By Sweeny Murti
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Scouting Aaron Judge couldn’t have been all that hard, right? Watch him hit the ball a country mile and say, “Sign here, please.”
Actually it was a lot more complicated than that. And two of the men who helped make Judge a Yankee (along with area scout Troy Afenir and VP of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer) are national crosschecker Brian Barber and special assignment Scout Jim Hendry.
As the Yankees approached the 2013 draft, the problem with scouting Judge was obvious. He looked more like someone taken in the NFL or NBA Draft than the MLB Draft. Judge didn’t fit into any imaginary box because he didn’t compare to very many players these guys had laid eyes on before.
“Your library of guys to compare him to on a baseball field are (Giancarlo) Stanton and no one else,” Barber, now in his 16th year in the Yankees scouting department, told me last week. “And he’s bigger than Stanton. We had guys comparing his body to Blake Griffin.”
Baseball history says it’s very difficult to be as big as Judge, who is listed at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, and be a good major league hitter. What’s even more difficult is predicting that a guy that size can become just that.
As Hendry puts it, “The hardest thing to do in scouting is to project amateur people hitting at a high level in the big leagues.”
Now add in the size factor, and the equation becomes even harder.
Hendry, the former Cubs general manager now in his 39th year in baseball, was taken by Judge’s size just like everyone else who saw him for the first time. Then he put his scouting skills to work.
“If you’re going to be that big and become a good hitter, you’ve got to have a couple things going for you,” Hendry told me. “One, you’ve got to be a good athlete, which he is. And two, you’ve got to have really good makeup because it’s going to take a lot of work. You’re going to have some holes to start with and you’re going to have some deficiencies because you’re such a big man. That’s why the game hasn’t had a lot more huge people.”
So taking a guy who didn’t fit into a simple package, literally and figuratively, and putting him into the right context took a little more work. And then you had to be confident enough in your projection to tell your boss to grab him, that he can break the mold and become an exceptional hitter at that size, so don’t pass on him.
“With a guy like that you step away from the comparison box,” Barber said.
One attention grabber was where Judge played on the diamond, center field.
Recognizing that a 6-7 center fielder wasn’t something you saw every day, let alone at a D-I program like Fresno State, told you a little something about his athleticism. Barber and Hendry, who saw Judge separately on numerous occasions in the spring of 2013, could see that he moved well, ran with above-average speed, and wasn’t just lumbering through the outfield.
“It wasn’t just Herman Munster out there,” Barber said. “This was a super-big, super-strong athletic guy.”
Judge’s batting practice caught their eyes, too, but not for the reason you’d think.
“He wasn’t playing Home Run Derby,” Hendry said. “He was driving the ball in the middle of the diamond, not trying to lift everything and put on a show. So I thought he had a pretty good concept of what was important pregame.”
“He hit no home runs in batting practice,” Barber remembered about one particular session he witnessed. “Now he did hit about 10 missiles off the center field wall, just low line drives. So you knew the power was there.”
Judge hit .346 in three years at Fresno State, with 17 home runs and 41 doubles in 581 career at-bats. The numbers backed up that Judge was a hitter, not just a slugger, despite his size. But there was little doubt the power would find its way out. It was just going to take some time to get all the parts moving in the right direction.
Hendry had watched Judge rocket ground balls through the infield in batting practice and knew his bat speed could produce big power once the massive prospect learned the proper swing mechanics for a better launch angle. It’s not unlike the story Don Mattingly has told of learning from Lou Piniella how to get more torque and power out of his swing after he reached the majors.
The Yankees had three picks in the first round of the 2013 draft, and they chose Judge with the second one, 32nd overall.
“The only risk involved I think for all of us was there’s just a handful of guys that big that were great or even good big league hitters,” Hendry said.
“It was certainly not a lock he was going to become an outstanding big league hitter. It was going to take some time. It was going to take some work. But the difference maker for me is that big people take longer.”
Hendry cited Dellin Betances and Randy Johnson, who despite being pitchers and therefore not perfect comparisons, as examples of taller players who needed time to learn and repeat mechanics that would allow them to be more consistent with their natural abilities.
“It takes an exceptional guy to be that size and learn how to be a polished hitter and get to the ball,” Hendry said. “When you’re 6-7 it’s not that easy to get to the ball low and away at your kneecaps. It’s a long way to that spot.”
When Judge struggled after a promotion to Triple-A in 2015, he bounced back with a strong 2016 to earn a big league call-up. After struggling in that brief stint last year, Judge bounced back again batting .303 with 10 home runs in April.
“We weren’t as worried about it with a guy like him because of the makeup that you knew he had,” Barber said. “It’s a credit to him because of the makeup that he has — the desire and the passion and the want to be better than he was last year, and right now being an impact player in the game. We just felt comfortable he was going to be able to achieve that.”
“He’s put a tremendous amount of work in,” Hendry said. “Sometimes it just takes some time. A lot of times the guys that are going to be outstanding figure it out. They make adjustments and keep working at their craft. It’s so easy to get a short sample and bury somebody. Well, the history of the game will tell you that it’s not only a hard game, but it’s hard for somebody that big to get it all together and do what the kid’s doing now.”
The Yankees believed Judge had the skills to be a good hitter and the mental strength to overcome some inevitable failure. Their faith is being rewarded with one of the best starts to a season in team history.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN