TAMPA — In case you think Aaron Judge can’t get better, it’s worth noting that he hit only three of his 52 home runs last season in August, when he was nursing a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery and almost surely was a factor in his massive mid-summer slump.
On Wednesday Judge still said no, even while indicating he may have been only 80 percent healthy at best because of the shoulder.
“I don’t like making excuses,” he said.
But more than likely that’s just Judge wanting to be accountable, wanting to take responsibility for the bad as well as the good last season.
Certainly Brian Cashman saw it that way.
“He would never say it,” Cashman told me on Wednesday. “He’s never said it privately either. But I definitely believe the shoulder affected his performance for a period of time.”
Aaron Judge revealed Wednesday that his shoulder began to bother him around the All-Star break of last season.
If that’s true, who knows what Judge is capable of in his second full season, especially with Giancarlo Stanton joining him now in a Yankees’ modern-day Murderers’ Row that is going to make it more and more difficult for anyone to pitch around either of the league’s home run kings.
Imagine Judge and Stanton both chasing 60 home runs come September, the way Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle did in 1961, when Maris famously broke Babe Ruth’s record of 60 and Mantle wound up with 54, in part due to a leg injury that hindered him late in the season.
Clearly it’s possible, considering that Stanton hit 59 last season and now we know Judge’s swing was compromised for several weeks.
So if he’s healthy…
Judge wasn’t about to speculate, but he made it clear he believes he can get better. Perhaps more significantly, he was quick to say he’s determined to find out how much better.
“I try not to listen to people when they try to put a label on somebody as that was their best season, their worst season,” he said. “For me I don’t know, and that’s what motivated me is how good can you be.
“How great can somebody be? That’s what motivates me to get here early and improve.”
With Judge you know that’s more than talk, based on everything we’ve learned about the way he handled his stunning success last season, with a humble nature that made him popular among his more senior teammates, and a work ethic that prompted Joe Girardi to call him a born leader.
Judge and Giancarlo Stanton can form a modern Murderers’ Row for the Yankees.
His new manager, Aaron Boone, watched from afar last season as an ESPN analyst, and when asked to explain what he thought of Judge’s rise, he began with a word associated rather famously in Nike ads with Derek Jeter.
“Respect,” Boone said. “He came up in 2016 and struggled, and so I saw a young player with the courage and willingness to make adjustments in his approach and his swing. That’s not easy for young players to do, but he’s a guy that’s driven.
“As nice a person as he is, he’s driven to be great. I don’t think he’ll ever be satisfied.”
With that in mind, Boone said he predicted throughout Judge’s slump last season that he thought the young slugger would come out of it and finish strong, which proved true, of course.
In fact, Judge hit 15 home runs in September, at least partly because his shoulder was feeling better by then, he acknowledged on Wednesday.
Injury aside, Boone said he was convinced Judge’s slump was at least partly the natural course of a season for any slugger, especially a young one.
“People talking about chasing pitches, but that’s just the result of timing (being off),” Boone said. “When Aaron is on time, he’s deadly. When he controls the strike zone (swinging at pitches he can handle), he’s as deadly as anyone in the game.”
The same can be said for Stanton, obviously, and Judge said the two sluggers have already talked about benefiting from being able to compare notes, as only a couple of 6-foot-7 home-run hitters can.
“It’s funny, Stanton brought that up when we were in New York (for the BBWAA dinner in January),” Judge said. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m excited to get in the cages with you and pick each other’s brains.’
“I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn from him about mechanics, his approach. It’s going to be nice to have another big guy in the clubhouse like that.”
Judge sure doesn’t seem to be the type to worry about sharing the spotlight. Two months later, in fact, he was still practically gushing, recalling Cashman phoning him to ask if he’d be ok occasionally DHing or playing left field — because the GM had a chance to get Stanton.
“I told him, ‘whatever the team needs me to do,’ ” Judge said. “An MVP caliber player on our team? Let’s do it. We’re here to win it.
“Being around Stanton so far, he’s ready for New York. He’s going to fit right in here, I can already tell. Just by his demeanor, and he’s here to win — that’s all I really hear him talking about. It’s going to be a fun thing we’ve got here.”
Spoken like a man whose repaired shoulder is about ready to start launching missiles again.
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