By Ernie Palladino
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Jay Bruce and Aaron Judge may sit at two ends of the baseball spectrum, but they’re teaching the same lesson.
Whether they’re longtime veterans or promising prospects, don’t define players by small samples.
Both the Yankees and Mets nearly made that mistake in the offseason and spring training. And now, they’re wiping their collective foreheads that Judge, in his first full year with the pinstripes, and Bruce, a failure last year, are both in their lineups.
Bruce, especially. Rightfully vilified last season by Mets faithful for the miserable 50 games he put together after he came over from the Reds, the 10-year vet has gotten off to a great start. Those two homers he hit in Philadelphia on Monday marked his third and fourth shots of the year and stuck him square in the middle of a right field debate with Michael Conforto, who homered Sunday during his first start in center.
Bruce had two more RBI during Tuesday’s 14-4 rout of the Phillies, giving him eight on the season.
This argument over the starting right field spot is a good thing considering the debate that surrounded Bruce in the winter. At that point, a putrid slash line of .219/.294/.391 had the front office dying to turn the busted slugger’s $13 million salary into somebody else’s problem.
Lucky for them, the rest of baseball treated Bruce like a 6-foot-3, 225-pound pile of plutonium. Twenty-nine other teams wouldn’t go near him, at least not without a HazMat suit. The Mets had no choice but to keep him around as part of a five-man outfield crowd that decreased to four when Juan Lagares strained his left oblique in the spring.
Bruce’s nine years of experience earned him his starts this year over Conforto. But his accomplishments so far in another admittedly small sample will keep him in the lineup. Bruce had whacked four homers and put together a .304/.448/.870 slash heading into Tuesday’s game in Philly. On Monday, his two-run shot into the second level of Citizen’s Bank Ballpark, secured a 4-3 comeback win that put the Mets above .500.
Last year’s goat has turned into this early season’s hero.
There’s no telling whether that continues. But just as the Mets felt they couldn’t afford to keep him after last year, they certainly can’t afford to stick him on the bench now.
Judge faced a similar dilemma, though the decision with the rookie involved keeping him up or sending him down after spring training. The 27 games he spent with the varsity last year left a mixed bag of feelings — admiration for the power that produced four homers and 10 RBI, but apprehension about the free-swinging ways that produced a .179 average and 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats.
He worked to bring those strikeouts down during spring training, but there remained a hint of a thought that starting the season in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre would serve him better. Judge, however, came out of Tampa with the starting right field job just the same.
So far, he’s done fine. The strikeouts are down (again, small sample). He’s hitting .261. And he has homers in the last two games. Those contests, by the way, happened without Gary Sanchez, last season’s late-season hero, in the lineup as he begins a month-long recovery from a right biceps strain. And the Yanks’ third star prospect, Greg Bird, hasn’t played in a couple of days due to flu-like symptoms.
One can say Judge has gotten himself right on target for a solid season. It may or may not happen, but his tying solo shot in the eighth inning of an eventual 7-3 win over the Orioles on Sunday followed by a moon shot that got Michael Pineda off to a 2-0 lead in his home opener gem Monday had to do wonders for his confidence.
It certainly put Joe Girardi’s mind at ease. He knows now that Judge can handle the big stage, even if he must stand on it alone, without his other two young cohorts.
Based on what they’ve done in this short opening stretch, both Bruce and Judge have erased the impressions from the end of 2016. They look nothing like the veteran and the rookie who struggled once subjected to New York.
The rest of the season will determine which small sample illustrated their true natures.
But so far, so good.
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