The last New York Yankee to wear number 99 was outfielder Charlie Keller in 1952. Only 14 major leaguers—some more notable than others—have ever worn it. Yet, in a sport where numbers carry more historical significance than any other and player personnel decisions are made by Ivy League educated GM’s using statistical analysis in tandem with traditional scouting, it’s clear that Aaron Judge doesn’t pay much attention to numbers, especially when it comes to the one on the back of his jersey.
“The Yankees gave it to me in spring training two years ago and I’ve just had it ever since,” the 24-year-old outfielder said in an interview with Baseball Prospectus last weekend. “I guess it was the biggest jersey they had or something and it just stuck.”
Fittingly for the 6-foot-7, California native, who passed on football scholarship offers to play collegiate baseball at Fresno State, numbers play a prominent role in the broader narrative of his career. Especially when it comes to the 27 franchises that passed on the opportunity to draft him in the first round of the 2013 MLB Draft. Of the 31 players taken ahead of him, only six have made it to the major leagues. Just two, Kris Bryant and Jon Gray, have been worth more than one Win Above Replacement Player level (WARP). With the exception of Bryant, who went second overall to the Cubs and has accumulated a staggering 10.3 WARP since his debut last year, the vast majority of those clubs have to be second-guessing their decision to pass on Judge, who finds himself squarely on the precipice of his own major-league debut.
Ranked the 18th-best prospect in the game by BP’s prospect staff this offseason, Judge struggled mightily to open the 2016 campaign. Mired in an 0-for-24 tailspin on June 2, he was hitting .221/.285/.372 while striking out in just over a quarter of his 221 plate appearances over 50 games at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes/Barre. He’s not a hitter who focuses very much on statistics under any circumstance. After a dismal two-month stretch, it’s easy to see why he wasn’t spending hours pouring over box scores at night.
“It’s all a process,” said Judge. “I know if I go out there, put the work in and stick to my routine, everything is going to work out. I may hit four balls hard in a game and go 0-for-4. Some game, I may get jammed four times and get four hits. You just never know how it’s going to work. As long as I stick to the process, everything is going to work out.”
On June 3, Judge’s commitment to a consistent process finally began to translate into tangible results at the plate. After flying out in his first plate appearance against veteran southpaw T.J. House, he doubled to center his next time up, and proceeded to reach base in each of his final four plate appearance that night. Over a 23-game stretch since that night, he’s slashed an eye-popping .373/.495/.783 with nine home runs in 103 plate appearances. The substantial uptick in power will grab the vast majority of the headlines, but it’s his improved plate discipline that really stands out. During that span, he’s drawn 18 walks and struck out only 19 times, raising his on-base percentage by over 60 points.
“I’m sticking to it (the process),” said Judge. “I’m not going to swing at a ball in the dirt or something that isn’t a strike. If I stick to my approach, I’m only going to attack pitches I can drive.”
Speaking of driving pitches, Judge hasn’t given opposing defenders many opportunities to rob him of hits over the last week.
In addition to leading the International League with 16 home runs this season, his recent offensive outburst includes six long balls in his last seven games as of press time. He tagged Toledo for a trio of dingers during a three-game home stand last week. Followed it up with a pair on the road against Pawtucket over the weekend and socked another against Syracuse on Monday night. In his last seven games, Judge is 12-for-28 with eight extra-base hits, four walks and only eight strikeouts.
“Everything has been the same, balls are just starting to fall these last few days,” he replied when asked if he had made any adjustments with either his approach at the plate or swing over the past few weeks. Delivered with an air of quiet confidence, his statement is the literal embodiment of a consistent approach, one that values process over results. At BP, where numbers are an omnipresent factor in player analysis, it’s hard to overlook the statistics his process is generating. His .312 TAv, a metric that measures total offensive value scaled to batting average adjusting for park and league quality, ranks seventh out of 158 Triple-A hitters with at least 250 plate appearances this season.
As if he wasn’t doing enough this month, Judge has also showcased his tremendous athleticism and savvy on the base paths with four stolen bases, nearly as many as he racked up all of last season (seven), in the last month alone. “It’s something I’ve always had in my game growing up,” he said of his recent propensity to run. “My first year I got hurt (quad injury) and they told me to just stay away from it, don’t worry about steals right now. I try to pick and choose my opportunities, a lot of catchers here have good arms and they’re up and down from the big leagues, so I’m just trying to find the right count, the right time to go is my biggest thing this year.”
According to Judge, his expectations coming into the year were to be a consistent and productive part of the lineup, wherever he ended up. “You’re going to have ups and downs, but I just try to be consistent, keep the lows at a minimum and with the highs just trust that you can keel, basically.”
Judge’s calm and collected demeanor distracts from the fact that he’s essentially Rob Gronkowski with a bat. Built like an NFL tight end, the exit velocity his massive frame (listed at 6-foot-7, 275 pounds) generates on batted balls is the reason Statcast exists. According to Judge, size has never been a challenge throughout his career. “It’s been a blessing for me, I just have to touch the ball and I get it in the gaps,” he said. “I was blessed with long arms and some people say I’ve got a bigger strike zone, but the Lord gave me long arms for a reason so I can reach a low strike, or a ball away.”
In his spare time, Judge is a big video game guy, but he also studies video of current major leaguers like Alex Rodriguez, Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Holliday on his iPad. He follows what they do with their respective swings and will occasionally implement elements of their mechanics or setup into his own.
In BP’s Extra Innings in 2012 Jason Parks wrote, “When scouts are sent out into the world to discover the next great hero, they carry with them the burden of hope. The future is always bright when it lives in an abstract reality and we baseball fans have a tendency to tailor that reality to provide comfort when faced with the disappointments and discomforts of the present.”
It’s nearly impossible to analyze Judge’s recent Triple-A performance without being optimistic about his prodigious raw power and ability to drive the ball to all fields transforming him into one of the most captivating power hitters of his generation in Yankee Stadium. Is he a burgeoning superstar? There’s no definitive answer to that question. All we have is hope. As far as Judge goes, he will continue to focus exclusively on process, consistency, and production. Let someone else worry about the numbers.
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