An inside look at Judge's quest for baseball immortality

September 19th, 2022

It was the dawn of Aaron Judge’s junior season at Fresno State University, and the future Yankee found a seat alongside his Bulldogs teammates, having been issued a surprising classroom assignment. The required viewing on that date was a YouTube supercut, showing each and every hit Miguel Cabrera collected during his stellar 2012 season with the Detroit Tigers.

The lesson that head coach Mike Batesole wanted Judge and others to absorb was to recognize the remarkable ease with which Cabrera appeared to handle the strike zone during that season, one that rewarded the superstar with the American League’s first Triple Crown in more than four decades.

“It was a long video, but it was well worth the watch,” Judge said. “I think he really hammered home just how simple he makes everything. He doesn’t try to overswing; he doesn’t try to do too much, especially with guys on base. You’d see him poke a single to right field and score two runs. He just did the little things in the game, and if you do that over 162, you’re going to have a pretty good year.”

Does that sound familiar? For as much talk as there has been about Judge chasing pinstriped legends like Roger Maris, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle throughout his sensational 2022 campaign, Judge still subscribes to the Miggy playbook. There has been power in droves, with Judge far and away pacing the AL field in home runs (59) and RBIs (127), with a mindset to keep it simple and swing at strikes, every time up.

“Every day, you watch his at-bats and you would never even know if he’s one home run away from 60," said Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo. "It’s just a credit to him, his preparation and his demeanor. On the field, off the field, on the plane – he is just the total package.”

It’s why, even as Judge closes in on Maris’ 61-year-old single-season AL record of 61 home runs, his plate appearances have not generated top-step frenzies in the Yankees’ dugout. In the grandstands, sure, there have been chants of ‘M-V-P!’ dating back for months, and social media has been ablaze in recent weeks as fans pit apples against oranges, attempting to measure Judge against the Angels’ delightful Shohei Ohtani.

Spoiler for those who have been ratioed: there is no perfect formula to properly compare Judge’s historic season against Ohtani’s unicorn-like two-way performance. Judge may not pitch, but Ohtani hasn’t tried to single-handedly drag a flat-tired Lightning McQueen of a ballclub into the postseason the way Judge has, either. True, since no one has pitched and hit this way since Ruth, there’s a case to be made for Ohtani to win the MVP every single year.

That’s something that even a pair of Judge admirers in former teammate CC Sabathia and former coach Phil Nevin have voiced (Nevin, of course, is now Ohtani’s manager). Yet they’re in the minority within spitting distance of 161st Street and River Avenue, where Judge has been -- and, the Yankees hope, will continue to be -- ‘The Man.’

“In the end, we win as a team and we lose as a team,” said Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole. “The most valuable asset that we have had this year, winning as many games as we’ve had, has been Aaron. I don’t get a vote, but [winning] has to factor into it. I mean, when you’re talking about value, it has to factor in.”

Since the day that the Yankees opened their 2022 campaign, an Opening Day that saw Judge place a massive bet upon his performance by preparing to dive headfirst into free agency, Judge has provided every ounce of value that his club could have desired. As manager Aaron Boone observed, “Ohtani may be having a better [year than in 2021, when he won the MVP], but Judge is having one for the ages.”

Judge was the fearsome, middle-of-the-order bat who helped propel the club to its place as the first Major League club to 50 wins, when it looked like the Yanks might challenge the franchise record of 114, set by the ’98 squad. Judge went from a curiosity to a dependable regular in center field, chasing down balls in the gaps and showing off his impossibly strong arm.

When the Yankees needed a leadoff hitter (in part to prevent teams from pitching around the most dangerous bat in an injury-riddled lineup), Judge set the table. He embraced the new organizational philosophy of being aggressive on the basepaths, stealing bases at a clip he’d never shown as a big leaguer. And a September surge rocketed him into position for his first .300-plus season. Not to slight Maris, but he hit only .269 and had Mantle behind him to frighten opponents.

“As a kid, you'd look up and you’d see Albert Pujols hitting .330 every year and consistently putting up the RBI numbers,” Judge said. “So for me, grading a hitter has always been about average. I might be old-school, but it’s, can you hit or can't you?”

All this while counseling teammates behind closed doors and serving as the de facto heartbeat and captain of the clubhouse, focusing on details as minuscule as curating the hip-hop-heavy Spotify playlists that accompanied each team victory. Boone said that the most significant difference has been Judge’s ability to prepare and withstand the grind of a 162-game schedule; Judge, 30, boils it down to “staying on the field.”

“When you first get called up, you’re young. You play a game, you shower, you leave and you’re ready for the next game,” Judge said. “Talking with a lot of guys away from the field, the places I’ve worked out in the offseason and the guys I work with during the season to keep my body right. I’m not 24 or 25, running around anymore. I’m only getting older. I just focus on doing the little things, making sure my body is prepped and ready to go. Play the nine innings today, then recover, stretch out and do whatever you need to do for the next one.”

Judge’s marked improvement against sliders has also benefited him greatly, a process that involved refining his bat path to keep the barrel in the zone longer and training his eyes by tracking triple-digit velocity from machines. Giancarlo Stanton, the most recent Major Leaguer to hit 59 homers before Judge, said that the behind-the-scenes grind has been key to Judge’s success.

“I watch him work every day, so just seeing when he doesn't feel his best -- none of you guys will know that,” Stanton said. “But the guys that can see him every day can tell, and he's still out there producing. He's still out there showing up, so I'd say that's the biggest thing, besides numbers.”

Oh, but those numbers are staggering; bold-faced columns that promise to drain the ink reservoirs when Topps begins printing Series One in 2023. Judge promises that he will look at his numbers at the end of the season (given his free-agent status, that’s a certainty). But his theory is similar to one long attributed to the great Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back, something could be gaining on you.”

“Looking at numbers during the year, all it’s going to do is drag you down and get you not focused on the right thing, which is to help the team win the game,” Judge said. “It’s to do whatever you can. There are certain situations where you’ve got to give yourself up and move the runner over, certain situations where you’ve got to drive a guy in. If I’m focused on my batting average or my home runs, I’m not going to be focused or completely locked in on what I need to do at the plate.”

Cole and Rizzo are among those who have said that Judge’s special ’22 should be considered even moreso because of the environment in which he has performed; the single-season home run tallies of Barry Bonds (73), Mark McGwire (70, 65) and Sammy Sosa (66, 64) are all logged by the weight of the steroid era. Though Judge said he considers Bonds the record-holder, Boone acknowledges that there are many who believe 61 is the number to beat.

“We haven’t seen it in this game for a long time,” Rizzo said. “For him to be doing it in this era of baseball, it’s just incredible.”

Said rookie reliever Ron Marinaccio: “I feel like I'm spoiled. It’s my first season and I’m seeing something like this. I heard Rizzo say something about how this is the first year in his career he's seen somebody hit 50. I walked into the clubhouse and all of a sudden it seems normal almost, because he just goes about it like it's nothing every day. It's pretty incredible to watch.”

There is another, perhaps underappreciated aspect to this home run chase – it’s the first of the Twitter era. Derek Jeter has said that if camera phones and social media existed during his career, his pinstriped tenure would have lasted about 4 1/2 years; when that comment generated laughter, Jeter remarked, “I’m not joking.”

“That’s another part of it that I take for granted,” Boone said, referring to Judge. “He's just kind of built for this and cut out for it. I'm not worried about anything leaking in and affecting what he's doing. He's got the perfect focus of being ready to play, going out there with a plan, being a great teammate. He keeps the game really simple in those regards, and then lets the results happen as they will.”

Of course, if it were that easy, everyone would be hitting 50 home runs -- this season, in Major League Baseball, only one guy is doing it: the same one who majored in Miggy’s swings back at Fresno State.

“Every time he hits a homer, he helps the team,” said infielder Gleyber Torres. “All the guys try to do the same thing – well, not homer, because we can't hit so many homers like him. But maybe we have really good at-bats and a couple of singles.”

So how should we measure the reality that Judge is having one of the greatest seasons ever in the fishbowl environment of the media capital of the world? How can we? Maybe, as Judge suggests, we should just sit back and keep it simple.

It’s the mindset that has busied Judge, crossing off the goals that he imagined as a 10-year-old growing up in bucolic Linden, Calif., a place once best known for its annual cherry festival. Their sweetest, most appealing product now wears No. 99, and there is one clear objective remaining from his boyhood dreams. 

“Make it to the big leagues, be an All-Star, and the big one is to win a championship,” Judge said, adding, “That’s still out there, but we’ve got some time for that. We’ve got a team that can do that, so hopefully we’ll check that one off the list.”