Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Yankees' Tower of Power: Aaron Judge at height of fame

ST. PETERSBURG

Aaron Judge was in the spotlight again, and this time he was uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

"I have to be honest," he said, "I was nervous the whole time. My heart was racing."

Judge sat at a table in the middle of Bryant Park, which sits in the middle of New York City. He wore a blue blazer, a white shirt and black-framed glasses. Judge was playing himself on a recent afternoon while unsuspecting New Yorkers sat next him and talked to him about the next big thing for the Yankees, who, of course, is Aaron Judge.

It was a skit for the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Judge went unrecognized. He wasn't wearing the famed pinstripes. He wasn't standing at home plate. Yankee fans weren't chanting his name. He wasn't driving baseballs to places seldom reached by even the most powerful hitters.

Judge got a kick out of one guest, whose eyes darted from a photo of Judge on the recent cover of Sports Illustrated to Judge himself. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Finally …

"I had a feeling, man. Come on," the man said when he figured it out. "Judge, you're the man, bro."

Yankee fans have a way of turning their stars into The Man, into larger-than-life bros. The Babe, Joltin' Joe, The Mick, Mr. October, Mr. November and on and on and on. But in Aaron Judge, they have a star who is larger than life.

The 25-year-old rookie rightfielder is 6 feet 7, 282 pounds. It's a combination rarely seen among position players in the major leagues. In fact, Sports Illustrated says Judge is the biggest position player ever based on his height and weight, beating the 6-foot-7 Frank Howard by nearly 30 pounds.

Strangers have questions. How tall are you? Really? Do you play basketball? No? Baseball? Really?

Judge is used to it. He knows he's different. On Friday, he looked around the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field and pointed out some of his teammates. Some were tall. Some not as much.

"We're all unique in our own ways," Judge said.

• • •

As a player, Judge has few peers.

MLB Network Research found only a dozen position players in history who have been 6 feet 6 or taller and have had at least 1,000 plate appearances.

"When you start getting over 6-6, 6-7 for baseball, it's a whole different physicality with how you're moving," said Rays analyst and former big-leaguer Orestes Destrade, who is 6-4. "There are a lot of moving parts. Usually they're outfielders. It's not easy, especially hitting."

Destrade thinks the ideal height for hitting homers is around 6 feet. Mickey Mantle was 5-11. Reggie Jackson is 6-0.

At 6-8, Tony Clark is the tallest member of that 6-6/1,000 PA group. Why so few members? The former first baseman, now executive director of the players union, said it is a challenge to pursue baseball while towering over your teammates. Forget the recruiting pressure by high school basketball and football coaches. Try growing into a body that's always growing.

"Oftentimes, guys our size have awkward periods where you sprout up," Clark said. "That may manifest itself on a baseball field not too kindly, where as in another sport, it may not be reflective as much in the outcome or how you perform. You may be able to work through it."

Then there is the not-so-simple task of trying to hit a baseball.

"You got that guy on the bump throwing that little ball at you and you have more area to cover, and it can be challenge to cover it if you're out of whack or out of tune," Clark said. "The flip side of that is for the guys who stick with it and continue to develop, if you're able to put those pieces together, it is significant."

• • •

Any talk of baseball's big man club better include Howard, known as "The Washington Monument" and "The Capital Punisher" during the seven years of his 16-year career that were spent with the Washington Senators.

Known as "Hondo" during his days as the Devil Rays bench coach, Howard finished his career working in the player development side of the Yankees. In his final years, he often heard about this unusually large outfield prospect.

"They'd say, 'Frank, he's got a chance to be very, very special with his foot speed, great arm strength, size and power,' " Howard, 80, said.

They never met. Hondo wishes they had.

There are a lot of successful hitters in and around the Yankees organization. But only one knew what it was like to synch up the moving parts of a swing as big as Judge's.

Howard's advice: You'll never have a tight swing, like Hank Aaron's and Harmon Killebrew's, both 6-footers, but it doesn't have to be dramatically long.

"Maybe keeping your swing a little tighter, a little shorter, a little better base of operation from the waist down," Howard said, "you do all right."

Judge's swing always has been compact for a big man. Using a better approach than he did during his 27 games with the Yankees last season, he has cut his strikeouts way down. The right-handed hitter can handle the inside pitch and muscle the ball to the opposite field, like he did Saturday in the second inning at the Trop.

That, Howard said, is a must.

"If you got good plate coverage, you can make a passable swing at any fastball in the strike zone," he said. "You can't give up that outer third of the plate. You can't be all things. Some guys are good high fastball hitters. Some guys are low fastball hitters. Some guys like the ball middle-in. Some guys like the ball over the plate away. You can count the guys on one hand who can cover that entire strike zone. They're in Cooperstown, N.Y."

• • •

Judge leads the majors with 15 home runs. His 35 runs lead the American League. He is second in the AL behind Mike Trout of the Angels in on-base percentage (.428), slugging percentage (.728) and on-base plus slugging (1.159).

He is tied for fourth in the AL with 30 RBIs, and his .331 batting average is sixth.

"Seems like he's on the highlight reel every day," Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Seven of Judge's home runs have traveled more than 400 feet, three more than 451 feet. One, at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, landed a Ruthian 460 feet from home plate. He hit the most home runs (13) through his team's first 29 games than any rookie in major-league history.

"He's setting the world on fire right now," Royals pitching coach and Zephyr­hills High/USF product Dave Eiland said. "He's off to a tremendous start, but he's still just a baseball player, and a human being in the box. … You're aware at what that particular player has done going into that series, but you still got to go get him."

Rays pitcher Alex Cobb said hitters such as Judge and Miami's 6-foot-6 Giancarlo Stanton are intimidating.

"They're filling up the entire box," Cobb said. "They look real close when those guys are up at the box."

As for facing a hitter that large, Cobb said, "There will be pretty severe damages done if you're in the middle of the plate against a guy like that. Anytime a guy that big has a chance to extend his hands, he can really show off the amount of power he has, so you try to keep them off balance as much as you can, keep the ball in on his hands so he can't extend them and hit the ball out of the park."

Judge was taken in the first round of the 2013 draft, the 32nd overall pick.

"That's good scouting," Eiland said. "This guy is big, and it might be a little out of the ordinary to draft a guy like him. Kudos to the scout who said this guy can play and the player development people who polished him up, and here he is."

• • •

Judge is drawing comparisons to Derek Jeter, which would seem blasphemous if it didn't come from Yankees manager Joe Girardi, a teammate of Jeter's during the former shortstop's rookie season.

"(Judge) has a smile all the time. He loves to play the game," Girardi told reporters earlier this season. "You always think he is going to do the right thing on the field and off the field."

No bat flips from Judge after his long homers. No prolonged trots. He's humble. He credits his teammates for his success.

It's late May and he already has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He has had a turn on the Tonight Show. He is the talk of a very big town.

"I think he's been handling it great, to be honest," Yankees leftfielder Brett Gardner said. "I think he's trying to separate the off-the-field stuff from the on-the-field stuff. Still finding enough time and focus to get all his work and preparation in. He's a guy who likes to show up early and be the last one to leave."

Judge hit .179 during his 27 games last season. He struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats, so he is familiar with the other side of playing in the big leagues. That, he said, helps him tune out the attention.

"I really don't play attention to it," he said. "I have a job to do every night, so I focus on what I need to do to get ready to prepare for the game. The other stuff is part of it, the attention if you're doing well. You can't really dwell on it, because you may be hot for six weeks. Baseball is a humbling game. You can have another six weeks where you can't hit water if you fall out of a boat."

Judge has a little more than 200 at-bats at the big-league level. Howard said his game is still raw, that he will get better once he learns the pitchers and adjusts to the adjustments he's going to see.

Athletes are getting bigger and stronger these days, Howard said. He thinks there will soon be a time when someone of Judge's size will no longer be a novelty.

"You're going to see more big men," Howard said.

But for now, Judge stands alone.

And he has been a sight to see to those who see him all the time.

"I think we all do on a daily basis, kind of marvel at what he's capable of doing, how far he's capable of hitting a baseball," Gardner said. "I think that might be something people talk about now, how tall he is, but I think ultimately he's going to be remembered for what he's able to do on the field and the numbers he's able to put up and not how tall he is or how big he is."

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