A lot has changed in a year for Aaron Judge, and for the Yankees.
A year ago, on a Yankee team on its way to winning 99 regular-season games, No. 99 had 50 home runs at the beginning of September. By then, the only question was about how many he was going to hit in all. Judge finally hit No. 62 in the first week of October, giving him the most home runs any Yankee had ever hit -- or any American Leaguer, for that matter.
Judge is still hitting them, in a disappointing season in which he has missed 54 games so far, most of them because of an injury to his big toe at Dodger Stadium the first week of June. He hit his 30th homer on Friday night, in just his 81st game. Do the math on that. Half of 60 in half of 162 games.
So there is no question that Judge, when healthy, is still dangerous, and still great. But now, the year after he passed Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, all of the big questions are about his team, which came out of Friday night’s 6-2 win in Houston still three games under .500, trying to avoid the Yankees’ first losing season in 30 years.
It is one of the reasons why Judge was captain of a team in Houston as young as any the Yankees have ever fielded, starting with 20-year-old center fielder Jasson Domínguez, who hit a home run off Justin Verlander in his first Major League at-bat, before Judge hit a homer of his own. It is a very big reason why the Yankees want to believe that their future is starting now.
Here’s something Judge said in Detroit the other day, after the Yankees won their first series in two months:
“It’s exciting to see the young guys. We’ll see what the future holds. When you go through a season like this, the most important thing is to keep pushing forward. ... We’ve still got a month of baseball to play, so we’ve got to keep focusing on the next day. We’ll see what these young kids can do.”
One of the kids about whom he was speaking, of course, was Domínguez, known as "The Martian." But Domínguez wasn’t the only kid in Aaron Boone’s lineup Friday. Austin Wells, 24, was catching for the Yankees at Minute Maid Park. He got a hit. Everson Pereira was in left field. He’s 22, and he also got a hit. Oswald Peraza, 23, was at second base. Anthony Volpe, the rookie shortstop who has been around all season and just hit his 20th home run to go with 21 stolen bases, batted third on Friday night, in a September batting order no one in the Yankees Universe could have imagined at the start of the season.
Over the last month of this regular season, and before Opening Day of 2024, the Yankees will absolutely have to answer questions about how many of the kids are ready to be frontline players for them next season. And one of the most important is whether the youngest one, Domínguez, can be the team's first star center fielder since Bernie Williams was part of Joe Torre’s Yankees.
“Look, it’s one game, but you get a peek tonight at why a lot of us are excited about him,” Boone said of Domínguez.
Luis Severino, once seen as the future ace of the Yankees’ staff, will continue to have to answer questions about himself in September, after all the first innings in which he got bounced around this season. So, too, will Carlos Rodón, a winner Friday night in his ninth start for the Yankees, during his own injury-shortened season. Michael King, formerly part of Boone’s bullpen, will continue to try to show that he should be a starter in 2024.
You know there will always be a question about Giancarlo Stanton, one as big as he is, about whether or not he is ever going to play another full season in pinstripes, something he has done just once. And the Yankees, between this season and next, have to decide if Clay Holmes really is going to be their closer going forward, at the same time they have to decide about a long-term commitment to Gleyber Torres.
Eleven months ago, Judge and the Yankees were playing the Astros in the AL Championship Series. Now, their immediate goal is to pass the Red Sox and get themselves out of last place in the AL East.
“We’ll get it fixed,” Judge said in Detroit, before the Yankees turned into a new kind of Bronx Babes in Houston.
Judge hit his 30th of the season on a night when Jasson Domínguez hit his first. Judge is still hitting them, that hasn't changed. But a lot has, one year after his magic September of 2022. All he had to do at Minute Maid Park on Friday night was look around, at the baseball babes trying to lead the Yankees out of the woods.