Just how extraordinary is Aaron Judge? Whatever the final verdict, it’s unlikely to come from a jury of his peers. That’s because no position player with his 6’7” 280 lb. body mass has ever played baseball at this level. The good-natured, gap-toothed right fielder put up historic numbers and had his own cheering section less than two months into his breakout 2017 season. Can a candy bar be far behind? This is his story

GROWING UP

Aaron James Judge was born April 26, 1992, in Sacramento. He was adopted the next day by two Northern California educators, Patty and Wayne Judge. He was big and pudgy as an infant; the Judges joked that he was their “Michelin Tire baby.” Aaron was the couples second child. They had already adopted a son, John, who was four when Aaron arrived. He and John grew up in Linden, a small agricultural town in the San Joaquin Valley, 90 minutes east of the Bay Area on Rte. 26 just past Stockton. Linden’s population was just over 1,000 and it did not have a single stoplight.

As a mixed-race boy in a small community, Aaron was a subject of some curiosity. The first time a classmate asked him why he didn’t look like his parents, he had no answer. When he asked his parents, they explained matter-of-factly that he was adopted. Aaron doesn’t recall being fazed by this news at “age 10 or 11”; Patty was his mom and Wayne was his dad. Period.

Aaron was a fan of the San Francisco Giants. His favorite player was Rich Aurilia. Aurilia led the NL in hits and was an All-Star in 2001, when Aaron was 9 years old.

At this point, Aaron had already established his awesome power. In tee ball, fielders would scatter when he hit, unwilling to get in front of his grounders and line drives. By middle school he already stood over 6 feet.

Needless to say, education was priority one in the Judge home. Aaron and John were not allowed to play video games or hang out with their friends until their homework and chores were done. The Judge boys learned how to organize his time and about the value of accountability. Eventually John followed Patty and Wayne into education, teaching English in South Korea.

In high school, Aaron participated in student government and maintained a solid B+ average. He was friendly, soft-spoken and humble. But it was on the courts and playing field of Linden High that he truly stood out. Aaron played baseball, basketball and football and earned All-County and All-Region honors in all three sports. Football wasn’t his favorite sport, but it was easily his best as a teenager. Raiders coach Mike Huber played Aaron at defensive end and wide receiver. One of the team’s most effective plays was called Jump Pass. Basically, Aaron would run down the field, the quarterback would heave the ball in the air, and Aaron would go get it. Huber often signaled the play it from the sidelines with both hands raised in the air. He didn’t care that the other team knew it was coming. Often, Aaron didn’t even have to jump. He score 22 touchdowns as a senior. By then, he stood 6’7 and weighed 230 pounds.

Aaron was a handful on the basketball court. He was the Raiders’ leading scorer at nearly 20 points a game, a prodigious shot-blocker, and an unstoppable rebounder. The Raiders utilized his size and leaping ability on inbounds plays, throwing a pass towards the rim so that Aaron could pluck the ball out of the air and dunk it.

It was as a pitcher and first baseman for coach Joe Piombo baseball team that Aaron felt most at home. He was rated one of the top players in Northern California as a junior and senior, earning All-America recognition in 2010. He went 9-3 with a 0.88 ERA in his final year for Linden High, with a fastball that consistently touched the low 90s and a sharp-breaking curve. That season, he led the Raiders to the Mother Lode League crown and through three rounds of the state Division IIII playoffs.

Aaron’s power-hitting was more impressive than his pitching. Once he competed in an impromptu home run contest with assistant coach Joe Piombo Jr., a pretty good player in his 20s. Piombo Jr. drove a ball against a building in center field, 375 feet away. Aaron got up and hit a ball on top of the building, turned to him and asked, “Is that it, coach?”

Not surprisingly, opponents often chose to throw him nothing but balls in the dirt. This was a source of frustration for the scouts who attended Linden’s games. Sometimes they asked Aaron to take batting practice after games, because he hadn’t taken the bat of his shoulder all afternoon. The pro scouts insisted he use a wooden bat to get an accurate gauge of his power.



© Rob Tringali

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rich Aurila
2001 Fleer

 

     
 

The college recruiting letters began arrive in Aaron’s junior year. To his dismay, most were from football programs. Notre Dame, Stanford, Michigan State and other schools projected him as a potential All-America caliber tight end. Aaron planned to go to college, but wasn’t keen on football as a career path. Baseball was his first love. In the 2010 draft, the Oakland A’s selected him with their pick in the 31st round, knowing his parents had already convinced him to accept a scholarship at Fresno State—Patty and Wayne’s alma mater. Oakland scout Jermaine Clark had struck up a relationship with Aaron, and hoped he could talk him into changing his plans, but Aaron stuck to his plans and did not sign.

Aaron arrived at Fresno State and began working out with the baseball team in the fall. He and the other Bulldog baseball players often played touch football in the outfield to stay in shape and have fun. Aaron completed dominated these contests. Baseball coach Mike Batesole was in awe of his speed and quickness—Aaron darted past teammates like “Barry Sanders” he recllas. Aaron actually asked Batesone if he could try out for the football team. Fresno State had a solid Division I program under Pat Hill and Aaron probably could have stepped right into the starting lineup.

Coach Batesole’s answer was firm: We gave you a baseball scholarship, so you’re ours.

Batesole was a demanding coach, with a reputation for turning out good ballplayers and solid citizens. He’d coached Fresno State to Mountain West Tournament titles each spring form 2006 to 2009 and won the 2008 College World Series championship. Since taking over the program in 2003, he had produced a pair of high-profile pitchers, Matt Garza and Doug Fister.The first decision Bateson and his staff had to make was whether Aaron would be more valuable as a pitcher or hitter. The Bulldog pitching coach lobbied hard for Aaron, believing he had the size and stuff to star in the majors. Needless to say, Batesole won out, and Aaron became a fulltime outfielder for Fresno State.

Aaron’s freshman season certainly validated this decision. He batted .358 in 55 games. knocked in 30 runs and stole 11 bases in 12 attempts. He had the highest average among the regulars, but did not produce big power numbers in his first year facing first-rate college pitching. He cleared the fence just twice. Junior Dusty Robinson led the Bulldogs with 16 homers. The team went 39–14, finishing first in the Western Athletic Conference with a 17–7 record. Besides Aaron, there were two future big-leaguers on the club: infielder Danny Muno (Mets) and pitcher Justin Haley (Twins). Aaron was named Conference Freshman of the Year and made the 2011 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America squad.

ON THE RISE

Aaron began to find makes strides as a power hitter in his sophomore season. His average dipped to .308 but he had 20 extra-base hits, including four home runs. He slugged two in one game off of Mark Appel, the ace of the Stanford staff. Aaron walked more than he whiffed (48 to 42) and stole 13 bases in 15 attempts. Although it was a down year for Fresno State—they barely broke .500 at 31–28—Aaron led the team to victory in the conference tournament, securing an NCAA Tournament bid. He was named All-WAC and garnered All-WAC Tournament honors, too. The Bulldogs lost two of their three games in the Super Regional, ending their season.

Following the season, Aaron went to the Cape Cod League to play summer ball for the Brewster Whitecaps. He was among a group of players invited to work out at Fenway Park one day when the Red Sox were away. Aaron’s batting practice sessions was one for the books. He deposited ball after ball deep in the seats and against and over the Green Monster in left. Aaron hit five homers in 32 Cape Cod games and won the Whitecaps’ Citizenship Award winner for being a good teammate. Baseball America ranked him the #6 prospect in the league.

Meanwhile, Fresno State left the Western Athletic Conference (along with several other football-playing schools). Aaron and company played the 2013 season as members of the Mountain West Conference. Fresno State suffered through a sub-.500 season, but no one was blaming Aaron. He was the Bulldogs’ lone .300 hitter and led the club with 76 hits, 45 runs, 15 doubles, 12 steals, 35 walks, 12 homers and 36 RBIs. He batted .369 with a .655 slugging average, also team highs. He was a no-brainer pick for All-Mountain West Conference honors.

What kind of professional player Aaron would make was less of a no-brainer. As the 2013 draft approached, he figured to go in the first two rounds, but where he would fall was anyone’s guess. Although it’s tempting to characterize him at this point as a “project” the fact was that most clubs viewed Aaron as flawed talent. No one questioned his physical abilities, but every club had questions about whether a player that big could be a productive offensive player at the major league level. Historically, you could count the number of successful hitters that were Aaron’s size (6’6”-plus, 240-plus lbs.) on one hand: Frank Howard, Richie Sexson, Tony Clark and Adam Dunn. In college, Aaron often swung through pitches in the strike zone. This was a subject of concern for many of the teams tempted by his power. It’s one thing to teach a slugger not to chase bad pitches. But what do you do with a 6’7” giant who is missing pitches that are over the plate?

 

 

 


Danny Muno
2016 Topps Heritage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Frank Howard
1967 Dexter Press

 

     
 

The Yankees were on Aaron. They had been watching his progress for three years. They loved his skill set and his makeup. Even so, he was not their first pick in the draft. They took Eric Jagielo, a third baseman from Notre Dame, at #26. Fortunately, Aaron was still on the board for New York’s sandwich pick six players later, at #32. The Yankees got the pick when they lost Nick Swisher to free agency following the 2012 season. Back home in Linden, Joe Piombo Jr. was groaning—he was a lifelong Red Sox fan.

Within a couple of years, almost everyone in Linden would become Yankee fans.

Aaron signed for $1.8million on July 11th and was ticketed for low-A ball. However, a quad tear suffered in a base running drill put Aaron on the DL before his first pro game. The organization ultimately made the decision to shut him down for the remainder of the 2013 campaign. The main goal was to work on refining Aaron’s swing. Given his seven-foot wingspan, it was relatively short and consistent, but the coaching staff knew he would eventually be susceptible to inside gas. Aaron also had the habit of chasing outside breaking pitches—which he saw a lot of as a college junior. The Yankees also worried about his defensive position. Could a player Aaron’s size handle the day-to-day demands of a big league outfielder, or was he destined to become a first baseman?

Aaron began the 2014 campaign as a member of the Class-A Charleston RiverDogs under manager Lou Dorante. Among his teammates was pitching prospect Luis Severino, who had already been in the minors for two years. Aaron batted .333 in 65 games with nine homers and 15 doubles. Those numbers earned him a promotion to the High-A Tampa Yankees, where he joined power hitting prospects Greg Bird and Peter O’Brien on a club managed by Al Pedrique. Aaron held his own against better pitching, clearing the fence eight times to give him 17 round-trippers for the season to go with a.308 average and 78 RBIs. The Yankees then sent Aaron and Bord to the Arizona Fall League, where Aaron added four more homers in 24 games for the Scottsdale Scorpions.

Aaron continued his climb up the organizational ladder in 2015, starting the year with the Class-AA Trenton Thunder. He hit a dozen homers in the first half and was slugging over .500 when he was promoted to the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders along with Bird and Gary Sanchez. There Aaron began facing pitchers who could exploit his weaknesses. While Bird and Sanchez held their own, Aaron scuffled at times, batting .224 in the season’s final 61 games. On the bright side, he continued driving the ball, adding eight homers for a total of 20 on the year to go with 72 RBIs.

Aaron got to show off his power in Spring Training the following year but did not break camp with the big club. The Yankees were top-heavy with aging veterans and, barring some kind of miracle, wanted Aaron and its other young players to play together with the RailRiders during what promised to be a transition year at Yankee Stadium. As the July trade deadline approached, GM Brian Cashman decided the Yankees would be sellers, not buyers, and committed fully to a youth movement that figured to pan out in 2018 and 2019. The team called up Sanchez on August 3rd and he produced an epic final two months, smashing 20 homers. Aaron—who had 19 homers in 93 Triple-A games—was recalled by the Yankees 10 days later.

Aaron was sharing a late night meal with his parents on a Friday when Al Pedrique informed him he was expected in the Bronx the following day. The Judges drove from Rochester five hours south to Yankee Stadium for a Saturday day game against Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees brought up Tyler Austin the same day.


 

 

 


Aarn Judge
2015 Minors Photo by EricEnfermero

 

 

     
 

When Aaron arrived, the atmosphere was electric—not because a 6’7” giant had just entered the Yankee clubhouse, but because of the presence of members of the 1996 World Series team, who were being honored before the game.

Manager Joe Girardi put Aaron and Tyler in the starting lineup immediately. In the top of the first inning, Evan Longoria hit a long, slicing fly ball to right field. Aaron tracked it down in front of the wall to end the inning. In the bottom of the first, Aaron was in the on deck circle when Austin hammered a Matt Andriese fast ball the other way and into the right field seats for a home run in his first big league at bat.

Aaron stepped to the plate with the fans still buzzing about Austin’s historic homer. Andriese tried to fool Aaron with a change-up, but Aaron waited on the pitch and caught it square. He drilled a breathtaking 447-foot shot off the glass behind Monument Park to make a little more history: It marked the first time two players had ever hit-back-to-back homers in their first major league at bats. Aaron was so stunned he nearly tripped over second on his way around the bases.

Aaron homered again the next day off Jake Odorizzi. Unfortunately, after starting his first stint in New York 8-for-26 with six RBIs, it was all downhill from there. Enemy pitchers discovered the holes in his swing and he hit just two more homers that year—off Edinson Volquez and Jose DeLeon. Aaron’s season ended in mid-September with a Grade 2 right oblique strain. His final numbers included a .179 average with nine walks and 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances. On the bright side, Aaron definitely felt welcomed in the Yankee clubhouse. During the summer, he became the team’s self-appointed DJ. Postgame music is common in minor league locker rooms, but the Yankees’ dressing area was quiet. Aaron began picking postgame tunes to play and it became part of the clubhouse culture.



Tyler Austin
2016 Topps

 

 

MAKING HIS MARK

After a winter of intense refinement and training—including three days working on technique with hitting guru Alan Cockrell—Aaron arrived in camp in 2017 a changed player. He went deep into counts without swinging at pitcher’s pitches, and also did a better job identifying breaking balls before committing his swing. He cut his strikeouts nearly in half. Aaron made the Opening Day roster as the everyday right fielder, edging Aaron Hicks for the starting job. Up north, Aaron continued to show the progress he’d demonstrated in Florida. Basically, he was swinging less and making contact more, which boosted his average and walks and diminished his strikeouts. And like magic, he began seeing more hittable pitches.

One person who was not surprised by Aaron’s transformation was minor league teammate Rob Refsnyder, who’d worked out with Aaron over the winter and could see his approach evolving. A homer is a homer, no matter how many rows deep it goes, and Aaron finally came to realize that he did not have to swing from the heels to leave the yard. He no longer looked like a “three-outcome” hitter, and even had some in the organization saying he might one day flirt with .300. Of course, no one expected what happened next.

On April 9th, Aaron’s fifth start of the young season, he drilled a solo shot off of Orioles reliever Mychal Givens in the eighth inning to tie the score at 3–3. The Yankees piled on four more runs in the ninth for a 7–3 win. The comeback victory triggered an eight-game winning streak that saw the Yankees seize first place in the AL East. Aaron hit three more homers during the streak and knocked in a total of 10 runs. He finished April with 10 home runs, 20 RBIs and a .303 average, earning him the AL Rookie of the Month award. More importantly, the Yankees were tied for first place in what most fans had accepted as a rebuilding year.

Aaron’s breakout came at an especially crucial time. Gary Sanchez had suffered an arm injury a week into the season and the club desperately needed a dependable power source. At Triple-A the year before, Aaron had often hit second in the lineup, with Sanchez behind him. The thought of the two young sluggers hitting together once Sanchez returned to form was truly exciting. In the meantime, however, Aaron had to stay hot in May, knowing the pitchers would be watching video and changing their approach. It had turned out that the pitches they were getting him out on in 2016 were really pitches he was getting himself out on. Aaron’s newfound patience was put to the test in the season’s second month and he passed with flying colors. He boosted his average into the .320s and cracked seven more homers to take the major-league lead.

And just when fans were growing weary of watching video’s of Aaron’s long bombs, he gave them something else to gawk at: his defense. In a game against the Rays, Longoria hit a liner into the gap. Aaron took a great route to the ball, laid out and plucked it out of the air a few inches off the turf to retire the Tampa Bay slugger and double Corey Dickerson off first. The fans at Tropicana Field (many of whom are Yankee fans) gave him a standing ovation.

Meanwhile, the hits kept coming. During a home series against the A’s at the end of May, Aaron hit his first big-league grand slam. A rocket off starter Andrew Triggs, it came in the third inning of a 9–5 win. The Yankee Stadium crowd chanted MVP MVP MVP as Aaron rounded the bases. Afterwards, when a team official asked if he wanted the ball retrieved, Aaron told him no, let the fan keep it. Aaron later revealed that he had faced Triggs before in Class AA ball and had multiple strikeouts against the sidewinding righty. After watching video of those at bats, he determined he needed to hang in longer on pitches and take them the other way. His first at bat against Triggs produced a lineout to right—as it turned out, a preview of the third-inning granny.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Aaron Judge
2017 Sports Illustrateds

 

Aaron’s 17th home run of the season, which gave him the major league lead, was a screaming line drive against Dylan Bundy of the Orioles on May 29th. It landed 429 feet away and broke a tie with Mike Trout for the major-league lead. Two days later, the AL MVP race took an interesting turn when Mike Trout, the prohibitive favorite to win his third award, landed on the DL after injuring his left thumb on a steal of second base. The Angels estimated he would be out until at least mid-July. The injury also put Aaron in position to become the AL’s top vote-getter for the All-Star Game. He had been trailing Trout in the early voting.

After a June 1 win over the Blue Jays—in which A healthy Sanchez blasted a pair of 400-foot homers—the Yankees were 31–20 with a three-game lead over the preseason favorite Red Sox in the AL East. With the pitching staff performing beyond preseason expectations and Greg Bird due back from an injury, suddenly fans in the Bronx were letting themselves dream about their precocious Yankees making it to the postseason. Adding to the titillation of New York baseball fans was the fact that the Mets’ top outfield prospect, Michael Conforto, was flexing his muscles over in CitiFIeld. His hot start triggered a spirited debate between fans on the Queens and the Bronx over which team had the better breakthrough star.

The law of gravity dictated that Aaron was due for a course correction during the season's third month, but he kept out-adjusting enemy hurlers to maintain the upper hand. He continued pummeling the ball to help the Yankees win five of their six games against the Red Sox and Orioles and took home Player of the Week honors for the period ending June 11th. During that eventful week Aaron launched a home run that left his bat at 121.1 mph, breaking his own record, and a day later deposited a ball in the seats 495 feet away. In the final two games of the Baltimore series, he went 7-for-8 with three homers, a pair of doubles, two walks and six RBIs. When the dust settled, Aaron sat atop the AL leader board in home runs, RBIs and batting average, as well as runs, walks and total bases.

Becoming the most celebrated athlete in New York is heady stuff for a 25-year-old—especially one who stands out wherever he goes. Yet Aaron seemed able to roll with all the attention and have fun without taking his focus off the game. He even went along with a Jimmy Fallon gag where he donned a pair of glasses and interviewed New Yorkers about their opinion on Aaron Judge. It was one of the funniest bits the show had done all year.

Just as New York has adopted Aaron as its favorite son, Aaron has embraced the city in an equally remarkable way. He’s chosen to live out of a hotel on Times Square, and can be seen walking among the late-night tourists after games. He delights in the elevator rides to and from the lobby, where he interacted with guests from all over the world, most of whom had no idea who he was. For a young man who grew up in a place where he often went a week or two without seeing an unfamiliar face, it’s just one more wild ride on a great adventure.

     
 

AARON THE PLAYER

Aaron offers the largest strike zone in baseball, but as enemy pitchers have found, he covers it surprisingly well. Though he often swings for the fences, he is developing into a discriminating hitter. It’s possible to tie him up inside, but pitchers who miss over the plate do so at their own peril. The Yankees moved him into the heart of the batting order, where he will undoubtedly see a lot more off-speed pitches, but the team would not have elevated Aaron in the lineup if there was any doubt that he could adjust.

In Aaron’s first go-round in the majors, pitchers were setting him up to swing at their out pitch. Now he understands how to gain the upper hand in an at bat. The cat-and-mouse game will continue as he learns more about the game.

Aaron’s defense is more than adequate for a young corner outfielder. He covers a lot of ground and has a plus throwing arm. Given his length, it is likely that fans will soon be watching video of him pulling back would-be homers that no one else in history could touch. He’ll likely end up as a first baseman by the time he’s 30 to save his legs. Aaron is a good base runner, but not much of a stolen base threat at this level.



Aaron Judge
Rookie of the Month, 2017 Daily News
     

 

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