Yankees Magazine: Judge chasing down a dream

As he chases baseball’s ultimate prize, slugger keeps working to become the most complete player possible

March 17th, 2022
At 6-foot-7 and with a majestic, powerful swing, Aaron Judge is one of Major League Baseball’s premier home run hitters. His 39 homers and 98 RBIs led the team in 2021, but Judge is hardly a one-trick pony. He tailors his approach to each individual situation, taking what the pitcher gives him, sometimes just making contact in order to advance a base runner -- all the things that go into being a well-rounded hitter. (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

Aaron Judge’s career stats more than speak for themselves. If you wanted to conduct any analysis of the Yankees right fielder’s impact just by pointing your browser toward his Baseball Reference page, you’d get a pretty solid sense of the guy. But the magnetic superstar is more than a collection of numbers and milestones. It’s the road to those feats -- the unending work and determination to push further -- that make his star shine brightest.

Since his Major League debut in 2016, Judge has amassed 158 home runs, including 52 in his American League Rookie of the Year season of 2017. Last year, Judge put together another outstanding campaign that yielded a top-five finish in the AL MVP race, posting a career-high .287 batting average with 39 home runs, 24 doubles and 98 RBIs in 148 games. The right fielder also earned his third All-Star nod and second Silver Slugger Award in his fifth full season in the big leagues.

From his home in California, Judge took some time to discuss his career and his team with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III.

YANKEES MAGAZINE: How do you feel your offseason regimen heading into the 2021 season helped you during the day-to-day grind of the summer?

AARON JUDGE: I've tried different things every year since I got into pro ball. You see other players doing things that work, and naturally you want to copy them. I liked what I did in the offseason leading into 2021, changing a few things and adding in some yoga. Most of what I did was the same as what I had done in previous years, but it’s good to change a few things here and there. I think the overall program I had helped me to be productive on a more consistent basis.

YM: How closely does your work this offseason mirror what you were doing last year at this time?

AJ: This offseason has been different from the one I had the previous year. You’re always trying to improve and get further in your game. If there are any holes, anything you need to work on, you attack those. I’m doing more base running work and speed work to improve that part of my game. I want to be a complete player, and stealing bases is one thing I really want to improve on. I feel like that will help our team out.

YM: How satisfying is it to look back on 2021, a season in which you played in almost all of your team’s games and put together a really complete season at the plate and in the field?

AJ: When you’re a leader on the team, you have to be out there with your soldiers. That’s the most important thing. For me, not getting hurt at all was a big-time thing. If not for COVID, I would have played in 158 games. I feel like if I’m out there, I’m going to put up the numbers that will help my team win. If you’re missing time, you can’t help your team win that much. You can support your teammates and be a great cheerleader, but that’s not going to have a direct impact on how many games you win. When you’re able to go out there every single day and put up good numbers and do the little things that help win ballgames, you’re a good player. It’s as simple as that. So, for me to be out there and not have some freak accident where I dive for a ball and break a rib or get hit by a pitch and miss a few months, it was a good season.

Aaron Judge’s total package has lifted the Yankees to great heights in his career to date, but he knows how important it is to have a manager such as Aaron Boone in the dugout. “When your leader is someone who is always locked in, is never negative and never throws in the towel, that’s something special,” Judge says. “We’ve come a long way with him, and we’re going to finish the deal with him.” (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

YM: In an era when batting averages across the board have really plummeted, you just posted the highest batting average of your career, hitting .287 in 550 at-bats. How much pride do you take in being able to put together such successful at-bats?

AJ: Honestly, I wasn’t too happy with it. Hitting .287 wasn’t a goal I had for the year, and I think I can improve on it in the future. I’ll take it, but hopefully this year I will hit my goal for batting average. It’s really about keeping it simple at the plate. If you come to the plate with the “see ball, hit ball” approach and you do the little things like moving guys over, taking RBIs when you can and taking singles when you can, that will translate into a good year and a good batting average. I was focused on trying to play a little smarter throughout the season, recognizing what the defense was giving me. If opposing teams were going to make it easier to get on base by hitting the ball the other way, or if they were going to give me an RBI on a sac fly, I wanted to go out and take those things rather than trying to hit a home run.

YM: How important was it for you to capture your second Silver Slugger Award, four years after taking home your first?

AJ: I’m not playing for awards; I’m playing to win and to bring a championship back to New York. But, to be recognized like that, especially when you consider who the other finalists for the award were, spoke volumes for how well you have to play to even be in the running for the award. It’s an incredible honor, and I’m completely humbled by it. It’s a cool accolade, and for me, it really goes back to dedication and the help I’ve gotten from hitting coaches and so many great teammates along the road. Those guys put me in the position I’m in and motivated and pushed me. I hope I can get a few more Silver Sluggers -- along with a championship.

YM: In recent interviews, you’ve discussed the desire you have to play your entire career in pinstripes, even calling it a significant goal you have. What does playing for the Yankees and representing the team and New York City mean to you?

AJ: It’s tough to describe in a couple of words.

YM: Well, you can use as many words as you’d like.

AJ: I don’t want you to be here all day, but I wake up every morning, and it feels like a dream. Getting to walk out onto the field at Yankee Stadium, wearing the pinstripes, hearing the roll call, being around so many legends -- guys like Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage over the years, and now you’ve got CC Sabathia coming into the building -- is pretty surreal. When you talk to those guys, as well as Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, you quickly learn what it means to wear this uniform. They talk about the pride they have in putting on the pinstripes, and that always gets me fired up. I want to do everything I can to represent this uniform in the best way possible. When you see the passion that our fans have and the energy that they bring to the Stadium every single night, you want to play well every time you step on the field, at home or on the road. When you play for the Yankees and you talk to other players around the league, it’s easy to get a sense of how special it is to play in New York. This is the mecca. This is where you want to play. This is what every baseball player wanted to do when they were little kids: wear the Yankees’ uniform. I feel extremely humbled to have gotten drafted by the Yankees, to make it up to the big leagues with this organization and to be here for as long as I’ve been.

Now entering his seventh season in the big leagues, Aaron Judge embraces everything that comes with putting on a Yankees uniform. From connecting with fans to carrying on the traditions established by the greats who came before him, Judge exemplifies -- and appreciates -- what it means to be a Yankee. “I wake up every morning, and it feels like a dream,” he says. “This is what every baseball player wanted to do when they were little kids: wear the Yankees’ uniform.” (Photo Credit: New York Yankees)

YM: As the parent of a baseball player in his teens, I’ve seen more No. 99 jerseys over the last five years than I ever could have imagined -- especially because I can’t remember seeing any before you broke into the majors. How does it make you feel to know that so many young ballplayers want to emulate you?

AJ: That gives me the chills to think about. Some of my buddies tell me that every Little League team they see has one kid wearing No. 99. That’s pretty crazy, but it makes me step back and think about the type of impact I have. So many kids out there are watching baseball. They’re watching everything we do, the good and the bad. I really try to be a positive role model. I try to play the game the right way and do whatever I can to show kids that if you put in hard work and you have a smile on your face, anything is possible. You could be the right fielder for the New York Yankees. This game has given me so much, and the Yankees have given me so much. It’s important to me to give back to the players who are coming up behind me. This was already a great organization before I got here, but I want to make this place better for the guys who come up through the organization in the years to come.

YM: Shifting back to on-field matters, for the first time since 2018, you and Giancarlo Stanton were in the lineup at the same time for the majority of the team’s games in 2021. What did he mean to the Yankees last season?

AJ: Big G is a special talent and a special person. I don’t think a lot of people get to see that because he’s pretty quiet, and he sticks to business. But I learned a lot from him last year. I wanted him to hit behind me; it’s a tough couple of at-bats for any pitcher when you have to face me and him, especially if we’re both hitting well. He’s a student of the game and a leader in our clubhouse. He goes about his business like a true professional. He’s always talking with the younger guys whenever they want to ask him about his approach, his routine in the cage or anything else. He’s always willing to stay late or come in early to help other guys, including me. When he came here in 2018, I couldn’t wait to talk with him about the things he did to be so successful. I wanted to emulate that; I wanted to be the player he was. He’s one of a kind, and we’re lucky to have him in pinstripes. Last year was especially fun with him out there every night.

YM: Like Giancarlo, you’ve amassed quite a few homers before your 30th birthday. For a statistic that is so celebrated, how important do you feel that part of your game is?

AJ: It’s a byproduct of being 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds. It comes with it. If I make contact with the ball, there’s a good chance that it’s going to go a long way. It’s also one reason I like hitting near the top of the lineup. If DJ [LeMahieu] leads off the game with a base hit, which he usually does, I have the chance to make it a 2-0 ballgame within the first 10 pitches. When you’re able to give your pitcher that type of run support early in the game, it allows him to get into a groove and really execute his pitches. It keeps the pitcher calm. It’s one aspect of my game that I’m able to use to help the team, but at the same time, I try not to be too one-dimensional. I try to be a contact guy when I need to or when the situation calls for it.

YM: How would you compare your life today, as you head into your sixth full season, with what it was like when you were a rookie in 2017?

AJ: Not much has changed. It’s still pretty crazy. My first year was a whirlwind. You never know what to expect or how you’re going to do when you’re a rookie. You put in all of this work in the offseason, and you are hoping and praying that it’s going to turn out the way you want it to. But at that point in your career, you really don’t know. I think that’s the beauty in this game. That was a surreal experience; that’s when I first saw some 99 jerseys showing up at the Stadium. I couldn’t believe that, but you fast-forward, it still feels like a whirlwind. I still feel like we have a great opportunity to win, and I’m happy to still be wearing pinstripes six years down the road now.

YM: Your teams have come close to achieving the goal that means the most to you, winning a championship. When you look back on the last five years, what are the emotions you feel about having fallen just short of championship glory?

AJ: It’s a disappointment when you don’t win the World Series. That’s why we show up at spring training; that’s why we work so hard. It’s not to play well in April or even to win a Silver Slugger, it’s all about winning a ring. So, there’s some disappointment that I feel about not sealing the deal yet, but that’s what the beauty is of always having next year. You can shake off what happened the year before. You keep some of it in your memory bank to fuel you on those days in July and August when it’s tough to do the extra work. You can use it as fuel or as a setback. We have a lot of guys who use it as fuel and use it to prepare themselves for the next season. I feel like I’m certainly one of those guys.

YM: What has it been like to play for Aaron Boone over the last four seasons?

AJ: I’m extremely excited that we were able to sign Aaron back for three more years. I wish we could have signed him for 10 more years. He’s won a lot of games in his first few years, and he’s a stable force in our clubhouse. It doesn’t matter if we are up by 10 runs or we are getting our butts kicked, he’s the same guy. He continues to motivate us, and at the big-league level, that’s what you need. You need a guy who the players can lean on. He’s been there before. He’s a former big-league player, and he’s played in big moments. He’s the type of guy that when you look down at him at the end of the bench, he’s always positive. For the players, when your leader is someone who is always locked in, is never negative and never throws in the towel, that’s something special. We’ve come a long way with Aaron, and we’re going to finish the deal with him.

YM: As we speak here today, Brett Gardner is a free agent. Regardless of what happens, how would you describe the impact he has had on you and on the team since you first came up?

AJ: He’s a special individual. He keeps it loose in the clubhouse, in the dugout and on the field. He’s the type of leader that the team looks to in good times and in bad times. He always gives one hundred percent and plays the game the right way. As he gets older, I feel like he runs even harder to first base. That’s not something you see all the time from guys who have won a championship and who have been successful for more than a decade in the big leagues. I feel like he comes into spring training in better shape each year, and he’s ready to do whatever the manager asks him to do. He comes in ready to be an everyday player, a center fielder, a left fielder, a part-time player, a pinch hitter or whatever else the team needs. When you’re talking about a guy who has accomplished as much as he has and is willing to put the team first, it sets the perfect example. I can’t speak highly enough about what Brett Gardner has meant to me and to our team.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.