So much that gets written about Aaron Judge focuses on what he has done, or his physical stature or his raw ability. Conversations between Yankees fans generally seem to follow that road, and frankly, it makes sense.
For all of the praise Judge has received for driving baseballs high into the sky -- into areas of Yankee Stadium and other ballparks that seem impossible -- it can all combine to overshadow the cerebral strengths evident in his game and his personality. The mental toughness and resiliency Judge has shown during his first four Major League seasons may be the most impressive aspect of who he is. Perhaps for good reason -- admittedly, remaining optimistic in the face of injury is not as showstopping as those 450-foot blasts -- Judge’s attitude rarely comes up for discussion.
Judge’s time in the Majors has not always been a smooth ride, but you would never know that merely from hearing him discuss his four complete seasons in pinstripes. The right fielder, who turned 29 last month, has had to overcome injuries, and there have been times when it has seemed that American League pitchers have known exactly how to get him out. Nevertheless, Judge’s words, and more than that, his tone, have never wavered. His confidence and will are as strong as his muscular frame.
Judge broke into the Majors in August 2016, three seasons after the Yankees selected him with the 32nd overall pick in the 2013 Draft. In the weeks leading up to his call to the bigs, the hope was that the 6-foot-7 slugger would soon be a superstar, and that he would remain at the top of the sport for a long time.
Judge hit four home runs in 27 games during his first month and a half with the Yankees. But he also struggled to connect with offspeed pitches, striking out 42 times and finishing the season with a .179 average.
That offseason, Judge watched every one of his big league at-bats and worked to make the necessary adjustments. While the baseball world was less than certain about what Judge would become heading into the 2017 season, he had no doubts.
“I knew what I had to do that winter,” Judge said, calling in from Dunedin, Fla., during the Yankees’ mid-April series against the Toronto Blue Jays. “I came to Spring Training in 2017 completely prepared for what was in store. I felt like if I put in the work, both physically and from the standpoint of learning what pitchers were going to do to try to get me out, I would be able to make a big improvement.”
Labeling what Judge did in 2017 as a big improvement over his 2016 showing is quite an understatement. In his breakout season of ’17, the team’s everyday right fielder led the American League with 52 home runs. He drove in 114 runs, and although he stuck out 208 times, Judge batted .284 while also leading the AL with 127 walks and 128 runs. He won the Home Run Derby during the Midsummer Classic festivities, took home the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finished second to Houston’s Jose Altuve in a now-controversial AL MVP race.
For all the success Judge had during his first of two All-Star seasons, he’s quick to point out that it didn’t come without having to make constant adjustments. AL pitchers may not have been prepared for Judge during the first half of the season, but by August 2017 -- when he batted just .185, dropping his season mark from .303 on July 31 to .279 by month’s end -- they were.
“To start off, personally, even though the end results were good, getting a chance to play in my first All-Star Game and play in the postseason for the first time, that season had its ups and downs,” Judge said. “It was a grind for me, physically and mentally. When you look at the stats, you see the 52 homers and 114 RBIs, but it was a grind. I was fine-tuning things every day, always going back into the lab to try to figure out what I could do to get back on the bump. I had hot stretches and times where I was cold. That season was a constant battle and constant grind, and that makes me proud that I was able to do some good things.”
Judge contends that he learned as much from the challenges with which the 2017 season hit him as he did from the home runs he crushed. He wasn’t surprised by the way he played, and of greater significance, the Yankees’ re-emergence that October certainly didn’t come as a shock to Judge. After failing to win a postseason series in the previous four seasons, the Yankees won the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, then came back to defeat Cleveland in the AL Division Series after trailing, 2 games to none. The team followed that triumph with a back-and-forth battle against Houston, falling short in the final game.
“Making it to Game 7 of the ALCS, that’s honestly something that I expected,” Judge said. “Being in the Yankees organization, that’s something that is instilled into our minds at an early age, especially in the Minor Leagues. We’re winners. You come here to compete day in and day out, and you give yourself a good chance to win the whole thing going into October. We went on a run that postseason, and that’s what I expected us to do. That was a very special group, but that was nothing new for the guys in that clubhouse. We had all won in the Minors, and that’s what we felt like we could do when we got to the Majors.”
In that ALCS, Judge continued to prove that no moment was too big for him. He hit three home runs and drove in seven. But whether discussing that postseason or the team’s three October appearances since, Judge steers the conversation toward the only subject he cares about.
“The individual postseason statistics aren’t worth talking about,” he said. “If I go 0-for-4 in a playoff game and we win, that’s great. If I hit two home runs and we lose, that’s a bad night.”
Judge credits his parents with steadfastly emphasizing the importance of a team-first mentality. And he notes the other people who have mentored him along the way, including his coach at Fresno State.
“From a young age, my parents taught me to have respect for the game and for my teammates,” he said. “It’s not all about you, whether you’re having a good day or a bad day. When I got to college, having a chance to play for Mike Batesole, who just won his 600th game, was so important for me. He instilled that it’s about the team first. It’s about putting the other guys in the lineup ahead of yourself. He instilled that every day. If we used the words ‘me,’ ‘my’ or ‘I’ in our postgame interviews, we got fined. That made us be cautious about talking about ourselves because baseball is a team game. If I hit a walk-off home run, it’s still about what the pitcher did to keep us in the game, or the double play that our infielders made in the sixth inning to help win the game. That’s something I will never forget or lose sight of.”
The first four months of the 2018 season were no different from 2017 for Judge. He earned his second All-Star Game selection, and he hit 25 home runs before the All-Star break, joining Roger Maris as the only Yankees sluggers to do so in consecutive seasons. Unfortunately for Judge and the Yankees, the tide turned in the second half of that season. After suffering a chip fracture to his right wrist when he was hit by a pitch, Judge was sidelined from late July through mid-September. Although he hit just two more home runs in the regular season, finishing with 27, Judge again did his part in the postseason. In the Yankees’ ALDS loss to the Red Sox, the slugging outfielder batted .375 with two home runs.
Judge was injured again in 2019, but the timeline was quite different from the previous season. A left oblique strain sidelined him for two months beginning in late April. But following his return in June, Judge never looked back, finishing the regular season with the same home run total (27) as the previous year. He again played an integral role in the team’s postseason run, which saw the Yankees fall to Houston in the ALCS for the second time in three seasons.
Things were especially perplexing for Judge at the start of Spring Training in 2020. Before Judge could get on the field, he was diagnosed with a partially collapsed lung that was related to a fractured right rib. The injury actually occurred the previous September, when Judge dove for a ball off the bat of future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols -- one of the California native’s childhood heroes. While Judge was rehabbing the injury during Spring Training, the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage the world, putting the baseball season on hold for several months.
During that time, Judge was able to allow his rib and lung injuries to fully heal. It also made him hungrier than ever to get back onto the field.
“That’s when it really hit me,” Judge said. “Our season got cut out, and we really didn’t know when we were going to start up. I remember sitting on the couch one day thinking, ‘I could really go for a rain-delay game, or an extra-innings game, or an 0-for-4 game.’ Those were the kinds of days you wished you could skip through in the past. But during the pandemic, I just wanted to be out there. So many people were dealing with things that were worse than anything I had to deal with, so from that standpoint, I just reflected on how much I love playing baseball, playing for the Yankees, and how much I wanted to compete. I don’t think the desire to put the uniform on was ever as intense for me.”
Beyond being a determined baseball player since childhood, Judge is a realist. When discussing the injuries he has dealt with over the last three seasons, he’s mindful that in an ideal world, he would have been on the field more. But he’s also able to keep things in perspective. Playing baseball at the highest level was never an opportunity he took for granted, and those thoughts are even more prevalent for him now.
“I just realize how blessed I am to be in this position,” he said. “Very few people get the chance to play in the Majors, and far fewer get a chance to wear the pinstripes and play for the New York Yankees. So any time I get the chance to come to the ballpark and be around my teammates, which include MVPs and Cy Young Award winners, it really is a blessing. I have realized that every day that I’m at the ballpark, regardless of how things go in the game, I’m lucky to be able to do this. You have to even appreciate the days we lose because you learn from those experiences; you learn how to move on and grow from it so that you can win the next game. That’s the beauty of baseball; you always have a game the next day that you can rebound from and answer back from. I have always tried to have a positive mindset and not feel like anything is a given.”
Judge played in just 28 of the team’s 60 games last season, hitting nine regular-season home runs. He missed a few weeks of action beginning in mid-August because of a calf strain, then returned to the field for good on Sept. 16 and went on to hit three homers in seven postseason games. The Yankees won the AL Wild Card Series against Cleveland and then lost to Tampa Bay in the ALDS.
All that happened during the 2020 season and postseason influenced Judge. He went into the offseason determined to make the most of the winter months and to come into Spring Training ready to play a full season.
“We played into the middle of October, and you want to give your body some time to recover, but in my mind, I’m thinking that there are 23 other teams out there that have already had their chance to rest and reflect, and they are back in the gym,” he said. “By the time we got done playing, they are already trying to make improvements to get better. So, after a week or two, I wanted to get back into the gym and into the batting cages.”
Judge’s anxiousness to get back to work was no different than it was before, but his offseason workout regimen following the 2020 campaign changed dramatically. Working closely with Eric Cressey, the team’s director of player health and performance since 2020, Judge increased the amount of yoga training he did, while also decreasing other aspects of his regimen.
“Every year, I like to make some changes,” Judge said. “I always like to do some yoga in the offseason, but this time around, I felt that it would really help to do more of it. I tell everyone that they should hop into a hot yoga session and get moving a little. It will kick your butt, but it will help you stay healthy. The stuff I did this offseason is going to help prepare me to play a full season with this team and to eventually bring back a championship.”
Prior to the start of Spring Training, Cressey spoke to the YES Network about the work he did with Judge in the offseason.
“Any time you see an athlete who has some chronic injuries, there is a perception that they’re not working hard,” Cressey said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. [Aaron] is a rock star in every aspect of his preparation, from how he comes into the training room to what he does in the weight room. [This offseason], he has lifted less than in the past. Aaron in particular has really taken a heavy interest in a lot of yoga. We have to be mindful of the stresses on guys who are 6-foot-7, big dudes who are standing around for long periods of time in cleats.”
Judge arrived in Tampa for Spring Training this year feeling good about the work he put in over the winter and focused on the goals he has yet to accomplish.
“I always have the stuff that I keep private, like how many hits, homers, RBI I want to get,” Judge said. “But the thing that is still at the top of my list is getting that first World Series berth and bringing home a championship. I want to be on that podium holding up the World Series trophy with my teammates. That’s the one thing that continues to drive me and push me every day I wake up. We’re on a mission here, and we still haven’t accomplished it. It’s something that eats at me every day and fuels me in the offseason.”
Judge continued to strengthen his body during Spring Training and played well during the first month of the season, batting .308 with four homers in his first 10 games. He did, however, sit out for two games after experiencing soreness on his left side. When asked about the brief respite, Judge waxes poetic about the big picture.
“I feel great,” he said. “I really wouldn’t call two off days ‘leaving the field.’ It’s just about playing smart. I’d rather miss two days and play 158 games than miss a whole month and only play 130. But I have always felt good. You’re going to have ups and downs during the season, but those 3-for-4 days and 4-for-4 days and big wins against rivals mean so much more after going through some tough days. I’m looking forward to getting rolling with this team.”
The next day, after Judge hit two home runs in a loss to Toronto, he predictably steered his postgame comments to the disappointment over the outcome, speaking about what he and his teammates “need to do to get back on track.” As far as speaking about the two home runs he hit that day, Judge offered characteristically little.
“I’m hitting the ball well and taking walks,” he said.
Judge knows that when his career is discussed, people will focus as much on what he hasn’t done as what he has accomplished. He knows that we all live in a “what have you done for me lately?” society, and he’s fine with that. But when he’s asked to reflect on his big league journey thus far, Judge remains grateful.
“For me, it’s been a quick five years here,” Judge said. “And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve been surrounded by so many great players who I’ve come up with through the Minor Leagues and who are still with the team. It’s been a special journey to this point. Through all of the ups and downs, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
After a brief pause, Judge, whose career totals through mid-April of this season included 123 home runs and 275 RBIs, collects his thoughts.
“I would have liked to have had a few World Series rings by now, but I’ve got the next 10 or 15 years to do that," he said.