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Meet Aaron Judge, the Homer-Bashing Phenom Who’s Here to Save the Yankees

Getty Images
Getty Images

This past Friday, on a stormy night in the Bronx, Alex Rodriguez played his final game as a Yankee, and possibly the final game of his 22-year career. The following day, thanks to the kind of symbolism that would be too outlandish for a piece of fiction, the skies above Yankee Stadium cleared as first baseman Tyler Austin and right fielder Aaron Judge took the field to make their major league debuts.

With two outs in the bottom of the second, Austin stepped to the plate for his first major league at-bat and sent a ball just over the fence in right field. Immediately after, Judge followed by crushing a ball 446 feet to deep center:

The dingers marked the first time in major league history that two rookies had hit back-to-back home runs in their first plate appearances. Unsurprisingly, the New York media had a field day. The dark cloud of the A-Rod-in-pinstripes era had finally lifted, and it was morning again in the Bronx.

But the historic first note wasn’t all, at least for Judge. He followed up with a leadoff single in the fifth inning, ending the day with two hits, two runs scored, and one RBI. On Sunday, Judge provided an encore to his head-turning debut by blasting another homer in his first at-bat of the game. In just two major league contests, Judge is now 3-for-7 with two homers and a walk, making him only the second player in franchise history to go deep in his first two career games. While Austin, a 13th-round pick in the 2010 draft, should be in the mix at first base next season, he’s not the kind of metahuman who looks like he mistakenly wound up on the diamond instead of the gridiron.

Yankees fans already had high hopes for Judge, and his history-making weekend instantly put him on the radar nationwide. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that Judge will start in right field for the remainder of the season. But before he becomes the next great Bronx Bomber — or the next cautionary tale of what happens when the Yankees actually try to develop young talent — here’s what you need to know about Judge.

Where did this potential messiah in pinstripes come from?

The 24-year-old California native played his college baseball at Fresno State; he got snagged by the Yankees in the first round of the 2013 MLB draft, putting him on the path to become the most electric home-grown talent the Yankees have produced since Joba Chamberlain took baseball by storm almost a decade ago. Coming into this season, Baseball Prospectus ranked Judge as baseball’s 18th-best prospect, while MLB.com put him 31st. So far, Judge has earned those accolades: Before his call-up to the big leagues last week, Judge had 19 home runs and 65 RBIs in 93 games with the Yankees’ Triple-A team, while posting a very respectable OPS of .854.

Sounds like this guy was meant to play baseball, eh?

Well, if you ever came across Judge in person, you’d be less surprised by his ability to hit homers than you would by his choice to play baseball. He’s a whopping 6-foot-7, 275 pounds, and looks more like an NFL lineman than an MLB outfielder. His size and stature combined with his propensity for power has led Judge to draw comparisons to another giant right fielder and power hitter, Giancarlo Stanton. (Judge’s major league debut closely coinciding with the announcement that Stanton will miss the remainder of the season due to injury might overwhelm a few conspiracy theorists.)

But as is the case with Stanton, while great height can bring great power, it also often brings a gigantic strike zone. Last season in Triple-A, Judge struck out on 28.5 percent of his plate appearances, a rate that would put him in the top 10 of that undesirable leaderboard in the majors. While he still struck out nearly 100 times this season in Triple-A, he has managed to bring his strikeout rate down to 23.9 percent.

While scouting reports about Judge’s fielding and baserunning abilities are generally positive, they also often come with the qualifier that Judge is good “for his size.” If he manages to stay healthy, Judge looks like he’ll be a decent outfielder with a great arm and an even greater bat.

OK, so the Yanks have a promising rookie. What’s the big deal?

Read that again: The Yanks have a good rookie! Even more amazingly, he actually came up through the organization’s farm system! It’s been so long since a Yankees homegrown hitting prospect panned out that trying to search for one might cause Google’s servers to crash.

Of course, Yankees fans undoubtedly remember that just last year another prospect made his way through the team’s minor league affiliates. First baseman Greg Bird debuted to much fanfare last August 13, a year to the day before Austin and Judge made their homer-happy appearances. Bird showed great promise over his two months in the majors, but before he even had the chance to return for his first full season, Bird had to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery in February. Post-procedure, Bird looked like he could be just the latest in a long list of prospects who failed to live up to their hype.

But besides providing a burst of youthful energy for one of baseball’s perennially oldest teams, Judge’s and Austin’s arrivals may one day be seen as a turning point for the franchise. A-Rod’s midseason release coupled with Mark Teixeira’s retirement at season’s end means that the 2017 Yankees roster will feature just two Yankees from the 2009 World Series–winning squad, and that’s only if CC Sabathia stays healthy enough to trigger his player option.

More relief could be on the way: Following the team’s decidedly atypical trade deadline moves, the Yankees now boast the second-best farm system in the majors, a statement that most disenchanted Yankees fans must have thought they’d never again read.

So does this mean the Yankees will be good again?

Well, if you’re a Yankees fan or a fan of hating on the powerhouse franchise, don’t hold your breath. Right now, the Yankees are a very average 60–57 and look poised to miss the playoffs for the third time in four years. And while Judge has gotten off to a dream start, he’s obviously not going to homer in every game. Plus, the Yankees’ other top talents — including their top two prospects, Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres, both acquired at this year’s trade deadline — are likely at least a season away from making their debuts.

Still, the future is bright and A-Rod-less in the Bronx, and that’s due in large part to Judge. For now, it’s also enough.