It was the start of Aaron Judge’s junior season at Fresno State University, and the future Yankee found a spot alongside his Bulldogs teammates after being handed a surprise classroom assignment. On that day, it was mandatory to watch a YouTube supercut showcasing every single hit song Miguel Cabrera amassed during his stellar 2012 season with the Detroit Tigers.
The lesson head coach Mike Batesole wanted to convey to Judge and others was the remarkable ease with which Cabrera seemed to manage the striking zone this season, one that rewarded the superstar with the American League’s first Triple Crown in more than four decades.
“It was a long video, but it was worth watching,” Judge said. “I think he really hammered how easy he makes everything. He doesn’t try to overshoot; he doesn’t try to do too much, especially with guys on the base. You would see him hit a single into right field and score two runs. He just did the little things in the game and if you do that over 162 you’re going to have a pretty good year.
Does that sound familiar to you? So much has been said about Judge chasing pinstripe legends like Roger Maris, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle during his sensational 2022 campaign, Judge is still subscribing to the Miggy playbook. There was power in droves, with Judge striding the AL field far and wide on home runs (59) and RBIs (127) with a mindset of keeping it simple and swinging up on strikes every time.
“Honestly, it’s just normal,” said Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “You watch his at-bats every day and you wouldn’t even know if he was just a home run away from 60. That’s just a credit to him, his preparation and his behavior. On the field, off the field, on the plane – it’s just the total package.”
That’s why, even as Judge nears Maris’ 61-year-old AL record of 61 home runs in a single season, his plate appearances haven’t led to top-step frenzy in the Yankees’ dugout. Of course there were “MVP!” chants in the stands. That was months ago, and social media has been ablaze for the past few weeks as fans pitted apples against oranges, trying to match Judge with The Angels’ adorable Shohei Ohtani.
Spoilers for those who have been put into perspective: there’s no perfect formula to properly compare Judge’s historic season to Ohtani’s unicorn-like two-way performance. While the judge can’t throw, Ohtani hasn’t been able to single-handedly drag his flat-tired ball racquet into the postseason either. Since no one has pitched and batted this way since Ruth, Ohtani has to win the MVP every year.
That’s even been said by a few Judge admirers in former teammate CC Sabathia and former coach Phil Nevin (Nevin is Ohtani’s manager now, of course). Still, they’re in the immediate vicinity of 161st Street and River Avenue, where Judge “The Man” was – and, the Yankees hope will continue to be – outnumbered.
“In the end, we win as a team and we lose as a team,” said Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole. “The most valuable asset we had this year was Aaron as we won as many games as we did. I don’t get a vote, though [winning] have to calculate it. I mean when it comes to value, that has to be taken into account.”
Since the day the Yankees opened their 2022 campaign, an opening day that Judge placed a massive bet on his performance by preparing to dive headlong into the free hand, Judge has provided every ounce of value his club has could have wished for. As manager Aaron Boone noted, “Ohtani may have it better [year than in 2021, when he won the MVP]but Judge has one for eternity.”
Judge was the fearsome middle-class bat who helped propel the club to its place as the first major league club with 50 wins when it looked like the Yanks could challenge the franchise-record 114 held by the ’98s squad was set up. The Richter went from being an oddity to being a reliable regular in midfield, chasing balls in the gaps and showing off his incredibly strong arm.
When the Yankees needed a leadoff hitter (partly to keep teams from batting around the most dangerous hitter in an injury-plagued lineup), Judge set the table. He embraced the new organizational philosophy of being aggressive on the basepaths and stealing bases in a clip he had never shown as a Big League. And a surge in September put him in position for his first over .300 season. Not to belittle Maris, but he only hit .269 and had Mantle to scare opponents.
“As a kid, you would look up and see Albert Pujols hitting .330 every year and running the RBI numbers consistently,” Judge said. “So for me, a hitter’s rating has always been average. I may be old fashioned but it’s can you hit or not?”
All while advising teammates behind closed doors and serving as the de facto heartbeat and clubhouse captain, focusing on such minute details as curating the hip-hop-heavy Spotify playlists that accompanied every team win. Boone said the most significant difference was Judge’s ability to prepare and withstand the grind of a 162-game schedule; The 30-year-old judge summed it up as “staying on the field.”
“When you first get drafted, you’re young. You play a game, shower, leave and you’re ready for the next game,” said Judge. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people off the field, the places I’ve trained in the off-season and the guys I work with during the season to keep my body in order. I’m not 24 or 25 anymore and running around. I’m only getting older I just focus on the little things and make sure my body is primed and ready to go. Play nine innings today, then rest, stretch and do what you have to do for next.
Judge’s significant improvement against Slider has also served him well, a process that has seen him refine his clubpath to keep the run in the zone longer and train his eyes by tracking triple-digit speed from machines. Giancarlo Stanton, the youngest major league player to hit 59 homers before Judge, said the behind-the-scenes grind was key to Judge’s success.
“I watch him work every day, so just watching him when he’s not feeling so well — none of you are going to know that,” Stanton said. “But the people who see him every day know it, and he’s still producing out there. He’s still showing up out there, so I’d say that’s the biggest thing besides the numbers.”
Oh, but those numbers are stunning; bold columns promising to empty the ink reservoirs when Topps starts printing the first series in 2023. The judge promises he’ll look at his numbers at the end of the season (given his free-agent status, that’s a certainty). But his theory is similar to that long attributed to the great Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back, something might overwhelm you.”
“Looking at the numbers throughout the year just weighs you down and you’re not focused on the right thing, which is helping the team win the game,” Judge said. “It’s about doing everything you can. There are certain situations where you have to give up and get past the runner, certain situations where you have to drive a guy in. If I’m focused on my batting average or my home runs, then I’m not going to be focused or completely fixated on what I need to do at the plate.
Cole and Rizzo are among those who have said that Judge’s Special ’22 deserves all the more consideration because of the setting in which it performed; The year-long home run results of Barry Bonds (73), Mark McGwire (70, 65) and Sammy Sosa (66, 64) are all logged by steroid-era weight. Although Judge said he sees Bonds as the record holder, Boone acknowledges that there are many who believe 61 is the number to beat.
“We haven’t seen that in this game for a long time,” Rizzo said. “For him to do that in this era of baseball is just incredible.”
“I feel like I’ve been spoiled,” said rookie Relief Ron Marinaccio. It’s my first season and I see something like that. I heard Rizzo say something about this being the first year in his career that he’s seen someone turn 50. I walked into the clubhouse and all of a sudden it almost seemed normal because he just acts everyday like it’s nothing. It’s pretty incredible to watch.”
There’s another, perhaps underestimated, aspect of this home run chase — it’s the first of the Twitter era. Derek Jeter has said that if there had been camera phones and social media during his career, his tenure as a pinstripe would have lasted about 4 1/2 years; When that comment drew laughter, Jeter remarked, “I’m not kidding.”
“That’s another part of it that I take for granted,” Boone said, referring to Judge. “It’s just built for this and made for this. I’m not worried about anything getting in and affecting what he does. He has the perfect focus on being ready to play, going on stage with a plan and being a great teammate. He keeps the game very simple in that regard and then lets the results happen as they will.”
Of course, if it were that easy, everyone would be hitting 50 home runs — this season, in Major League Baseball, only one guy is doing it: the same guy who majored in Miggys Swings at Fresno State.
“Every time he hits a homer, he helps the team,” said infielder Gleyber Torres. “All the guys try to do the same thing – well, not Homer, because we can’t hit as many homers as he does. But maybe we have really good bats and some singles.”
So how should we measure the reality that Judge is having one of the greatest seasons ever in the fishbowl setting of the media capital of the world? How can we? Perhaps, as Judge suggests, we should just sit back and keep it simple.
It’s the mindset that has engaged Judge, crossing out the goals he envisioned as a 10-year-old growing up in idyllic Linden, California, a place once known for its annual cherry festival. Your cutest, most attractive product is now number 99.
“Make it into the big leagues, be an all-star, and the most important thing is to win a championship,” Judge said, adding, “That’s still out there but we’ve got some time left for that.” We have a team that can do that, so hopefully we’ll take it off the list.”