up until that day, Sanchez was unquestionably the face of the Yankees' future. Three weeks later, Judge has grabbed that title. While it doesn't mean Sanchez is any less promising or less important, it does show how quickly Judge has changed everyone's thinking about him.

"You can't do what he's doing in New York and not be a big deal," Yankees third baseman Chase Headley said.

Did you hear about the batting practice home run that damaged a television on a party deck high above center field? Did you hear Girardi comparing Judge this week to Yankee icon Derek Jeter?

"He plays the game to win all the time, and that is the most important thing," Girardi said, as relayed by Andrew Marchand of ESPN.com.

Judge goes overboard in his insistence that the team's success is more important than his own, as he did when he called his American League Rookie of the Month honor "a team award."

That's fine. Non-controversial quotes worked pretty well for Jeter all those years, and he never hit 10 home runs in a month, as Judge just did. He never homered 13 times in the first 26 games of a season.

Check out the list of Yankees who have done that, in this tweet from Jeff Quagliata, the research manager for the Yankees' YES Network:

No Kevin Maas or Shane Spencer in that group.

Does that mean Judge is destined for 50 home runs this season and 500-plus for his career? Of course not. He's 25 years old (as of April 26) and he's still not far removed from being the guy who had scouts questioning whether he'd ever make enough contact to succeed.

"I have a lot of concerns about Judge," one National League scout said in February, in a column I wrote for Bleacher Report heading into spring training. "I think [Clint] Frazier will be their right fielder before the year is out."

Judge's success this season, particularly in limiting the times he chases breaking pitches outside the strike zone, has already changed some minds on him. But he's still striking out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances, and he did end the first three-hit game of his career by flailing at an Roberto Osuna slider far out of the zone Wednesday night.

How will he handle things when the inevitable slump comes? Has he built up enough confidence with the early success to remain true to his plan when things go bad?

Those are questions for another day, if only because things haven't even hinted at going bad for Aaron Judge yet.

For now, he's the talk of the town, and days away from being the talk of Chicago town too.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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