Opinion

Believe it or not, Aaron Judge’s campaign can become even more storied

Never mind his consideration for Rookie of the Year. Go ahead and ignore his worthiness of a Silver Slugger award. Truth be told, the flavor of the month has changed once again for Aaron Judge, and this time, he’s being mentioned as a Triple Crown candidate.

The 25-year-old rookie right fielder hit home runs No. 20 and 21 for three RBI in the Yankees’ 14-3 win over the Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon, with his first moonshot landing deep in the left field bleachers at a calculated distance of 495 feet — marked as the farthest hit homer of the 2017 major league season. 

But of course, Judge wasn’t done. Just an inning later in the seventh, the behemoth channeled his opposite field power, ripping a screaming line drive into the seats behind the right field auxiliary scoreboard. While both balls were tattooed, they still didn’t travel as fast as Judge’s solo shot on Saturday, which hooked around the left field foul pole with an exit velocity of 121.1 mph — another record-breaking mark set by Judge in the Statcast era.

There are only so many adjectives to describe a hitting surge like Judge’s, and coincidentally, most of those words were used to characterize Gary Sanchez’s hot stroke during last summer. But crack open the dictionary and thesaurus, because this year’s hitting campaign has the potential to be fabled.

As of Sunday night, Judge leads the American League’s Triple Crown race, which includes the categories of batting average, home runs, and RBI. For those not keeping score at home, Judge’s average sits at .344, just three points higher than the mark of Seattle’s Jean Segura, who’s currently on the disabled list. Judge’s 21 home runs is three better than Toronto’s Justin Smoak, and his RBI count is one higher than Seattle’s slugger Nelson Cruz.

Granted, these numbers will change. But Judge’s current trajectory places him in the conversation for one of baseball’s most prestigious and rarest accolades, something that he nor the league expected.

“Especially when you hit .170 the year before,” Judge told reporters following Sunday’s win. “I’m really feeding off my teammates. I’m just in a good position here, surrounded by a lot of good players young and old and they’ve put me in a good spot. It’s been a fun year all-around.”

Perhaps Judge wouldn’t be where he is today without his past struggles, which were put on display during his big league debut last year. He happened to hit just nine points higher, at .179, and struck out 42 times in 84 total at-bats. In the winter, he and Yankees’ hitting coach Alan Cockrell made an effort to tweak his stance and make adjustments to his lower and front half.

Suffice to say that his work paid off. 

“One thing I tried to work on this offeseason was getting my bat in the zone and keeping it in the zone as long as I can,” Judge said. “So even if I’m getting beat on balls away, fastballs away, I’m still gonna drive it to right field and keep it in play.”

What’s also been remarkable is Judge’s plate discipline. He no longer chases — he no longer presses. He’s become forbearing, and his composure at the dish has left opposing pitchers bewildered, as if there’s no way to crack Judge’s code. Still, he is young — and most likely human — and strikeouts have been a part of Judge’s game. But the rapid turnaround he’s made in the last nine or so months has been prodigious.

Judge’s tear hasn’t only brought more fans into stadiums, but it’s also ignited the construction of his own “Judge’s Chambers” fan section, which is fun and appealing, even if it’s unorthodox to the Yankee mold. He’s garnered so much popularity that he leads the AL in All-Star Game voting, ranking slightly ahead of baseball’s brightest star Mike Trout, who’s missing time with an injury. 

The level of success Judge has attained is hard to fathom, and the countless statistics shown on jumbotrons and leaderboards are a lot to soak in. But for the sake of this story, it’s time to play hypotheticals. If Judge maintains this power until October, he could become the third rookie to ever win an AL MVP award (Fred Lynn, 1975, and Ichiro, 2001) and the 17th player in history to achieve the distinguished Triple Crown (last done by Miguel Cabrera, 2012). 

Only five Yankees have ever hit 21 or more homers in the team’s first 60 games. That list consists of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Alex Rodriguez, and now Judge. The rookie has checked off all the boxes. Seldom does this kind of talent arrive unannounced. 

“It’s pretty surreal, to be honest,” Judge told the New York Times back on May 31. “I’m living the dream. I’m getting paid to play a game, a kid’s game, a game I’ve played since I was a little kid playing T-ball. I enjoy every day I come to the ballpark. We’ve got a good team here. I’m blessed to be in this situation.”

If all of this is a dream, chances are the Yankees will never want to wake up.

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