By Jason Keidel
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During their radio rap sessions over the years, Mike Francesa asks Yankees general manager Brian Cashman the perfunctory question about the minor leagues, if there are any budding beasts about to be spawned by their farm system.
Prior to 2017, Cashman often slipped the name “Judge” into his answers. As with all responses Cashman gives in his sleepy monotone, you don’t know if he’s just feeding Francesa a rehearsed response or if he’s really sweet on a prospect.
Well, either Cashman was quite prescient or Aaron Judge took us all by surprise, and by storm. By belting his 50th homer of the season Modnay, he just nudged past Mark McGwire for the most in MLB history as a rookie.
In light of recent, rampant admissions over the last decade, we don’t know if McGwire hit his 49 with or without the help of PEDs. But there’s no reason to assume Judge is eating anything but Wheaties.
Cynics will assert that Judge, while wildly gifted, is just riding the biblical power wave in baseball this year. In the absence of steroids, or some profound atmospheric change that NASA is keeping to itself, what gives with all these moon shots? Giancarlo Stanton, Cody Bellinger and others have turned 2017 into a glorified version of the Home Run Derby.
Even still, Judge has been special, leading the world north of Miami in round-trippers. In a season of alleged rebuild, Judge jammed the accelerator and shifted to reload gear. This was supposed to be the Mets’ year, with the Dark Knight and Thor and bobbleheads in their likeness flooding the city.
But it’s Judge who literally stole Thor’s thunder (sorry), with a bat fit for Marvel Comics. Indeed, it’s rare that a rookie already has his own faction of fans, but watch a game at Yankee Stadium and you’ll see the costumed group replete in black robes and faux, foam wigs. (Naturally, all rise when Judge strolls to the plate.) Judge — with his .283 batting average, 50 homers and 108 RBIs — has been more than a revelation. He’s been a one-man Yankee revolution.
Judge started the season like no other rookie in history — batting .329 with 30 home runs and 66 RBIs before the All-Star Game — and then he plunged into his renowned, second-half spiral, which had him striking out at epic rates and looking lost while giving pop psychologists all manner of material. But he’s more than snapped out of his funk, especially in September, during which he’s batted .307, with 13 homers, 25 runs scored and 26 RBIs. He’s also been much more prudent at the plate, logging 21 walks this month. Judge still fans in obscene amounts — becoming the first player in MLB history with at least 50 homers and 200 K’s — but September is the the first month in which his walks-to-strikeout ratio is close to even.
Like McGwire, Judge is a hulking human, with childlike charm to his gap-toothed smile. He’s still got that teenage innocence, that “who, me?” thing that will surely rub off by next year, but for now it’s impossible not to at least like the young man, even if you abhor the Yankees. Next to Gary Sanchez, who set MLB ablaze last year, Judge has put the bomber back in Bronx Bombers.
There’s even talk that with his sizzling September that Judge will acutely challenge Houston’s Jose Altuve for AL MVP honors. Altuve (.348 average, 24 HRs, 81 RBIs) doesn’t have Judge’s pop. He’s also a foot shorter and about 100 pounds lighter. But he does have 50 more base hits and bats at a significantly higher average. And Altuve also plays on a division winner, a club that could win 100 games.
There likely will be an impulse to avoid voting a rookie for MVP. Very few players have won Rookie of the Year and league MVP in their careers — 20, to be exact — but only two have won both in the same year: Fred Lynn (1975) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001).
Does Judge deserve it? Perhaps. As we know, what players get versus what they earn are often divergent. But in this most charmed season for the Yankees and their surprising, unassuming superstar, you’d be foolish to bet against Aaron Judge.
All Rise, indeed.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel