Yankees Magazine: Judge-ment Day

A highly anticipated debut is within sight, but Aaron Judge remains focused on the task at hand

February 29th, 2016

By the time he got to the ballpark, Aaron Judge was already scratched from the lineup. Back tightness sidelined the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders outfielder for a few days, but that didn't change what he set out to do in the hours leading up to the Triple-A team's July 24 game against the Toledo Mud Hens at PNC Field in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Judge -- a 6-foot-7 right fielder and right-handed hitter who has been in the Yankees organization since 2013 -- arrived at the ballpark at 2 p.m. He spent about an hour in the trainer's room receiving treatment, and then he made his way to the field for several fielding drills.

Judge emerged from the home dugout wearing a RailRiders hat and a Yankees Dri-FIT shirt and shorts. His navy blue socks were pulled up halfway to his knees.

With only a few people on the field, Judge trotted out to right and got ready to shag baseballs. And on that hot and humid afternoon, two coaches swatted line drives, fly balls and grounders down the line for about 45 minutes.

By the time batting practice rolled around, the slugger's shirt was soaked with sweat, but that didn't stop him from putting on a show for the fans. As was the case on most nights last season at PNC Field, Judge launched one bomb after another, many landing on a walkway over the left-field wall and some careening off signage that sits several feet above the walkway.

For Judge -- who split time between Double-A and Triple-A in 2016 and finished the season with a .255 batting average, 20 home runs and 72 RBI -- his focus has been as important to his progress as his raw talent.

Despite his reputation as one of baseball's best prospects, climbing from Single-A to Triple-A in just over a year, Judge has not wavered from his one-day-at-a-time approach to the game.

"I don't have season-long goals," Judge said after his pregame workout. "I really come to the park every day with the goal of being better than I was the day before. I feel that if I can do that each day, I will get to where I want to be."

College Before Pros

That pinpoint focus began when Judge was a three-sport star at Linden High School in Northern California. While his ability on the basketball court and the football field were impressive, his prowess on the diamond would shape his future. By the time he graduated, Judge had been selected by the Oakland A's in the 31st round of the 2010 Draft, and he had been offered a scholarship at Fresno State.

For Judge, the decision came down to taking the appropriate step at that time.

"Both of my parents went to Fresno State, and they are both retired teachers," Judge said. "That had an impact on my decision. But the biggest determining factor was that I didn't think I was mature enough to handle pro ball. Not only did I think that I needed to improve on the field, but I also needed to grow off the field."

It's hard to argue with Judge's decision. He earned first-team Western Athletic Conference honors in all three of his seasons in college. After being named the WAC Freshman of the Year, Judge helped lead Fresno State to the WAC tournament championship and the regional round of the NCAA Baseball Tournament during his sophomore season. In his junior season of 2013, Judge led Fresno State with 12 home runs, 15 doubles and 36 RBI, and his .461 on-base percentage made him even more appealing to Major League scouts.

The Yankees wasted little time in the 2013 Draft, selecting Judge 32nd overall -- a compensation pick from Cleveland for free-agent Nick Swisher.

"The decision to go to school worked out in a lot of ways," said Judge, who finished his collegiate career with a .345 career average, 18 homers and 93 RBI. "My parents always taught me the importance of putting the team first, but being on those teams at Fresno really hammered the point home. I definitely became a leader during those years. By the time the Yankees drafted me, I was fully ready to play professional baseball."

Before he could take the field in 2013, Judge tore his right quad muscle and was forced to spend the rest of the season at the team's Minor League facility. That turn of events wasn't all bad, though. While rehabbing the quad injury in Tampa, Fla., Judge found himself reporting to the same place as stars Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson, both of whom were recovering from their own injuries.

"Getting to spend time with both of them was huge for me," Judge said. "I learned a lot just from watching the way Derek worked to come back from the ankle injury he had. He and I talked about what he had done to be successful year in and year out. Watching Curtis field baseballs in the outfield and talking to him about playing the outfield and hitting was especially beneficial."

Minor Adjustments

From the time his pro career began in 2014 with Single-A Charleston, Judge proved he was ready for the competition. In 65 games, Judge batted .333 with nine home runs. His steady approach at the plate earned him a promotion to the Yankees' full-season Single-A club in Tampa on June 19.

"At first, the biggest adjustment from college was the number of games that are played in pro ball," Judge said. "Going from three or four games a week to playing every day took some getting used to. But once I began to really focus on how I felt each day when I got to the ballpark and then adjusted my workouts accordingly, I got into a good routine.

"I learned pretty quickly that there are days when you can't ramp it up to 100 percent before the game. Listening to your body and getting used to the grind were the most important things for me."

After the promotion to Tampa, Judge continued to put up consistent numbers, batting .283 in the Florida State League with eight home runs. In total, Judge finished the 2014 campaign with a .308 average and impressed Yankees brass enough for them to invite him to Big League camp for Spring Training of 2015.

"Words can't describe what it was like to be around guys like Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, Brett Gardner and all of the other great players," Judge said. "I saw Carlos Beltran on my first day, and I was actually star struck. But once I got to know him, I realized that he's a humble guy who is just talented at what he does."

In the Yankees' spring opener against the Phillies, Judge entered the game in the sixth inning as a pinch-hitter. With New York losing by three runs and down to its last out in the ninth, he hit a towering three-run blast to tie the game.

"My emotions were all over the place when I came to the plate," Judge said. "It was a crazy situation. But once I saw a few pitches, I said to myself, 'This is the same game you've played your whole life.' Then I was able to calm down and have a good at-bat."

A few days later, Judge witnessed a home run that may have had an even greater influence on him.

"I was in the dugout when Alex Rodriguez hit his first home run after being away from the game the previous season," Judge said. "That was a surreal moment for me because I had been watching him my whole life. I remember watching him when he was with the Mariners and the Rangers when I was a little kid."

As Judge continued to collect Big League at-bats during last March's exhibition season, he gained noteworthy admirers. Whether it was Judge's teammates, who drew comparisons between him and Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton, or Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who compared Judge to fellow Cooperstown inductee Dave Winfield, praise for the young outfielder could be heard everywhere.

"When a Hall of Famer is giving you a compliment, that's an honor," Judge said. "I never thought I'd be compared to Dave Winfield or even be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I'm sure there are a lot of things he could do on the field that I could never do, but I'm going to just go out there and be the best Aaron Judge that I can be every day. That's been my goal since I began playing baseball, and it's not going to change."

When camp broke, Judge was assigned to Double-A Trenton, where he batted .284 with 12 home runs in 63 games, including a walk-off blast in the team's home opener.

"In Trenton, I got to work with [hitting coach] P.J. Pilittere," Judge said. "I had worked with him in Tampa and in the Arizona Fall League in 2014. I was really able to fine-tune my approach at the plate by continuing to work with him in Trenton."

In every level that Judge played at through Double-A, he not only hit tape-measure home runs, but he also proved himself to be a consistent contact hitter.

"As long as I've been playing baseball, the biggest thing for me has been getting hits," Judge said. "I know that the power is going to come, but if I keep on working on a consistent line-drive approach and I take walks when I can, I believe that everything will work out. I will run into 25 balls every year that I can hit out of the park, but my focus every time I come to the plate is hitting line drives."

One Step Away

On June 22, the Yankees promoted Judge to Triple-A, where he would remain through the 2015 campaign. A few weeks after that promotion, Judge represented the Yankees in the Futures Game in Cincinnati and collected one single in four at-bats.

"Dave Miley came up to me before a game and told me that I had been selected to play in the Futures Game," Judge recalled of the exchange with his former manager. "I called my parents and said, 'I don't know what the weather is going to be like in Cincinnati, but you need to pack your bags.' It was fun to get to know so many humble and talented prospects from other teams. You always want to play against the best, and getting a chance to play in the Futures Game was quite an honor."

While making it a step away from the Majors in his second season was a thrill for Judge, his results in Triple-A were mixed. He blasted eight home runs in 61 games and helped the RailRiders capture the International League's North Division, but he was not able to maintain the same consistency as he had up to that point.

But the Yankees have not lost confidence in their highly touted prospect. Manager Joe Girardi and General Manager Brian Cashman anticipate that Judge will return to the RailRiders and, if things go well there, a trip to the Bronx may not be far away.

But regardless of where he ends up in 2016, one thing is for sure: Just like on that steamy afternoon last summer, Judge will be taking it one day at a time. And it's hard to argue with that approach.

"Time will tell," Judge said. "But I try not to think about playing in the Majors. I try to focus on being where my feet are. That's what's gotten me this far."