John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
It looked so easy for Aaron Judge, when he turned on a Joakim Soria fastball Tuesday night in Oakland and launched it 467 feet, that it seemed almost impossible to believe this was the first time all season he'd pulled a home run to left field.
That was my first thought and, it turned out, a fairly common reaction among baseball people I talked to on Wednesday.
As one long-time scout said, "It had gotten to the point where it was almost bizarre watching him swing like Derek Jeter this year."
That, of course, was a reference to Judge repeatedly hitting to the opposite field in a way that resembled Jeter's famed inside-out swing.
But even the former shortstop hit his share of home runs to left field, occasionally pulling his hands in to get to an inside fastball or simply reacting to an off-speed breaking ball. So for Judge to have gone all season -- even if he did miss two months due to an oblique injury -- without pulling a home run just didn't make sense to trained observers of the sport.
"Something just hasn't looked right with him," a second scout said. "That seemed pretty obvious. It's something that people were talking about.
"To me it had to be that either he was still protecting that oblique somewhat or he had protected it long enough that he got into habits that stayed with him even when he was healthy."
Since returning June 21, two months after injuring his left oblique, Judge had insisted he was 100 percent healthy, but he hadn't looked anything like the guy who hit 52 home runs in 2017.
In fact, going into Tuesday's game he'd hit only seven home runs in 50 games since returning from the injury, and 12 overall. And though he was still hitting the ball hard -- with the highest average exit velocity among all MLB hitters -- Judge was hitting a lot more ground balls than in the past.
All of which made his rocket to left field in Oakland feel like a significant moment, not only for Judge but the Yankees as well. For while the unexpected heroics from the likes of Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, and Cameron Maybin have more than made up for Judge's lack of production, you have to believe they'll need big hits from their 6-foot-7 slugger come the postseason.
First, we need to see if this was more than an isolated at-bat. The fastball from Soria was clocked at 90 mph, well below the speed of the average big-league fastball these days, and it was on the inner half of the plate, though not as far inside as intended. So scouts were cautious in declaring Judge as reborn.
"That's a mistake pitch for a guy with his velocity," one scout said. "He's got to bury that pitch inside or any good hitter should turn on it.
"For Judge, it might have been pure reaction to a cripple pitch. Or it could be a sign that he's feeling good about his swing again, that he's not worried about anything physically, and he's ready to take off. His next bunch of at-bats should tell you a lot, but if I'm the Yankees, I'm pretty excited about that one swing."
Judge, in his Jeter-like interview persona, claimed not to be excited at all -- at least in regard to the pull factor. In fact, he claimed to be unaware, when told by YES' Meredith Marakovits, that it was the first home run he'd hit to left field this season.
"Really?" he said. "Direction doesn't matter. As long as they go to the fence and it adds runs, I'm happy with it. Any of 'em -- left, right, or center. Glad to get one."
Obviously it's hard to believe Judge was unaware, especially as the issue had gained more and more media attention lately. But he likes to downplay such matters, to the point where he practically described himself as a table-setter in the current Yankee offense.
"I felt good for a couple of months now," he said to reporters. "Just need hits to start falling. Just gotta get on base for Urshela and Gary (Sanchez), and all the guys behind me. They make my job simple."
Judge clearly knows better. And while the Yankees do seem to have an offense more equipped now to win in the postseason, especially with a high-average hitter like D.J. Lemahieu as a catalyst, it's hard to imagine them winning against the Astros' elite pitching without Judge's power playing a big part.
After all, this Yankee team doesn't look as if it will have the starting pitching to match up with someone like the Astros, which is why YES analyst David Cone noted the importance of Judge's home run as well as a long one hit by Sanchez, even in a 6-2 loss Tuesday.
"If you're going to get deep in October," Cone said, "those two players are going to have to hit a lot of home runs because that's the name of the game for the Yankees this season. They score a lot of runs, they hit a lot of home runs. That's the way it's going to have to happen.
"Because as we've seen, the pitching is a little thin, especially in the starting rotation, and you're going to have to bang your way through."
It had been a long time since Judge banged one like that. The Yankees have to hope it proves to be more of a turning point than footnote in his season.