Aaron Judge will play his first game at Target Field on Monday, and at least one Minnesotan believes the Yankees right fielder will fit right in here.
“He looks like Paul Bunyan,” All-Star pitcher and Park Center High School product Pat Neshek said last week in Miami. “He’s bigger than everybody, he carries that bat on his shoulder like an ax, and it seems like he hits the ball a million miles.”
All that’s missing is the giant statue and an ox. Like Bunyan, the legend of Aaron Judge continues to grow to mythical proportions during his rookie season — and that was before he put on one of the most amazing displays in Home Run Derby history a week ago, swatting 47 home runs over three rounds with ease, while using only about 12 minutes of his allotted 15.
So overwhelming was his Derby performance, even his misses seemed to be flicked into the stands. “He’s missing them, slicing them to right field, and they’re still gone,” said Twins closer Brandon Kintzler, who watched from about 20 feet away at Marlins Park. “That was ridiculous.”
It’s difficult to tell which is bigger: Judge’s sheer physical size or the impact he has had on the game in just three-plus months. He has captivated the nation’s biggest media market and was the biggest star at last week’s All-Star Game, swarmed by so many photographers and reporters at times that Kintzler compared Judge and his entourage to the rings around Saturn.
Judge has become so popular that a special section of Yankee Stadium seats in right field — the Judge’s Chambers — has been carved out for fans who come wielding foam gavels and wearing black robes and powdered wigs. Jerseys with Judge’s No. 99, his no-chance-to-make-it number from spring training that he’s embraced as motivation, have become New York’s biggest sellers since Derek Jeter retired.
And physically? By one measure, body mass, Judge is the biggest player in baseball history, Bunyanesque indeed.
Let’s put it in terms that should awe Twins fans: Judge is bigger than Miguel Sano — he’s 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, compared to Sano’s 6-4 and 260 — and he hits the ball harder and farther, too. Going into the All-Star break, the average ball striking his bat ricocheted in the opposite direction at 96.2 miles per hour, easily the highest exit velocity in the majors, and he owned the four hardest-hit balls in the majors this year. Sano’s 93.9 mph ranked second. Judge “barreled” the ball, or struck it at the optimum spot for velocity, 49 times. Only one other player topped 40: Oakland’s Khris Davis, with 41.
As for distance, Judge already owns the longest home run in new Yankee Stadium history, blasting one 495 feet to the back row of the left-field seats on June 11 vs. the Orioles. And he outdid himself during the Home Run Derby, crushing four balls more than 500 feet, the longest an incredible 513 feet that glanced off the window at the back of the stadium.
“513?” Judge said afterward, obviously shocked by the stratospheric number. “I got nothing. I got nothing for that.”
Others were similarly speechless. “He’s an animal, that’s all I can say about him,” Sano said. “The first time I saw Aaron Judge in [batting practice], I could tell you: He’s a monster.”
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Yet he’s no ogre away from the field; quite the opposite, in fact. Judge was raised by parents who adopted him the day after he was born in 1992, and he knows nothing about his biological parents. Judge told mlb.com earlier this year that when he was 10 or 11, “I noticed I didn’t look like my parents, and they told me I was adopted. They answered all my questions, and that was that. It didn’t really bother me because they’re the only parents I’ve ever known.”
Patty and Wayne Judge instilled their second son — the couple has another adopted son, older than Aaron — with respect and humility, by all accounts. In Miami, for instance, Judge spent long sessions accommodating ceaseless autograph requests.
“I got it from my parents. They taught me right from wrong, how to treat people,” he told mlb.com.
He grew up in the tiny agricultural community of Linden, Calif., about 90 minutes south of Sacramento, and excelled at three sports in high school. He averaged 18 points as Linden High’s center in basketball, and scored a school-record 21 touchdowns as a tight end, drawing football recruiting interest from such schools as Notre Dame and UCLA. Baseball was his best and favorite sport, and he was drafted by Oakland in the 31st round in 2010 but chose to attend Fresno State instead, where he was a freshman All-America.
The Yankees took Judge with the 32nd pick in 2013, and signed him for a $1.8 million bonus. He was a promising prospect, but scouts worried that his size would make him vulnerable to pitches inside. “Even now, if you asked scouts if they’d rather have Judge or [Yankees catcher] Gary Sanchez, it would be about 50-50,” said one scout who attended this year’s Futures Game. “And there are a lot of skeptics about whether he can stay in the outfield, with his size. He’s probably a first baseman, eventually.”
The Yankees called Judge up last August for a monthlong tryout, and it was humbling. Judge went 15-for-84, and kept “.179” — his batting average — prominently displayed on his phone, for motivation this year.
It must have worked, because Judge is a breakout star this season. He led the AL in homers in April, and was one short of the June lead. Twice he has hit game-winning or tying homers in the eighth inning; his first homer of the season tied a game in Baltimore and sparked a Yankees rally to a 7-3 victory.
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Not only is Judge running away with the more esoteric Statcast statistics, he’s making a joke of the traditional ones, too. For instance: The Yankees’ record for home runs by a rookie was 28, by Joe DiMaggio. Judge passed the Yankee Clipper on July 5, and is within range of the MLB rookie record, Mark McGwire’s 49 for Oakland in 1987.
It’s a nice coincidence that he plays the same position, right field, on the same team, the Yankees, as Babe Ruth did, because that’s the sort of shadow he’s casting over the game already.
Judge has 30 homers (he was robbed of No. 31 Sunday), a .434 on-base percentage and a .655 slugging percentage, all major league bests. His 63 walks lead the AL, and his 66 RBI trail only Seattle’s Nelson Cruz.
“The question right now isn’t whether he’s the American League MVP — of course he is,” said Richard Justice, a longtime baseball writer and columnist at mlb.com. “The question you have to ask now is whether he’s the best player in the game.”
He’s well on his way to becoming the most recognizable, and one of the best-liked, even if his numbers come back to earth. “That guy is a really nice guy, very humble. I introduced him to my nephew, and he remembered his name and said hi to him at the Derby,” Kintzler said. “If he’s the new face of baseball, he’s the perfect guy to have.”