TAMPA — What do you do the year after hitting 62 homers, winning AL MVP and securing a $360 million contract? Well, for one, you turn even the most routine outfield practice into a screaming frenzy, with fans calling for any baseball that so much as flies in your direction.
Aaron Judge flips a ball to a young fan during his outfield drill 🙌 pic.twitter.com/P4n6TsUPlL
— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) February 20, 2023
Aaron Judge was back in the familiar spring confines of George M. Steinbrenner Field on Monday, ready for the team’s first full-squad workouts. After a high-stakes foray into free agency, he remains the most watched (and easiest to spot) member of the New York Yankees. Where he goes, the crowd’s gaze — and the hopeful voices of hundreds of young baseball fans — follows.
More judgmental eyes will track Judge through the upcoming regular season. Having thoroughly proven his “best player in baseball” ceiling in 2022, the mammoth right fielder will face constant comparisons to himself — to his AL-record home run pace, to his .311/.425/.686 batting line, to his 25.1% strikeout rate, to his stellar defense, to his notable recent durability. The baseline assumption, via the unscientific logic of lightning not striking twice, goes that Judge won’t match those numbers. Judge, though, is not willing to grant that point just yet.
Does he think he’s going to hit 62 or more homers again?
“We’ll see,” Judge said.
What are some realistic goals for his individual stats after a historic season?
“We’ll see,” Judge said.
Surely, at the very least, after taking every September swing in a vacuum-sealed, silent bubble of anticipation, he must be ready for his Yankee Stadium at-bats to go back to “normal.” Right?
“I think normal changes throughout your life and throughout your career,” he said. “So I think this might be the new normal. You never know.”
Speaking to reporters after Monday’s workouts, which included live batting practice with the new pitch timer, Judge mostly shielded concrete personal targets — though he said he has a written list. Deflecting each comment about his individual glory with a smirk, Judge instead professed his attention to small details and big goals.
So while he won’t be pinned down to a home run number, he does have improvements he is actively working on. Judge said he is focused on boosting his contact rate, perhaps by adding a two-strike swing with no leg kick. He said he picked the brains of several big-leaguers whose swings he admires and came away ready to mix in a two-strike approach.
Making contact and avoiding strikeouts go hand in hand, and in that area, Judge made serious strides in 2021 that carried over to 2022. His career contact rate was 66.1% coming into 2021 but leveled up to 72.8% the past two seasons. That’s still below MLB average (76.6% last year), but it’s a tradeoff anyone would take for a hitter like Judge. His contact rate on pitches in the strike zone — perhaps a more important metric for a punishing power bat — has long hovered around league average, just north of 85%.
Stats, though, aren’t the only comparison points for Judge. Becoming the first Yankees captain since Derek Jeter will bring amplified comparisons to past Yankees greats, as well as the one résumé line he doesn’t share: a championship. The Yankees haven’t won (or been to) a World Series since 2009, a spell that spans Judge’s entire seven-year career and seven years before it. Questions about that drought won’t go away until, well, the last scene in the clubhouse is a joyous one instead of a quiet one.
“That silence in that clubhouse after a loss is probably the worst feeling a ballplayer can have,” Judge said, direct in his assertion that a title is the main goal in New York. It’s also perhaps the only one now, after a 99-win season that once again crumbled against the Houston Astros.
Assuming the captain label, per Judge and manager Aaron Boone, has not required noticeable changes from Judge, he is the same, even if his aims are lofty.
“For me, it's just about being an accountable teammate,” he said. “I'm there for you on the good days. I’m there for you on the bad days. And that's really what I want to get remembered for.”
Odds are he will also be remembered for breaking Roger Maris’ home run record in 2022 and perhaps for any number of other superhuman statistical feats. A fresh season and a fresh contract are now occasions to ask what success looks like for a player who has dramatically updated the answer several times.
For his part, Boone is no longer worried about speculating or hypothesizing about Judge’s excellence.
“If he's healthy, he's gonna go out there and have an MVP-caliber season,” he said. “There's no doubt in my mind.”
MVP-caliber can mean a lot of things short of 62 home runs, but the larger themes rule the day. At least, they do in February. And if MVP-caliber weren’t clear enough as an expectation, “greatness” should be.
“I think the biggest thing for him is just making sure he's going to the post and keeping him healthy,” Boone said. “And if that's the case, you know, greatness will find its way.”