TAMPA — The New York Yankees‘ dugout at George M. Steinbrenner Field is slanted on a rise from back to front, and Aaron Judge has learned by now not to rise quickly to his feet from the bench at the back. Just after 3 p.m. Monday, he put on his batting helmet, carefully took a crouched step forward and only then unfurled his full 6-foot-7 frame, the top of his helmet barely clearing the cement roof at the front of the dugout as he stepped out into the sunshine.
Moments later, Judge, 25, stepped into the cage for batting practice. As he and teammates Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton took their hacks, sending baseballs to the stadium’s outermost regions — over scoreboards, bleachers and quite possibly passing airplanes — hundreds of fans pressed in around the outfield walls.
These days, the New York Yankees’ batting practice sessions are such a draw, the team has invited fans to the ballpark — both at their spring training home here and, during the regular season, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — an hour earlier than in past years, just so they can watch the show. If the Rolling Stones opened the gates for soundcheck each night, who wouldn’t want to go?
“There’s something really cool and sexy about seeing the long ball in practice,” new Manager Aaron Boone told reporters.
A year ago at this time, Judge was a strapping but little-known rookie outfielder just hoping to crack the Opening Day roster, and the Yankees were a talented but young team just hoping to take a step forward from their fourth-place finish in 2016. If all went well in 2017, Judge could establish himself as a legitimate big leaguer and the Yankees could position themselves for a playoff push in 2018.
But both Judge and the Yankees reached heights last season that few saw coming — for him, a rookie-record 52 home runs and American League rookie of the year honors, and for them, a 91-win season and a lengthy trip through the playoffs that didn’t end until Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. They were suddenly the Baby Bombers on the back page of the New York tabloids, and Judge was the biggest baby of them all. In July, he was all but anointed by his fellow all-stars as the new face of the game.
For both player and team, naturally, the timeline and the expectations have been accelerated as the 2018 season approaches.
“No doubt, the buzz … is a lot louder and more positive,” General Manager Brian Cashman said earlier this spring. “That’s our job — to put ourselves in position to be relevant, to be considered a championship-caliber club.”
On Dec. 9, the team pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Miami Marlins to acquire Stanton, a 28-year-old outfielder whose 59 homers last season were the most in baseball in 16 years. With Stanton joining Judge and Sanchez, the Yankees arguably possess more right-handed power in the middle of their lineup than any team in history. The 144 homers that trio combined for in 2017 were more than the entire San Francisco Giants hit as a team.
“It’s cool to watch him,” Judge said of Stanton. “He fits right in with this club. One of the first things he said to me was, ‘I’m here to win a championship in New York.’ ”
With almost their entire core returning in 2018, and with a mandate from ownership to stay below the $197 million luxury-tax threshold, the Yankees, typically one of the biggest spenders in any free agent marketplace, made only minor tweaks to their roster the rest of the winter. On Monday, they were still finalizing a one-year, $4 million contract with free agent second baseman Neil Walker, a steady veteran who can hold down the position until prospect Gleyber Torres — the pride of a blossoming farm system — is ready.
All along, 2018 was the year the Yankees had targeted as their likely breakthrough season — though no one was too upset that it arrived a year ahead of schedule. If they take another step forward this season, it would be a scary notion in places like Boston, where the Red Sox held off the Yankees by two games to win the AL East title but lost in the first round of the playoffs, and Houston, where the Astros barely eclipsed the Yankees in the ALCS then won the World Series.
A step forward for Judge in his second full big league season is equally frightening to ponder. Most prodigious rookie sluggers see a drop-off in Year 2. That was the case for the last six batters who hit at least 36 homers as a rookie: Mark McGwire (from 49 to 32), Wally Berger (from 38 to 19), Frank Robinson (38 to 29), Albert Pujols (37 to 34), Al Rosen (37 to 24) and Jose Abreu (36 in 2014 to 30).
Then again, with great Yankees, the inverse is usually true. Joe DiMaggio went from 29 homers as a rookie in 1936 to 46 in his second year. Mickey Mantle went from 13 as a rookie in 1951 to 23 in year two. In 1919, Babe Ruth’s first full season as a hitter (400-plus plate appearances), he hit 29 homers; the next year, 54.
But before he can ponder any sort of similar boost in 2018, Judge needs to get his surgically repaired left shoulder back up to full speed, something he referred to Monday as a “work in progress.”
Last October, at the end of the longest, most draining year of his career — one bisected by the left shoulder injury that contributed to a vicious midseason slump — Judge repaired to his childhood home in Linden, Calif., to decompress.
“I wanted to be with my family and be with my dogs,” he said. “I was mentally and physically exhausted. Usually it hits me a few days after the season. You don’t feel tired at the end of the season — you’re running on adrenaline. But once I’m home for a week, that’s when it hits you.”
He had the surgery, an arthroscopic procedure for “loose-body removal” and “cartilage clean-up,” on Nov. 20, with his arm immobilized in a sling for the first few days afterward. By that point on the calendar, he said, he is usually already ramping up his offseason workouts, so the surgery put him behind schedule by several weeks, if not a month or more — time he is trying to make up for this spring.
“That’s was tough, especially knowing other players are already working out,” Judge said. “I missed a lot of swings. But that’s what spring training is for. I come in early, stay late after the game. I have to get my swings in.”
He may not make it back to 100 percent until Opening Day, Judge said Monday — which is fine. That was the target all along. Of course, it’s also true that sometimes Judge and the Yankees reach their targets on the early side.