Aaron Judge is making a powerful impression on the Yankees

If Aaron Judge had been a sure thing, he would not have lasted until the 32nd selection of the 2013 draft.

“Going strictly by analytics, you would not have picked him because of his size, the strikeouts, the history of people at that size getting to the big leagues. It’s a very small sample – people like Frank Howard,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. 
 
Judge, 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, is a freakish athlete who was offered football scholarships and drew physical comparisons to NBA star Blake Griffin in high school. His power in baseball, when he made contact, was undeniable.

Still, only 12 hitters in major-league history, 6-6 or taller, have achieved 1,000 career plate appearances, according to MLB Network research – though eight of them, including Howard, became All-Stars, and one, Dave Winfield, made it to the Hall of Fame.

The Yankees had three first-round picks in ’13, and they were willing to risk one on Judge because they saw something beyond his athleticism, something that not only helped him reach the majors, but also should help him withstand the challenges that even the most talented players face:

Derek Jeter makeup.

The first time I heard the Jeter comparison was during the Yankees’ first series in Tampa Bay, when bench coach Rob Thomson mentioned it to FOX’s A.J. Pierzynski.

“He struck out in half his at-bats last year and never changed,” Thomson told me later, citing Judge’s 42 Ks in 84 ABs. “He walked into the clubhouse the same every day, his head up, his chest out, ‘let’s go.’” 

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That first weekend, when the Yankees were in Baltimore, I mentioned to catcher Austin Romine the industry-wide concerns about whether Judge would make enough contact.

Romine, all but dismissing the point, replied, “He’s smart. He’ll figure it out.”

Judge, 25, is figuring it out all right.

On Wednesday, he became the youngest player in major-league history to hit 13 home runs in his team’s first 26 games of a season, according to the Yankees.

Those 13 homers lead the majors. His 10 in April tied the major-league record for the most in that month by a rookie. Judge has struck out 27 times in 88 at-bats, but also has walked 15 times, and overall is batting .330 with a 1.251 OPS while playing a stellar right field.

On Monday, Yankees manager Joe Girardi went public with the Jeter comp – not saying that Judge had the same ability and potential as Jeter, simply pointing out their similarities in demeanor and approach.

A player can receive no higher praise.

“He is a little bit like Jeter for me,” Girardi said. “He has a smile all the time. He loves to play the game. You always think he is going to do the right thing on the field and off the field.”

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The Yankees did not initially know that Judge had “Jeter makeup” – no one at the time of the draft in ’13 would compare a junior at Fresno State to an all-time Yankee great.

But the team does extensive research on players’ characters, dispatching a member of its mental conditioning staff to personally interview more than 125 potential draft picks each year.

A high school or college player who refuses such an interview loses any chance of getting drafted by the Yankees, according to the team’s amateur scouting director, Damon Oppenheimer.

The Yankees hardly are the only team that emphasizes makeup; the Cubs, for example, are careful to acquire players they believe are good people, regarding it as an important aspect of their recent success. 
 
Judge, in the Yankees’ estimation, had the mental strength to overcome the obstacles that a hitter his size would face – getting to balls down and away and away, for one. 
Some in the industry, however, feared that his contact problems might prove insurmountable, though Judge’s strikeout rate at Fresno State was not much higher than Kris Bryant’s at the University of San Diego over the same three-year period.


Billy Beane, the Athletics’ executive vice-president of baseball operations, was well aware of the doubts – the A’s had drafted Judge out of Linden (Ca.) H.S. in the 31st round of the 2010 draft, only to see him go to college instead.

Beane said he did not view Judge’s size as a risk. The Yankees’ Oppenheimer concurred, saying that Judge’s athleticism eased his concerns – Judge played center field at Fresno, ran the 60-yard-dash in 6.7 seconds, displayed good, natural actions.

And yet . . .

“Even in college, he was still a rough, rough diamond,” Beane said. “It was a little bit of a conundrum.  
 
“The good analytics were off the charts – the things you see now, the strength. What he did was so unique. But what he didn’t do (making contact) was always a red flag. It’s a concern for a high school kid who is 18. But if it’s still an issue after three years of college, it might always be an issue.”

The Astros chose Stanford right-hander Mark Appel with the No. 1 choice in ’13, the Cubs took Bryant at No. 2. The A’s, at No. 24, selected high-school outfielder Billy McKinney.

The Yankees went with Notre Dame infielder Eric Jagielo at No. 26, Judge with the compensation pick for Nick Swisher at No. 32 and high-school left-hander Ian Clarkin with the compensation pick for Rafael Soriano at No. 33.

Jagielo, who turns 25 on May 17, is at Double A for the third straight season after getting traded to the Reds in the Aroldis Chapman deal, batting only .185 with a .510 OPS.

Clarkin, 22, is trying to rebound at High A after several injury-marred seasons, and has a 2.25 ERA after four starts.

Then there is Judge, a leading candidate for American League Rookie of the Year – and at the moment, MVP.

“He’s very confident in his ability. But there’s no cockiness,” Cashman said. “There’s respect for the game, opponents, front office and ownership. All those things – check, check, check. Just like the attributes people saw in Jeter.”

Credits his parents

At Fenway Park last week, I asked Judge where his makeup came from.

“What do you mean?” Judge asked, seemingly unaware of the term.

“Personality,” I replied. “Demeanor. Approach to the game.”

“I probably got it from my parents at a young age,” Judge said. “They taught me right from wrong, how to treat people, treat them with respect.”

Judge’s adoptive parents, Wayne and Patty, are retired teachers. His older brother, John, 30, also is a teacher, an English instructor in South Korea.

Judge said he had to follow certain rules and maintain a certain GPA for the “privilege” of playing sports and video games.

Fresno State coach Mike Batesole describes him as “a special, special kid.”

“That can only come from Mom and Dad,” Batesole said. “When it’s that deep and that real, that means he was raised right.”

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Cashman agreed, saying that the Yankees cannot take credit for their players’ characters; only their parents can. But the Yankees, starting in 2005, began digging deeper into makeup, hiring Chad Bohling as their first mental-conditioning specialist.

To Cashman, such a move only made sense – “We’re the New York Yankees. We can use every tool in the toolbox.” He recalled attending Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C., and the Jesuit instructors talking about building a person spiritually, mentally and physically.

Same idea here.

“Everybody spends so much time trying to perfect the pitcher, the position player, the swing, the pitch – all physical,” Cashman said. “But there’s a mental side to this game, too. I thought, ‘We are not maximizing our potential. We’re not exercising the brain aspect of this thing, too.’”

It wasn’t just the Yankees who were missing out; the Athletics made Harvey Dorfman the game’s first mental-performance coach in 1984, but other clubs were not quick to follow suit.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Indians hired Charlie Maher as their director of psychological services in 1995, but their farm director at the time, Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro, did not recall many clubs then – if any – using the same type of systematic, organization-wide approach that a good number of clubs employ now.

In 2005, Cashman – aware of the Indians’ success on the mental side – contacted Shapiro, who by then was the team’s GM. Shapiro put Cashman in touch with Maher, who recommended five names to the Yankees. One was Bohling, who then was working for the Jacksonville Jaguars and at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fl.

Cashman said he received special insight into Bohling from Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, who was the father of Tim Coughlin, Cashman’s roommate when he was Yankees assistant GM.

The Yankees had found their man.

Bohling, now the team’s director of mental conditioning, heads a department that recently expanded to five. The mental conditioning staff covers the majors, minors and draft; Bohling, who also consults for the Dallas Cowboys, said he spends about 85 percent of his time with the major-league club.

Oppenheimer, the team’s scouting director, values the interviews of draft prospects more than many clubs do, Bohling said.

The Yankees at first interviewed only a handful of players. Chris Passarella, the team’s associate director of mental conditioning, now speaks with more than 100 a year, Bohling said. Bohling interviews about 25, and the newly hired coordinator of mental conditioning, Lauren Abarca, also will talk with promising high schoolers and collegians.

The Yankees try to determine who each prospect is as a person and as a player, Bohling said. What kind of teammate he is. What kind of leader. How professional he is. How mature. How he might handle adversity, New York, the pressure of playing for the Yankees.

About a month before the ’13 draft, Bohling flew cross-country to interview Judge. The two spoke for about an hour at a restaurant near the Fresno State campus, Bohling said.

“I definitely walked away with a good feeling about him, as a person No. 1, but also the makeup of him as a player, too,” Bohling said. “I asked him a lot of questions baseball-related, non-baseball related. He checked off a lot of the boxes for me to give an approval to Damon. He was the right kind of kid. Right kind of mindset. Background was really good.”

Bohling, though, made a point of saying that the Yankees’ scouts also are a “vital piece” in helping determine a player’s makeup.

Former major-league catcher Troy Afenir, the area scout assigned to Judge, said he observed the player closely and also relayed a positive impression.

“He just had the character you look for in a young man. Maturity. Responsibility. He really took charge of his what he needed to do each day.

“You watch them when they fail as much as when they succeed. He handled everything with the utmost responsibility and respect for the game.”

Listen to Judge’s interviews now, and he almost always deflects questions about himself, citing the contributions of teammates.

Rarely do you heard the word, “I” – a lesson that was driven home at Fresno State.

“At our place, any time you say, ‘Me-mine-myself,’ it costs you a buck in the fine box,” Batesole said.

Brains and brawn, lots of it

Of course, Judge is not defined solely by his impressive makeup, just as he is not defined solely by his massive physique.

He possesses extraordinary athleticism and aptitude, too.

Balesole has a favorite story that he tells about Judge, one that convinced him that his star pupil would not simply be a major leaguer, but one who played in the majors for at least 10 years.

Every year around Thanksgiving, the Fresno State coach organizes a 5-on-5, touch-football league for his players after Thanksgiving, giving them a break from their standard conditioning.

The football field extends from right field to center, Batesole said. The players get into it, coming up with team names, wearing team shirts, keeping stats, the works.

Batesole, watching Judge maneuver around the field as a freshman, could not believe his eyes.

“These guys – and these are Division I athletes he’s playing with – could not touch him,” Batesole said.

“When I saw that the first time, it was like Barry Sanders quickness and agility. You’re going to tell me I’m crazy. But they could not touch him. And I’m going, ‘This is a freak here now. This is different.’”

How different?

Batesole recalled that Judge also was a pitcher in high school and thought about pitching at Fresno.

“It’s lucky I’m the hitting coach as well as the head coach,” Batesole said, chuckling. “If I was the pitching coach as a head coach, he’d probably be pitching in the big leagues right now.”

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The 6-foot-7 Judge, 6-8 Dellin Betances and 6-4 Aroldis Chapman would be quite a sight in the Yankees’ bullpen, but it’s opposing pitchers, not opposing hitters, who ended up worrying about Judge.

Batesole said that Judge, despite his calm demeanor, possesses a “mean streak” that will enable to him to fight through slumps.

Judge also displays rare aptitude, similar to what Batesole saw in one of his former players at his previous stop, Cal-State Northridge – former major-league infielder Adam Kennedy.

“Any time those two guys ever had a problem offensively, I could fix them in a half-bucket,” Batesole said, meaning a half bucket of baseballs that he would throw to them during batting practice. “It doesn’t take three days to work a kink out.

“(Judge) has such a good feel mechanically, he’s not going to be one of those guys who is always worried about his mechanics. He’s going to be on to working the situation, working the pitcher, working the count.”

 

For the Yankees, every last detail mattered, considering that Judge was such a physical outlier. They might have passed on him, even with the extra picks in the first round, if they had not considered him the whole package.

Afenir, Bohling, national crosschecker Brian Barber and special assignment scout Jim Hendry – the Cubs’ former GM – all contributed to the evaluation of Judge.

Oppenheimer noted that the Yankees’ people often saw Judge perform well, making it easier to envision him as a successful major leaguer.

So at pick No. 32, with Judge still available, the Yankees jumped.

“Our scouts who saw him really felt that this is the kind of guy who – once he puts everything together with the makeup, the performance that we saw, the athlete – had a chance to be an impact guy,” Oppenheimer said. “We needed to take a shot on a guy who could bring impact to the Yankees.”

So far, so good, wouldn’t you say?

Blake Griffin body. Barry Sanders agility. Derek Jeter makeup.

And Aaron Judge power.

 

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