What makes Aaron Judge special? MLB’s top sluggers weigh in as Yankee great chases history – The Denver Post


Jim Thome’s 14-year-old son, Landon, has come down to breakfast at the Thome household most mornings this baseball season with a question for his old man, the fearsome Hall-of-Fame slugger who smacked 612 home runs during his playing career:

“Dad,” Landon Thome says, “did Aaron Judge hit another one?”

It’s an apt question, considering how many homers Judge has hit, and one that delights Thome, who played Major League Baseball for 22 years and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018. “That’s what it’s all about,” says Thome, who is now an analyst for the MLB Network.

“Really, all over the country, people have followed what Aaron has done.”

Count some of the greatest home run hitters in baseball history among them. With Judge pursuing home-run immortality, the Daily News asked Thome, Chipper Jones and Carlos Delgado, three wildly successful sluggers with 1,553 homers between them, for their impressions of Judge and his pursuit of Roger Maris’s American League record of 61 homers in a season. And beyond.

Not surprisingly, they’re watching. Intently, and, at times, with awe. And Jones, the former Atlanta Braves third baseman, thinks Judge has given the game he loves a needed boost.

“This is fun to watch,” says Jones, who cracked 468 career home runs and admits to clicking regularly on Yankee box scores on the Internet to check Judge’s progress.

“And I’m glad that baseball has something like this. It’s been a long time since the (Barry) Bonds and (Sammy) Sosa and (Mark) McGwire days, a real home-run watch.

“People always like the larger-than-life guys who can do superhuman stuff. The first time I ever played against Mark McGwire, on a big-league baseball field, I stayed after our BP to watch him take batting practice. And Aaron is a behemoth of a human being (6-7, 282 pounds) as well. I’m sure people love to watch him take BP, see how big he is.

“But what’s impressive to me is that he’s not just a home-run hitter,” Jones adds. “He’s made himself an all-around hitter, not trying to do too much. Take your walks, be a complete hitter. I love to sit back and watch the maturation of a young hitter – I had the fortune of passing the torch to Freddie Freeman here in Atlanta. I’ve been very impressed with Aaron and I think you’re starting to see a hitter really come into his own and understand the strike zone and know the league better. He knows if pitchers have a Plan B for him and he’s making the adjustment before most of the pitchers at this point.”

Delgado and his father were talking about Judge recently, marveling that “it seems like Judge hits one every night,” says Delgado, who hit 473 home runs of his own during a 17-year career.

“I love home runs. But I love the fact that he’s not all or nothing, too. He puts together good at-bats and I appreciate that. He goes to the opposite field. It’s an all-around great season.”

Jones echoes Delgado’s sentiment about the right-handed Judge thriving, in part, by hitting balls over the right-field fence, both at home and on the road. “Obviously, with the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, you’d be really stupid not to try to go foul pole to foul pole,” Jones says.

“He doesn’t appear to have very many holes in his swing right now. He takes the pitch up and away and hits it out. Down and in, he can hit it out.”

That doesn’t mean Judge is flawless, though, and opposing pitchers might want to pay attention to this next little bit: “He may have a little hole, inner half of the plate and up, but it’s small,” Jones says. “Like the hole Mike Trout has — very, very small. But if you’re going to go in there, be very wary of what could happen.”

Should a pitcher miss location, he might just be another name on the list of those Judge has homered against, a list that keeps growing.

“He could hit 65 homers,” says Thome, who reached a personal best of 52 in 2002. “He’s just not missing pitches. He’s got plate coverage. He’s calm. And he’s been doing it, really, all year long.”

And, Thome opines, it might be the best year ever. Judge is doing it all in an era when ballparks are smaller, but he doesn’t play in the same mega-homer era that Bonds, Sosa and McGwire did. Slugging is down across the game this year — not Judge, of course. Ruth played against fewer teams, yes, but it was pre-integration, so there were doubtless talented pitchers excluded from baseball.

He’s generally not facing tired starters a third or fourth time, like Ruth and Maris did. They got 192 at-bats and 182 at-bats, respectively, against starters who were facing them for the third and fourth time in a game, according to baseball-reference.com. Ruth hit 23 homers in those at-bats; Maris had 14. As of Sept. 14, Judge had 84 at-bats against a starter a third or fourth time — just two against a starter a fourth time — and had 10 homers.

Instead, Judge usually faces a flamethrowing reliever or two in Judge’s late at-bats, making his pursuit even more remarkable. “I tend to agree,” Thome says. “When you look at the pitching today, how hard is each reliever throwing? Think about the different guys they are bringing in from the pen every night.”

Let Jones try to describe what Judge might be experiencing when engulfed in a homer binge: “You are tunnel-visioned on the pitcher. If the pitch is out of the tunnel, you’re spitting on it. But if it’s in that tunnel, you’re not just putting it in play, you’re doing ultimate damage.

“It’s an awesome feeling. There’s nothing that beats it. When you’re at the top of your game like that, it really doesn’t matter who’s on the mound — if you’re on and they throw it across those 17 inches (of home plate), it’s going to be reversed. And very hard.”

Thome reached 600 home runs on Aug. 15, 2011 when he hit two homers in a game against Detroit while playing for Minnesota. Being in the hunt for such a significant milestone — at the time, Thome was only the eighth player to reach 600 home runs; there are nine now – was part excitement, part unease, he says. Judge probably had to fight through the same to get to 62.

Thome explains the anxiety like this: “You want to do it for the team, for your family. As you get closer — this is the tough part — there’s this need, where everyone wants a home run. And home runs don’t come easy. It’s a mistake by the pitcher, most of the time, and you get the ball up in the air.

“I go back to watching Judge all year. He’s never really over swung or gotten out of his area. He’s been in one of those grooves you dream of. Very few guys have done it and it’s amazing.”

There are famous stories from 1961 of the scrutiny Maris faced as he chased Babe Ruth’s celebrated mark of 60 home runs, how Maris lost clumps of hair because of the stress, how the media may have manufactured a rivalry that didn’t exist between Maris and his co-pursuer, Mickey Mantle. It seemed everyone not named Maris wanted Mantle to break Ruth’s record. Or for it not to fall at all.

Judge lives in an even more turbocharged media era, but his pursuit hasn’t had the same potholes, at least not outwardly. Delgado looks at Judge and notes that he does not seem ruffled, though Delgado wonders if it all snowballed toward the end.

“He’d have to answer a lot of questions that he doesn’t control,” Delgado says. “But he seems cool, like he’s handled it all. I don’t know him, but he’s done well for a few years in New York and this is a salary-drive year for him. He went out and made sure he’d get paid.”

Judge might have an AL MVP Award with him when he goes to negotiate his next contract, in addition to a hallowed home-run record. As the baseball season has entered its last month, debate has flared over whether Judge or Shohei Ohtani of the Angels, who pitches and hits at elite levels, should win the award. Ohtani won last year.

Says Jones: “It’s not even close.” He believes Judge should be the AL MVP, in part because Judge has hit so many more home runs than the MLB runner-up. If his lead stands, it would be the largest gap since Ruth was outhomering entire teams in the 1920s.

“I understand the argument for Ohtani with pitching stats and hitting stats and I understand how difficult that is,” Jones says. “But Aaron Judge is on a first-place team. He’s had one of the best seasons in the last decade.

“Yeah, Ohtani is extraordinary. But Judge has [nearly] 20 home runs more than anyone else. So don’t tell me that’s not extraordinary. That’s amazing. You can argue that’s just as extraordinary as Ohtani.”

And Judge is already more extraordinary, at least for this one, record-setting season, than Ruth or Maris.



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