Volpe starring in supporting role for Yanks

June 1st, 2024

Aaron Judge, who hit two more home runs against the Giants on Friday night and got to 20 for the season after a monstrous month of May, is as impressive at the plate as he has ever been for the Yankees, and he might chase 60 home runs again. Juan Soto, the new guy, has been every bit the hitter, slugger and pitch-taker the Yankees had hoped he would be, helping transformed their batting order in the process.

Judge and Soto have been so good so far that it has sometimes gotten lost that the kid now at the top of that order, Anthony Volpe, has become the player the Yankees hoped he would be since they ran him out to shortstop -- Derek Jeter’s position -- as a rookie last season.

"[Volpe] is playing like a stud on both sides,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said not long ago. “He’s turning into a really special player.”

Volpe, who had a 21-game hitting steak snapped on Thursday against the Angels, is just 23 years old, playing a position that can be as difficult as any on the field including catcher -- and if you don’t believe that, ask Mookie Betts. But he has fielded that position beautifully and, even after still being a bottom-of-the-order guy when this season started, has continued to deliver again and again batting before Soto, the guy who bats before the great Judge.

There Volpe was in the third inning on Friday at Oracle Park, with the Giants leading, 1-0. Volpe singled to left and then Soto singled and then Judge, who had at least considered the idea of signing with San Francisco when he became a free agent after the 2022 season, reminded the Giants just what they had missed by hitting the first of his two home runs. The Yankees were off. The big guys had done it again. But the kid at short? He is in the process of becoming a very big guy for the best Yankees team in years himself.

Soto has brought his star with him to Yankee Stadium, which is the way Reggie Jackson described himself when he got there back in 1977 and became the kind of game-changer that Soto very much wants to be with the ’24 Yankees. Judge, who became the all-time Yankees home run king with 62 two years ago, now plays more center field than not for the Yankees, which means he has become a star presence out there for the first time since Bernie Williams was out there in center field for Joe Torre’s Yankees in the '90s.

But when it was all beginning for Torre’s Yankees, it was Jeter who ran out to short on Opening Day in 1996 and proceeded to become as much the face of the Yankees as Judge has become now. In the process, Jeter turned shortstop into the same kind of glamour position as center field had been at Yankee Stadium, as it had been with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, playing himself out to Monument Park and into the Hall of Fame.

No one is saying that Volpe is going to be that. Nobody would attempt to put that on him. Jeter hit .314 as a rookie in ’96, and the Yankees won it all. Volpe hit .209, even if he did hit 21 home runs, on a Yankees team that finished 82-80. But he said he would improve as a hitter this year, and he has, coming out of Friday night’s game with a .282 batting average. He has now scored 39 runs hitting ahead of Soto, who’s scored 42, and Judge’s 40.

And such a big part of the appeal with the kid from New Jersey is that he has been completely himself, impressing his teammates with his maturity and poise since winning the job in Spring Training 2023. He HAS exhibited Jeter poise -- on that stage, in that job, with that team. It’s actually ironic now looking back at things Boone said earlier this spring about the possibility of moving Volpe to leadoff, just because of the way things have turned out.

“There may be a day when he becomes a natural fit up there,” Boone said after Volpe hit a three-run homer against the Marlins, in a game when he was still batting sixth for Boone. “So that’s always in there. I do feel like when we look up in 10 years, that’s where his future is going to be, at the top of the lineup. That’s who he is.”

It seems to be exactly who he is. Soto is still just 25 years old. The Yankees can only dream what it might be like having Volpe hitting ahead of him for the next 10 years or both. Volpe's on-base percentage is .352. He has stolen 11 bases after stealing 24 a year ago, and he might be on his way to hitting more than 20 homers again.

“Last year was frustrating, because I felt like I could be doing more to help the team out and help the team win,” Volpe said in April. “So when everything’s going good and you feel like you’re helping out, it feels a lot better.”

Volpe has every right to feel good about himself these days. Not nearly as good as the Yankees feel about him. It’s like they say in Hollywood: The kid stays in the picture.