The face of baseball, if we are still calling the 2017 Home Run Derby champion and American League Rookie of the Year that in the summer of 2018, has freckles on his nose, a close-cropped haircut and a killer smile — with a mouth that turns up at the corners and eyes that close gently and reassuringly at the end of every answer. The face of baseball sits higher than most, because it belongs to Aaron Judge, who is 6 feet 7 inches of muscled form and warm, gracious, smiling nonanswers.
“Last year, being my first year, it kind of flies by,” Judge, the New York Yankees’ right fielder, said Monday at Nationals Park, hours before the Home Run Derby he chose to skip, and one day before the All-Star Game, for which he will be a starter for the second straight year. “You’re doing so many things. There’s just a lot of things going on. I’m trying to slow it down and just enjoy the moment. I appreciate the group of guys we have in this room.”
It was a year ago at this time, around the 2017 All-Star Game at Miami’s Marlins Park, that Judge was anointed — by the media, a handful of his fellow all-stars and even Commissioner Rob Manfred — as the new face of baseball.
It wasn’t just his gaudy stats at the all-star break, his jaw-dropping power, his towering size, his Home Run Derby pyrotechnics or the fact that he plays for the most storied franchise in the game. It was also the fact that he, unlike others who might otherwise hold or share the title, seemed to accept and even embrace the role. At the very least, he seemed disinclined to run from it.
Accommodating, telegenic and exceedingly polite, Judge rarely turned away interview requests. At an early stage of his career, he already seemed to have mastered the art — trademarked by his pinstriped, face-of-the-game predecessor, Derek Jeter — of answering every question without ever saying anything.
What happened over the rest of 2017 did little to dampen Judge’s stature or celebrity. After a profound slump to start the second half (.179/.346/.344 from mid-July through the end of August) — which almost certainly contributed to his decision to skip this year’s Home Run Derby — he finished the regular season on an unholy tear (.311/.463/.889 in September), helped carry the Yankees within a win of the AL pennant and was runner-up to Houston’s Jose Altuve for the MVP award.
All along the way, he answered every question and said nothing.
“There’s a lot of faces of the game,” Judge said Monday. “You go around this [all-star] team, and each player is basically the face of their franchise, the face of their team. It’s quite an honor, but it’s part of the job.”
But even for Judge, the impulse to say yes to everyone became its own burden, and over the course of the 12 months between all-star games in Miami and Washington, he has learned to say no. He doesn’t do so very often, but a strategic and pleasant no thanks — sometimes at the encouragement of the Yankees’ front office and/or media-relations department — has become an increasingly important part of his arsenal.
“Especially in New York, it’s tough saying no,” he acknowledged, with something approaching introspection. “But I have great people around me to support me and help me out with decisions like that, and help me say no.” Asked if it’s in his nature to say no, he said, “Not really, but if you say it with a smile, it helps.”
Turning down the offer — “pleas” might be a better word — to defend his Home Run Derby title Monday night was perhaps the most important “no thanks” Judge has delivered this year. Asked Monday whether that was a difficult no to deliver — given the sport’s acute desire to have its stars be front and center — he dodged the question with Jeteresque deftness.
“I had fun doing it [in 2017], but it was time for someone else to win it,” he said. “I had my year last year.”
Although Judge’s 2018 numbers are down from where they were at the end of 2017 — when he hit a rookie-record 52 home runs, drove in 114 runs and posted a 1.049 on-base-plus-slugging percentage — he is pace for 43 homers, 102 RBI and a more-than-healthy .937 OPS. He remains one of the most feared hitters on the most power-packed lineup in the game.
“Even when Aaron goes through a few days where he’s not swinging great, the at-bat quality doesn’t change all that much,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “You know that, night in and night out, he’s going to make it really hard on pitchers. And they understand that they have to make their best pitches to retire him. You can sense that. You can sense the stress that he puts on a pitcher.”
He has also been a more consistent presence — a point of focus for him after last year’s highs and lows — going more than two games without a hit just once all season, and slugging .584, .579, .489 and .508 in the season’s first four months. (He does, however, have some of the most acute home-road splits this side of Denver, hitting .355/.478/.735 at Yankee Stadium and .205/.308/.373 elsewhere.)
“I’d rather wait until the season’s over with to maybe talk about judging my year,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is I want to be consistent.”
For someone who seemed to arrive in the big leagues fully formed as a clubhouse presence, if not as a hitter — he famously batted .179 and struck out in half of his at-bats as a 24-year-old, late-season call-up in 2016 — Judge, at 26, still retains a kid’s sense of awe at his good fortune.
On Monday, during the AL all-stars’ team meeting, Manager A.J. Hinch of the Astros highlighted some of the veterans making their first all-star appearance: Oakland’s Jed Lowrie, in his 11th big league season; Boston’s Mitch Moreland, in his ninth; Texas’s Shin-Soo Choo, in his 14th.
“So for me to get my second one in my second year, I still can’t believe it,” Judge said, the face of baseball turning up again at the corners of the mouth. “I keep pinching myself over here. I don’t think it’s real.”
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