NEW YORK — Aaron Judge initially fooled us.
When he set the rookie record for home runs with 52 in 2017, we incorrectly thought Judge was just a home run hitter. Despite his underlying numbers suggesting otherwise, we falsely believed his future success in the sport was wholly tied to his ability to deposit balls over the fence.
But Joe Girardi knew better.
“You can talk about the home runs and the RBIs, but it’s the on-base and the baserunning and the defense,” the Yankees’ then-manager said of Judge in 2017. “The complete package is what we’ve got from him.”
Of course, there are a ton of (clutch) home runs in that package.
His latest saved the Yankees on Tuesday from a series-opening loss to the Orioles, who sit just above New York in the standings. The Yankees trailed by a run and were down to their last two outs when Judge demonstrated just how brilliant he is with his bat. Despite an 0-2 count against elite closer Félix Bautista, Judge put a full swing on a hanging cutter and sent it into the left-field bleachers to tie the game in the ninth inning.
That those closest to him expected as much from Judge says it all.
“No one was surprised,” said Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe, whose sacrifice fly in the 10th clinched a 6-5 victory. “Everything he does, he makes look easy.”
Or, as Yankees manager Aaron Boone put it: “He’s the best player in the world right now, and he continues to show you why all the time.”
And from day one. Judge’s all-encompassing talent has been on display since his first full season, when he joined Ted Williams to become only the second rookie in MLB history to record at least 100 RBIs, 100 runs and 100 walks. He was also baseball’s only player that year with at least 40 home runs and nine steals. Lost in last year’s historic 62-homer season was the fact he swiped a career-high 16 bases.
For a 6-foot-7, 282-pound gargantuan athlete who likely could’ve excelled in the NBA or NFL, Judge has made it a point to excel in all facets of baseball. Labeling him purely a “home run hitter” is not only incomplete but inaccurate. He’s developed into arguably the greatest player of his generation.
“Even growing up as a kid, it was about being a complete player,” Judge said in March. “I never wanted to be just a hitter, I never wanted to be just a defensive guy. I wanted to be well-rounded and help out any way I could.”
Since becoming a full-time player in 2017, he’s been about as valuable as they come. Entering Tuesday, Judge ranked first in home runs (229), fourth in walks (488), fourth in on-base percentage (.398), second in slugging (.593), second in OPS (.992) and tied for seventh in runs scored (556). Among players with a minimum of 500 games logged, Judge was sixth in walk percentage (15.1) and in the 95th-100th percentile in expected on-base percentage, and he’s led the league in average exit velocity every season.
Judge, if it isn’t clear, is just as much a hitter as he is a slugger — and one who’s rated above average in defense throughout his career.
That well-rounded identity trickles beyond the box score. For seven years now, Judge has shown he wants the Yankees to win more than he wants to decorate the back of his baseball card. It’s that unselfish mentality that made it a no-brainer for the 31-year-old to earn a nine-year, $360 million contract from the Yankees this past offseason. Sure, his 2022 MVP award may have driven his price up just a bit. But the superstar’s intangibles matter just as much to the organization.
“It’s a comfort to him knowing that all of his hard work has paid off financially,” Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of Judge. “He gets to really lock in here in New York. He decides to make a home somewhere with [his wife] Sam. All the comfort off the field, it virtually leads you to be comfortable on the field also.”
It’s easy to see that Judge is a little different this year than last. He’s smiling wider and more frequently. He’s more relaxed both at the plate and in the dugout. He’s giving us a little more personality than he has in years past.
Judge’s newfound free and easy attitude is particularly interesting given that there appears to be a larger sense of responsibility on his shoulders, being named the newest Yankee captain, to keep his teammates in check. That much was evident during his infamous at-bat in Toronto last week, when he took his eyes off the pitcher for a moment to scrutinize the Yankees bench before blasting a ball into the bleachers. While 29 fan bases consequently focused on calling Judge a cheater for his unusual glance to the dugout — the Blue Jays’ Jay Jackson admitted afterward he might have been tipping pitches — the Yankees saw their poised leader unfazed by outside noise.
If anything, those “cheater” accusations only seemed to make Judge better. On Monday, he was named the American League Player of the Week after slashing .500/.621/1.273 with seven runs scored, two doubles, five home runs, 11 RBI, seven walks in 22 at-bats and one stolen base in six games.
The Yankees are 25-14 (.641) in games with Judge this season — this would mark the third-best winning percentage in baseball — and 5-6 (.454) without him. Following his 10-day stint on the injured list, New York is 9-3, with the captain homering eight times in his past nine games.
What’s impressed Boone the most about Judge’s season is how he’s picked up where he left off in 2022. Judge may not replicate 62 home runs, but he’s outperforming his 2023 projections with 14 home runs in just 141 at-bats and a .298/.400/.652 slash line. When he’s healthy, he’s an unstoppable force. When he’s on, he makes the Yankees great. Without him, well, thanks to his long-term contract, that’s something New York doesn’t even have to think about.
“I just want to make sure we’re at a place where, whatever’s going on around us, it’s not having a giant effect on us,” Boone said. “Come in, walk in with that edge, prepare, and go compete, and we’re doing that really well.”
Do those traits remind you of anyone? Essentially, Boone wants the Yankees to be more like Judge: the complete package.