Eric Karros settled behind the cage as the Yankees took batting practice before the series opener at Dodger Stadium last month. During his 14 years as a major leaguer, plus two decades as a television analyst, he had made it a point to get to the field early to see just three men hit: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Giancarlo Stanton.
Now, he was adding a fourth player to his power list: Aaron Judge.
But the spectacle that Karros hoped for never materialized. Instead, Judge hit the ball around the field working on “barrel accuracy” from him. While Bonds, McGwire and Stanton entertained thousands with their one-dimensional, long-distance approach during batting practice, Judge often uses his time to work on the finer points, including his short game and, before grabbing a bat, his defense in the outfield.
“I never wanted to be just an offensive player who can only hit and a liability on defense,” Judge said during a conversation in the clubhouse the next day. “Because I know everyone else on the field is working hard, especially that guy on the mound. He’s trying to go out there and make pitches and put outs.”
He added: “I can help him by saving a run or stopping a running back from advancing defensively. And it will help us win a ball game.”
As the Yankees prepare to begin the second half of their season on the road to the Colorado Rockies on Friday, Judge is working his way back from the disabled list, with no timetable for his return. One of the biggest questions, for Judge and for the Yankees, is how much a player who deeply values his own versatility will be able to contribute something beyond his bat.
It’s a strange question about a player who hit 62 home runs last season and nearly won the AL triple crown. But since Judge’s debut in 2016, he’s built a surprisingly good reputation as an outfielder and athlete. His athleticism was perhaps underestimated last year, as he deftly filled center field during his record-breaking career, moving from his usual spot in right, and was second to the Yankees with 16 stolen bases.
With his first AL MVP award clinched thanks to all those home runs, Judge entered 2023 with a nine-year, $360 million contract, the title of Yankees captain, and a clear determination to improve his game to the next level. the defensive. Until a freak crash into a wall at Dodger Stadium resulted in a torn ligament in his right big toe, he had raised his game to the point where his standout late-night reels were about as likely to feature a big catch as show a tape -measure explosion.
It seemed as if his first Gold Glove was on the way.
Five days before that devastating move in Los Angeles, in which the through the outfield wall to rob J.D. Martinez of an extra-base hit, he had used his 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame to climb over the eight-foot wall in Seattle to steal a home run from the Mariners’ Teoscar Hernandez. .
“Two catches you’ll see on Aaron Judge’s highlight reels 50 years from now,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “All in the same week. We will be watching them for a long time.”
The wall-breaking catch in Los Angeles, however, was an unfortunate example of Judge’s determination and grit combining with the fear of the rest of the baseball world every time he leaves his feet. After missing time with injuries early in his career, Judge has instilled in some the fear that his massive frame could collapse at any moment.
“He has always been a good defender. He has stolen some hits from me in right field,” Martinez, the former Boston slugger, said the day before Judge’s injury. “He moves well, but he sometimes he makes me nervous when he leaves his feet, just finding a way to land right. He’s a big guy, you know.
While he has told reporters that he would not consider surgery on his toe during the season, Judge acknowledged that he may need to have it fixed in the offseason. And with the pain lingering even as he ramps up his baseball activities, he could be limited to DH for the foreseeable future. That would give the Yankees back one of the most dangerous bats in the game, but it would create a bottleneck at a position already occupied by Stanton and others.
It would also result in a far less capable defense than the team would have with Judge, especially considering those two sensational catches didn’t even feature his best asset: a strong, ranked throwing arm. Major League Baseball 89th percentileaccording to Baseball Savant.
From 2016 to the day he landed on the disabled list, Judge was second in the majors with 58 defensive runs saved in right field despite only ranking 11th in innings played, according to Sports Info Solutions. Only Mookie Betts, a six-time Gold Glover, had more.
Nineteen of Judge’s runs saved were based on his arm, a total that ranks first among right fielders. In that metric, Sports Info Solutions gives credit to fielders for the pitches and for the runners holding the balls the player fielded.
“It’s a lot of little things that go unnoticed because he’s so solid as a rock keeping the ball in front of him and then throwing the ball to right base and making a lot of accurate throws,” Gerrit Cole, Yankees All-Star. Star right-handed pitcher, said of Judge. “And he makes outstanding plays with the best of them. He is a solid above-average outfielder, which is the most impressive part.”
Plus, Judge has mastered the art of playing at Yankee Stadium, a park known as a home run pad to the right.
“You can wonder whether or not he has an advantage playing right field at Yankee Stadium because if he gets hit over his head, it’s probably going to hit him out of the park,” said Mark Simon, Yankee Stadium research and analysis specialist. defense area for Sports Info Solutions. “So you can play differently there than you would at other parks.”
Judge is aware of this and has absolutely played it to his advantage.
“I feel like there are certain situations, especially at home and in right field, where if I can keep a runner from getting to second base, keep him on first, that allows our pitcher to maybe get a ground ball, get a double. slaughter. , and then we’re out instead of a runner being on second base,” Judge said.
There was no Yankee Stadium factor for Martinez’s liner. He didn’t leave the park, but Judge did, jumping and then catching. The force of the impact severed the latch on the metal door in the wall, according to Dodger Stadium outfielder Dominick Guerrero.
Martinez was left shaking his head, as was Hernandez, who was still sore a week after Judge’s home run steal.
“Next time, I have to hit it harder and further,” Hernandez declared, smiling and still chuckling in a Twitter exchange with Judge:
“He plays the game the right way,” Hernandez said. “He’s the guy that everyone thinks he’s him. He wasn’t the MVP for nothing last year.”
No one knows if that version of Judge will return this season. His presence in the lineup would be a huge improvement for the Yankees, even if his contributions are limited to what he can do with their oversized maple bats. But for Judge, not being able to make standout plays on defense would take away one of the best compliments he says a player can receive.
“For me, just high-fiving your pitcher,” he said of what it takes for a great play. “When you return to the bench, something like this is always the best. There’s someone who appreciates you diving for a ball in the gap, stealing a home run, or throwing a guy out. I only got a little nod from a pitcher because I know they’re focused on the game.”
He added: “Seeing them take the time to thank you for it and lock themselves back in, that’s what it’s all about.”
The Yankees, who could use every aspect of Judge’s game in their quest for a 31st straight winning season and a seventh straight trip to the postseason, will cross their fingers that he gets a high-five again soon.