How Aaron Judge Plays Above the Rim

Unfazed by the paparazzi or pinstripes, the 26-year-old record-setter has a mind to match the muscles. And when you watch him up close, it’s all or nothing. Part of the B/R POWER 50 Level Up list.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJuly 23, 2018

Aaron Judge is Paul Bunyan on the baseball field, Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians. A physical giant, ox-strong, swinging his bat like an ax. The future.

Smash MLB's single-season rookie home run record, as Judge did with 52 in 2017, in, say, Oakland, where Mark McGwire set the old record of 49 in 1987, and you're celebrated. Do it on the game's biggest stage, smack dab in Yankee Stadium, and you're deified.

That part can be dangerous, because when you're the first position player in MLB history to stand 6'7" and weigh 282 pounds (that factoid brought to you by none other than the Elias Sports Bureau, the game's official statistician), you cannot so much as sneeze without causing a seismic reaction.

So when his now-teammate and then-rival Giancarlo Stanton approached to meet him at last year's All-Star festivities in Miami, it was a made-for-paparazzi moment. When Judge then chopped his way to the Home Run Derby title, his outsized physicality became even more pronounced.

So, too, did it when he fell into a second-half slump in which he whiffed 99 times in 241 at-bats, a whopping 41.1 percent rate (as opposed to 109 times in 301 at-bats in the first half, a 36.2 percent rate). What impressed his Yankees teammates during the slide is the same mental acumen that helped Judge then and will do so in the future. They were amazed at his ability to keep focused and that his demeanor remained unchanged. Born in Linden, California, the adopted son of two teachers has a mind to match his muscles.

All rise, indeed.

After regaining his balance, Judge nearly pushed the Yankees to their first post-Jeter/Rivera World Series, amassing a 1.065 OPS against Houston in an American League Championship Series that went to a seventh game. He was named the AL Rookie of the Year, finished second in the league's MVP balloting and is the coverboy for MLB The Show 18.

In person or on a video screen, Judge is a sight to behold. Nobody stings the ball harder: Seven of his home runs last season screamed out of the park at 117 mph or faster, per Statcast; only two homers by anyone else all year had exit velocities that high (both were hit by Stanton). And Judge's average exit velo of 95.0 mph on balls in play led the majors.

Cool thing, too, is when time and place come together as they have in this moment: In Yankees pinstripes, Judge is connected to legendary sluggers such as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle by numbers and Dave Winfield by size while blasting forward on his own in a game that is changing before our eyes. To go with all those strikeouts in the all-or-nothing, swing-away environment in 2017 were 127 walks, the game's second-highest total. Considering Judge's giant strike zone, that's an eagle's eye.

In a sport that generally keeps its staid, old-fashioned metal cleats squarely in the infield dirt, Judge plays above the rim. And the exciting part—especially for the Yankees—is, at 26, his best years are still ahead of him.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball. 

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