Aaron Judge Arrives at the Next Chapter in His Career: October

Aaron Judge Arrives at the Next Chapter in His Career: October


The numbers Judge referred to are the team’s 21 retired jersey numbers that are individually circled on a commemorative wall at the top of the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium.

A number of them belonged to Yankee sluggers who burnished their biographies with some memorable October moments: Babe Ruth hitting his called shot in the 1932 World Series, Mickey Mantle hitting a Series-record 18 home runs, and Reggie Jackson blasting three homers in the clinching Game 6 Series victory in 1977.

The Yankees’ presence in the postseason has become far less guaranteed in recent seasons, but the current team, with its trove of young talent and its ability to spend money, now appears well situated to resume its old role as a constant in October.

If so, Tuesday night might just be the start of a series of regular postseason turns for the 25-year-old Judge, who stands 6 feet 7 inches, weighs 280 pounds and continues to mesmerize fans with some of his home runs.

Of course, October opportunities do not always guarantee success. If Jackson was Mr. October, Dave Winfield’s fallow World Series for the Yankees in 1981 — he was 1 for 22 — no doubt lingered with the team owner George Steinbrenner, who years later derided him as Mr. May. And Judge’s immediate predecessor as the Yankees’ most high-profile hitter was Alex Rodriguez, who had a decidedly mixed — and sometimes humiliating — playoff résumé with the Yankees.

Photo

Judge joined Brett Gardner at a news conference Monday at Yankee Stadium, the site of the A.L. wild-card game.

Credit
Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Rodriguez was demoted to eighth in the batting order by a frustrated Joe Torre in the 2006 playoffs, and was benched by an equally frustrated Joe Girardi and then pinch-hit for in the 2012 postseason.

And in the 2004 American League Championship Series, in which the Yankees famously blew a three-games-to-none lead over the Boston Red Sox, Rodriguez made himself an object of derision after he was caught slapping the ball out of the glove of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo and called out in a crucial moment in Game 6.

As Judge is about to experience for himself, the postseason is different. The level of attention from the news media is intense, although that is something Yankees players are probably as equipped to adjust to as any team. But beyond that, there is a different level of attention from opponents. Playoff teams typically spend the last 10 games of the regular season intensely scouting their opponents, producing reports that are often more precise than the ones compiled in the regular season.

“It’s individualized a little more on what they think is going to get the hitter out,” Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said.

While Judge fell into a deep slump for seven weeks coming out of the All-Star Game break, he regained his groove in September and finished leading the A.L. in home runs, runs scored (128) and walks (127). But in keeping with his theme of doing things on a mammoth scale, Judge also struck out 208 times — the sixth-most in major-league history.

Even Jackson, who is baseball’s all-time strikeout leader and who was present at Monday’s workout, was taken aback when he was told how many strikeouts Judge had.

“208?” he asked, arching his eyebrows. “Ooh, that’s a lot.”

But Jackson said that even in the playoffs, the strikeouts are a worthy trade-off for everything else Judge brings when he steps into the batter’s box.

“I smile when I say this,” said Jackson, who is a Yankees adviser. “When he’s standing at home plate with nobody on base, there’s a man in scoring position.”

He continued: “I’ve been watching him walk around here the last few days, happy and content, and when your big man is content, you walk in the room and feel good. You see Shaq smiling, and you see Michael Jordan lacing up those sneakers and he’s smiling, or Kareem or Magic or Jim Brown or Tom Brady smiling, you’ve got a shot. You’re already in the lead.”

Whether the Yankees still feel good, and whether Judge remains content, will be determined on the field on Tuesday night. The regular-season numbers, the scouting reports and all the attendant attention afforded Judge will be shunted aside, said Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier.

The spotlight of the playoffs, he said, will bring light to a fundamental question.

“At the end of the day,” he said. “Are you a ballplayer or not?”



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