Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger Are Perfect Fits for Title-or-Bust Yanks, Dodgers

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterNovember 13, 2017

MIAMI, FL - JULY 10:  American League All-Star Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees and National League All-Star Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers stand together during the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Marlins Park on July 10, 2017 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

One of them inspired a comparison to fellow Yankees star Derek Jeter, which sounds pretty good until you find out someone compared the other one to Ted Williams. One of them set a National League record with 39 home runs as a rookie, which would have gotten him much more attention except the other one set the major league rookie record by blasting 52.

We're not really here to pit Aaron Judge against Cody Bellinger, although it's understandable why anyone would do that on the day both will add Rookie of the Year to their resumes. Judge, the New York Yankees right fielder, is the certain winner in the American League. Bellinger, the Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman, is just as sure to win in the National League.

There is one other rare trait nearly as crucial to their instant success as their record-setting power, impressive maturity and limitless gifts. They can play their best and stand their tallest under the biting pressure of New York and L.A.

The stage that has swallowed up so many promising young careers is the same environment these two thrive in. They are seemingly tailor-made for it. 

On this day, there's no need to pick between the two. No need for baseball to pick either because the sport will benefit from having two young, likable power-hitting stars on the most prominent teams in the two biggest markets in the country.

"One is playing right field in New York, just like [Roger] Maris did, and he's hitting home runs like Maris," said Charley Steiner, who once worked in New York as the Yankees' radio voice and is now in Los Angeles broadcasting Dodgers games. "The other one wasn't even supposed to come up until September, and then when he did come up, the entire dynamic of the lineup changed."

Judge and Bellinger embracing during the 2017 Home Run Derby
Judge and Bellinger embracing during the 2017 Home Run DerbyMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Judge is the face of the new Yankees, the Baby Bombers as the tabloids took to calling them. Without him, they'd still be rebuilding. With him, they went to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Bellinger was the key piece that made the Dodgers lineup complete. Los Angeles was off to a sub-.500 start when it called him up in late April and then went an incredible 76-21 in the first 97 games he started. Eventually, the team went to Game 7 of the World Series.

It's not entirely fair to compare the two because Bellinger joined a Dodgers team that had already won four straight division titles. Judge's Yankees hadn't won a postseason game since 2012. It's not entirely fair because the Dodgers had plenty of other stars (including Corey Seager, the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year), while Yankees fans were still looking for someone to love.

It's also not fair because Bellinger is three years younger (22 compared to 25), and while the first baseman isn't small (the Dodgers list him at 6'4", 210 lbs), Judge (6'7", 282 lbs) stands out in any crowd.

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When I asked Steiner if there was a buzz around Bellinger at Dodger Stadium this year, he said, "Yes, but not like Judge [at Yankee Stadium] because Judge is Paul Bunyan. There's a physical presence, and that's part of what people perceive.

"He's Paul Bunyan."

Judge was also the star of the 2017 Home Run Derby before the All-Star Game, when Commissioner Rob Manfred said he "can become the face of the game." He was the unanimous winner of the "Talk of the Town" award from the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He's the cover boy for the "MLB The Show 18" video game.


All Rise. We are proud to feature @MLBTheShow 18’s newest cover athlete! https://t.co/dDZsnlTe0F #TheShow18 https://t.co/TJeVq9h8th

Oh, and he's one of the three finalists for the AL Most Valuable Player award, which will be announced Thursday at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network.

"If I was a GM, I want him on my team because he plays the right way, and he's very humble," Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, Judge's main competition for MVP, said during the ALCS. "Maybe in another life I want to be Aaron Judge and hit all those homers."

The homers are a big deal for both Judge and Bellinger. Judge hit 52 of them in 155 games for the Yankees, while Bellinger hit 39 in 132 games for the Dodgers. Judge hit his farther (an average of 412 feet, according to MLB.com's Statcast, compared to 394 feet for Bellinger), but Judge benefits from playing in a more home run-friendly ballpark. (ESPN's Park Factor had Yankee Stadium as the second-best home run park in baseball in 2017, while Dodger Stadium tied for 15th.)

Bellinger better fits the 2017 trend of trying to hit everything in the air (47.1 percent of his balls in play were fly balls, according to FanGraphs, compared to 43.2 percent for Judge). Both of them strike out at a rate that would have been considered alarming in earlier times (Judge led MLB with 208 strikeouts in 2017, while Bellinger's 26.6 percent strikeout rate would have been highest in the majors any year from 1980-85). Both had rough stretches in the postseason before eventually hitting a few big home runs.

Both are above-average defensively too, although Bellinger has the edge there. One National League scout called him "the best defensive first baseman on the planet" and said he could also be a plus at all three outfield spots.

Bellinger hits home runs, but as he showed in the World Series, he can be a star with the glove too.
Bellinger hits home runs, but as he showed in the World Series, he can be a star with the glove too.Bob Levey/Getty Images

The bigger comparison, though, is what Judge and Bellinger can mean for their teams in the years to come. Both play in big markets, obviously, for teams with huge resources and expectations. After the way 2017 went for the Dodgers and Yankees, it's a given that both franchises will go into 2018 believing it's time to win a World Series.

The Dodgers have a strong young core, led by Bellinger and Seager. The Yankees do too, with Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez, who finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2016. The Dodgers have more prospects on the way, and the Yankees do too.

"You can't believe the talent [the Yankees] have coming," one National League scout who follows their system closely said.

The expectations will be high both in New York and in Los Angeles, but that shouldn't bother Judge and Bellinger. Both were well-known by fans before they even got to the big leagues.

"Bellinger understands who he is, and he understands the accountability of playing for the Dodgers," said Ned Colletti, who was Los Angeles' general manager when it drafted Bellinger and now works on Dodgers broadcasts for SportsNet LA. "He didn't live up to expectations. He exceeded them. And this market, like New York, is not a place for second-best."

Bellinger was the higher-rated prospect when he and Judge were in the minor leagues, but Judge faced bigger scrutiny this year in the big leagues. Once he got off to a big start—Judge had 13 home runs in 25 games by May 3—the Yankees made him a focus of their marketing. Playing off his name, they used "All Rise" as a slogan and dubbed a section of seats in right field the "Judge's Chambers."

Right around that time, Yankees manager Joe Girardi made the Jeter comparison.

The day the Yankees honored Derek Jeter, Jeter greeted the Yankees' biggest new star.
The day the Yankees honored Derek Jeter, Jeter greeted the Yankees' biggest new star.Al Bello/Getty Images

"He's a little bit like Derek for me," Girardi said, per Andrew Marchand of ESPN.com. "He has a smile all the time. He loves to play the game. You always think he is going to do the right thing on the field and off the field. He has a presence about him. He plays the game to win all the time, and that is the most important thing. It is not about what you did that day."

Across the country, the Dodgers weren't marketing Bellinger the same way. They had Seager and Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw, among others, so there wasn’t the need to latch onto the newest star. But Bellinger quickly got hot, with nine home runs in May and 13 in June, and a big-name comparison came his way too.

"I was at a game with a veteran scout, a guy who you can never get to really praise young players," one National League scout said. "He saw Bellinger, and he said, 'That's the closest I've seen to Ted Williams. That life, and that power.' And this guy played with Ted Williams."

Anyone who watched baseball the last couple of Octobers understands the sport is blessed with a large group of charismatic young stars. From Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo with the Chicago Cubs to Francisco Lindor with the Cleveland Indians and Carlos Correa with the Houston Astros, there's plenty of competition when it comes to finding a face of the game.

Judge and Bellinger fit right in. Because they play for teams in the two biggest markets, for teams that figure to be in the spotlight for a few years to come, they might stand out even more.

"I love [Judge's] mindset, and I love his behavior," said former major league pitcher Al Leiter, who calls some Yankees games for the YES Network.

"From the time we drafted him, [Bellinger] had tremendous presence and intellect," Colletti said. "He and Seager were both far above their years in their ability to adjust to situations. Both are good people, solid guys you want on your team."

Not every Rookie of the Year goes on to be a big star in the game. But sometimes you have a guy like Jeter, who won the award in 1996, just as he and his team were on the way to dominating baseball. Sometimes you have a year when the Rookie of the Year in the National League and the American League both stand out, just as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout did in 2012 and Bryant and Correa did in 2015.

And then you have a year with two sluggers, playing for two of the biggest teams in the game in the two biggest cities in the country.

You have Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, and you just imagine how exciting the years ahead can be.

These incredible kids are built for the bright lights and pressure of New York and Los Angeles, and that bulletproof mindset will ensure their limitless star power never burns out.

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

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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