New York Yankees rookie Aaron Judge has had a season like no other

 In Sports
When Aaron Judge hits — when he really connects with a ball — there is no other thing like it in baseball. Like a fingerprint, the sharp snap of horsehide on maple is singularly identifiable. From home plate, the ball is transformed, becoming an arcing, turbocharged comet headed toward Yankee Stadium’s outfield seats. The ball does not leave Judge’s bat as much as it flees, a jailbreak high over the wall.

When Aaron Judge strikes out — when he hears that pop in the catcher’s mitt and the umpire’s bark behind him — it is controlled disappointment. The K’s come in many forms: There’s the meager wave of the bat, followed by the twirl and jump-step out of the batter’s box. There’s the short and quick swing, both hands gripping the bat’s handle as it flashes in front of his eyes. Sometimes he watches the ball cross the plate, then taps the tips of his cleats. After each, he returns to the dugout, his face shaded in disbelief, a rookie alone in his thoughts.

Judge hit a home run in every 10.4 at-bats this year, the best rate in the American League. Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

In the history of a game that has combed stats for a hundred years, there has never been a baseball player like Aaron Judge. So perhaps it’s no surprise that there has never been a rookie season like the one we witnessed from him this year.

Yes, Mike Trout and Mark Fidrych and even Dick Allen produced more wins above replacement in their first full year in the major leagues. But in terms of simple offensive play, there has never been a season so tantalizingly eye-popping from a rookie, nothing as stirring or moving or unique as the one that was just placed before us.

Consider his 52 home runs (most ever by a rookie) and 114 RBIs and 1.049 OPS. His 208 strikeouts (also the most ever by a rookie) and 127 walks. Consider the Home Run Derby, when he hit the Marlins Park roof twice. Consider his 10 home runs in April. And in June. Consider the 37-game strikeout streak, which tied another major-league record, when the story of Aaron Judge’s season was being erased and rewritten, when the New Face of Baseball was becoming just another face. And finally, consider his 15 home runs in September, when the playoff-chasing Yankees needed their newest star to step up — and he did.

On the precipice of Tuesday’s one-game playoff against the Twins, on the biggest stage of his brief major-league career, Judge — all 6-foot-7, 282 pounds of him — has the chance to make history for a team that is both reviled and envied unlike any other in professional sports. And among playoff teams, there is perhaps no offensive player who improves his team’s chance to win more than Judge — which makes no team more desperate to have its star hitting than the New York Yankees.

The team is 31-14 on the season when he records a home run and 26-13 when he has two or more hits. During Judge’s September resurgence — when he recorded an inconceivable 1.352 OPS and drove in 32 runs after weeks of playing like one of the game’s worst hitters — his team was 19-8 when he was on the field.

“Every at bat Aaron goes up there, he’s confident he’s going to get a hit,” says Yankees assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames, who has worked with Judge for three years. “It doesn’t mean a hard swing. It means a solid approach and a good swing. We’re not telling him to hit the Bank of America sign. We’re saying take your best swing, because if he makes solid contact, what do you think is gonna happen?”

Of course, if he doesn’t? Judge’s game has always been yin and yang, his alpha bomb to his omega K. It’s impossible to talk about Judge’s prodigious blasts without also mentioning his equally prodigious strikeout totals. This season, he struck out in nearly 31 percent of his plate appearances on his way to leading the majors in K’s. As his sub-.200 BA in August reminds us, the rookie is still a work in progress — his true value won’t be determined until more time has passed. But for the Yankees — who went 25-21 when Judge goes hitless and 6-10 when he fails to get on base at all — Judge could be the key to their postseason chances, in 2017 and well beyond.

So which Aaron Judge is the real one? So far, he appears to be a lot of both. “He’s going to be a dynamic player,” Thames says. “[But] you have to take the good with the bad and let this kid understand who he is.”

It’s June 10, and the Orioles are in town. Judge has 18 homers and 41 RBIs. He’s about to hit four more in the next three days. In the bottom of the first inning, none on, two out, Judge steps into the batter’s box digs a size-17 cleat into the faded chalk line and waits. On his second pitch of the night, a center-cut changeup from Baltimore starter Chris Tillman, Judge sweeps his massive left leg forward and plants it in the dirt. It is so quick and fluid, the bat looks like a buggy whip in his hands. The aptly named launch angle off his bat is 24.6 degrees and the ball travels 382 feet, a hooking laser that sneaks fair along the left-field pole and sends fans scattering. The ball’s exit velocity is a then-major-league-leading 121.1 mph — topping the 119.8 mph single he’d hit two days earlier, which topped the 119.4 mph home run he hit in April.

Over at second base, Orioles All-Star Jonathan Schoop doesn’t need to watch the ball to know it’s leaving the field. He hears it. Weeks later, months later, he’ll still hear it. “That sound the ball makes off his bat?” Schoop says of Judge. “That sounds like a baaad dude.”

In July, Judge was on top of the world. But his incredible start took a turn in August. Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Judge spent just a month in the majors, where he hit an abysmal .179 with 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances. It was the most overmatched Judge had been in his life. He’d flailed at pitches that he had been roping out of the park only a couple months earlier in Triple-A Scranton. He couldn’t catch up to the high fastball. On top of that, it was like he’d forgotten his strike zone. Major-league fastballs seemed to have more heat and movement. Curveballs were tighter. Each pitcher knew what he was trying to do, how to attack this big rookie from Northern California.

Near the end of the season, he met with Thames and Yankees hitting coach Alan Cockrell. With the offseason approaching, he was worried: In 2017 — a year the Yankees had a real chance to make a push deep into the playoffs — there wasn’t a guarantee Judge would have a starting role on the team, if he even made the team at all.

Both Cockrell and Thames told Judge his future as a big-league hitter depended on how he used the lower half of his body when he was in the batter’s box. Tall hitters — especially those predisposed to 500-foot home runs — are already prone to be loose and long with their swings, bobbling heads and flying legs and arms everywhere. “The more you try to do big-guy things, that’s when you get out of whack and lose your mechanics,” says Tony Clark, who topped out at 6-foot-7 and hit 251 home runs in a 15-year major league career. Getting Judge’s right hip anchored — the back end of his body for his right-handed swing — was the key.

Judge turned his offseason into a massive cram session. While current and former coaches describe him as a sponge who’s adept at taking off-the-field instruction and translating it into production on the field, there’s no road map for a player Judge’s size. Nearly every day, Judge would open YouTube and search for swings. He watched Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds — larger power hitters he admired who used all parts of the field, men he knew who had put in their own serious work.

He watched that back hip, the anchor, and worked on shortening his swing, compacting the distance between his bat’s movement from anticipation to impact. Judge flew to New York to work with his coaches. He moved off the plate, which allowed him more coverage on strikes on the inside edge while allowing his long arms to grab balls on the outside half and shoot them to the opposite field. “We were trying to get him to stay on the ball a little better, stay through the baseball a lot longer,” Thames says. During spring training, Judge noticed he was having better at-bats, getting into 3-1 hitter’s counts rather than falling behind 0-2. He posted a 21.7 percent strikeout rate in the spring — less than half his rate from the previous year.

He went back to his phone. This time, Judge opened his notes app. In it, at the very top, he wrote “.179.”

Judge hit 10 home runs in April, to go with a .411 on-base average. Through May, he’d hit seven more homers and bumped his OBP to .441. It wasn’t just the stats that made everyone take notice. Just like the hitters he’d watched in the offseason, Judge was drilling balls to all parts of the field. Sure, there was a 496-foot homer against Baltimore and a 460-foot blast against the Pirates, but there was also the 119-mph double, the 117.3-mph single, the 117.2-mph out. During a short series in May, Reds first baseman Joey Votto studied Judge, watched how his limbs worked together at the plate. “There’s a quickness and directness to his swing, very Point A to Point B,” says Votto, one of the preeminent hitters in the game. “Often times, power’s generated with a little more length, but it doesn’t seem like Judge has that. It’s almost like he should be playing in a ballpark 10 to 20 percent bigger because he’s so skilled.”

Through June 12, Judge was hitting .347 with a league-leading 22 home runs and 39 walks. Five of the major’s six highest-velocity hits at the time came off Judge’s bat in the season’s first half. He’d gone 4-for-4 with two homers and a walk in a game against Baltimore; 2-for-3 with two homers and two walks against Toronto.

In every way possible, Judge had become baseball’s Paul Bunyan, the giant whose on-field exploits were becoming things of legend. Media, fans, teammates wondered what he might do next. Would he become the first Yankee since Roger Maris to hit at least 60 home runs in a season? Could he be the greatest rookie of all time? And this: Might Aaron Judge overtake Mike Trout as baseball’s best player?

For about 60 seconds, it looks like Aaron Judge might not win the Home Run Derby. His first-round opponent, Marlins first baseman Justin Bour, dropped a first-round-high 22 homers, and Judge has just seven in his first two and a half minutes. Is he nervous? Has the pressure finally caught up to him? With just more than two minutes remaining, he calls time out, wipes his face, catches his breath. He steps into the box. Yankees BP pitcher Danilo Valiente throws. From that moment, there’s an ease to Judge’s movements, all fast-twitch muscle, a catapult of strength. He sprays the outfield stands. They’re foul-pole-to-foul-pole shots. He puts one over the Marlin statue in center field. He smacks one off the concourse floor in left. He shoots one into the right-field seats. He hits the retractable roof 170-feet high with a non-homer to deep left-center, something Marlins Park architects never thought was possible.

The rest of the derby is anticlimactic. In the last round, Judge faces gassed slugger Miguel Sano, who hits a disappointing 10 homers then slinks off to the side to make room. Judge’s finals-tying shot is so high that it takes nearly eight seconds before landing beyond the center-field wall. After just two more pitches, Valiente raises his hands above his head in victory before No. 11 hits the second deck in right-center. Judge makes his way to his coach as his competitors mob him.

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