Judge Laid The Foundation

There are a great deal of pressures and expectations athletes hold for themselves in their debut season, especially coming off an injury. The first year with an organization can be one that sets someone apart from the rest either in a positive or negative fashion. Based on that stats and the quick promotion this past summer, however, none of those pressures seemed to hold back Aaron Judge.

Judge was drafted out of high school to the Oakland Athletics in round 31 but ultimately chose to go to Fresno State. While schools had spoken to Judge before his graduation, Fresno was the only school that offered him a formal recruitment.

“[Fresno] just is a great program," he said. "Both my parents went there actually, that is where they met. So they kind of favored Fresno a little bit, but I took a visit there, loved the coaching staff and it just felt like a great fit for me."

A long time athlete, Judge’s parents were both physical education majors who helped him grow before attending Fresno. Starting as freshman, he felt that his time at Fresno helped him mature to the player he is now. Coach Mike Batesole was a large contributor in helping to develop his now famously patient approach at the plate.

“He was a huge part of my success, not only in college but also now in the pros," Judge said. "He helped me with my mindset – he really started helping me get that approach as a hitter. Like in high school I would just go out there and swung the bat, but in college he helped me start just learning the game of baseball."

Among the lineup of nearly any team, Judge manages to stand out with his 6-foot-7 stature, something that also helps give him an immediately larger strike zone than other players. His appeal as a power hitter has a lot to do with his natural athletic ability, but the professionalism in his play has everything to do with that patience at home plate.

“I think for a young hitter, he has done great," Tampa manager Al Pedrique said. "He has great discipline. That’s the one thing that got my attention, how patient he is, how selective he is. Especially with guys in scoring position, he doesn’t swing at too many bad pitches."

After a few years in college, Judge was drafted in to the New York Yankees organization, a moment he calls an honor. After signing, however, he was set out for a delayed start in the minors from a torn quad muscle that put him out for an entire season. Something of a disappointment to most, Judge maintained a positive attitude about his time away from the field.

“It was pretty hard," Judge admitted, "but I kind of feel like it was a blessing in disguise. The Yankees had a lot of guys in their Major League system that were rehabbing at the same time I was, so I was able to pick their brains, like Curtis Granderson.

“I got to meet [Derek] Jeter. I got to meet a lot of future Hall of Famers and just pick their brains about what they went through in the grind of minor league baseball. And what they go through every day. So it was kind of a blessing to do that and kind of see what they went through.”

Though the ink on his contract had dried nearly a year earlier, this past summer was his debut season with the Yankees organization. After Spring Training, Judge moved on to the Charleston low-A team for about half a season before moving forward to spend the rest of summer in Tampa.

“I was just really happy to get put on an affiliate [out of Spring Training]," he said. "I didn’t have any at bats last year, so I didn’t know if they wanted to keep me in Extended [Spring Training] to get my at-bats up. But I was just blessed to start off in Charleston with a great team and just start there and finish here in Tampa."

Last season of was a season of firsts for Judge, specifically the first long season in his career. If there was anything he learned in his time off the field during his injury in his debut season, it was to listen to his body. Judge claims the hardest adjustment coming out of the offseason was the day-to-day adjustments to stay healthy in the constant stream of games. His ability to stay fit helped him to learn more about his game every day.

“I learned a lot about my swing in Charleston. Working with Gonzo [hitting coach Edwar Gonzalez], who is a great hitting coach, he really helped me develop my swing even more. Out of college, I thought I had a polished swing but working with him really helped me fine-tune a lot of things,” said Judge.

“That was huge for me, just getting off to a good start my first year. It was important to me. I didn’t want to have this first year and maybe scuffle a little bit. But he helped me just right from the get-go start swinging it well.”

He wound up hitting .333 with a .958 OPS through 65 games in Charleston. In his time on the high-A team, Judge played with other big name prospects such as Greg Bird. But it wasn’t long before he made a name for himself in Tampa, hitting .283 and clubbing eight more home runs to give him a total of 17 between the two levels. As a power hitter, Judge has confidence to work deep in the count and to constantly learn from every pitch.

“He is great," Tampa hitting coach P.J. Pilittere said. "For me as a hitting coach in particular, he is dream because he really works hard, he’s not complacent even when he’s going good, he wants to get better. He understands that playing well here is great, but he also understands he needs to play better to get where he wants to be. His mentality is so even-keeled, he’s the same guy every day. You would never know if he was four-for-four or o-for-four.

"That’s something that has really impressed me. From the day he walked in here, I mean he wasn’t even here for the first half of the season, and he immediately commanded respect from his teammates. Instantly became one of the leaders on the team, and all around he’s been super impressive for me.”

The work ethic and positivity Judge brings to the team has helped set him aside as not only a player, but also as a potential Major League player. His first season was clearly a success due to his constant moves to be a better player, no matter what the counts or numbers said.

“He is what, 21 or 22, so there is a lot of room for improvement. Any time you see a kid that goes about his business the way [Judge] does, I always give him a good chance to be a very good baseball player,” Pedrique said.

“I don’t like to compare players, but he reminds me of Darryl Strawberry. Obviously Darryl is a left-handed hitter, and Judge is right-handed, but the swing path, the power, how they keep the bat to the strike zone so long, it reminds me of Darryl Strawberry.

“And this kid, he wants to get better every day. He comes to the park wanting to learn something new, wants to try something that will help him to be a better player. That is why I would give him a good shot to be in the big leagues soon.”

Starting off strong in Tampa, Judge quickly rose to the top in terms of hitting for the Florida League. Towards the end of his season, however, he fell in to a short slump of strikeouts. While it may not have lasted long, it was evident of the learning curve that happens in the minors.

“A guy like him, the type of hitter that he is, he is going to be a power hitter. He is going to be able to hit for average. The strikeouts for me personally, is not a concern,” said Pedrique. “Again, this is a kid who is playing in high-A already and obviously he is making the adjustment. He’s learning how he’s getting pitched, how he’s getting out, he’s learning about the pitchers around the league.

“So it is going to happen to young hitters, who will go through a stretch where they will strikeout a lot, where they will make solid contact on a consistent basis. For him, I didn’t even pay attention to the strikeouts because like I said, he takes a lot of pitches; he takes the pitchers deep in the count. That’s a good sign for a young hitter.”

As a player, Judge is no doubt a standout that has a big future ahead of him. As a teammate, though, Judge is a standup player. The moment he finishes his at-bat, he stands by ready to cheer on the next guy in the lineup, strikeout or not. Coming out of the outfield after an inning, he waits by the dugout to give each defensive player a high five and a “good job.”

“He is a rare talent and a rare personality, and mixed together he is a special guy. I mean, he has a chance to really impact this organization. I just want to see him stay on the path that he is on right now. I don’t want to see him change anything,” Pilittere said.

To his coaches, Judge’s personality is one of the many aspects that make him as a delight to work with, no matter the circumstance. Despite having a great deal of talent, he remains humble and a part of the team dynamic no matter what the numbers may say.

“One of my favorite things about him actually, and it says a lot about his character, is that when he makes an out – say its an RBI spot- he comes right back to the dugout, places his helmet nicely in the rack, and immediately cheers for his next teammate that is hitting.

“And for me, that says a lot about a person. Yes, he is upset that he didn’t do the job for the team but he can immediately let it go and support his teammates. For me, that speaks volumes about his character and the type of kid that he is,” Pilittere added.

Working on improvement is the only constant for Judge as he moves forward. His presence this past year, his first as a pro, has been huge for the Yankee organization, something that moved him to the Arizona Fall League after just a year of play. And that constant search for improving will never end for him.

“Once you think you have learned everything in baseball, it’ll come back to bite you. So I’m just trying to learn every day and just try to learn everything I can to try and be a better baseball player. I feel like I have set a good foundation, but it has to keep me moving forward,” Judge concluded.

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