Aaron Judge, the anointed future captain of the Yankees since his blistering first half of the 2017 season, is entering 2021 quite literally playing for long-term security in the Bronx.
That spring, in which Judge burst onto the scene to an unheard-of degree, still feels so recent that some of his moonshots may not have landed yet.
Since that brief moment in time, though, Judge has never been quite the same force. His skills? Still unparalleled. At peak performance, he is a top-five player in baseball. But a large portion of intimidation involves relentlessness. Constant availability. Every two innings, there’s the very same face, peering out over thickened eye black to engage in psychological warfare with even the strongest pitcher.
And over the past three years, there have often been days and weeks at a time when Judge’s spot in the lineup has been occupied by someone else. He has never been as relentless a presence again as he was during 2017’s first half, before his shoulder slumped after the All-Star Weekend Home Run Derby.
This is not an inane argument comparing Judge negatively to the rest of the league’s superstars, nor is it an accusatory screed insisting he must eat better, watch his fiber, and try to sleep nine hours a night to firm up his lactic acid output, lest his lats get weakened.
It’s simply an admission that Judge is under immense pressure entering 2021 to play as close to a full season as can be played, and that — even if it’s somewhat unfair — any freak injuries will be further held against him.
The Yankees have all the batted ball data they need to affirm that Judge is among the game’s most valuable hitters. They have all the defensive metrics they could ever care about to prove he’s an above-average gazelle with a power arm in right. They have enough anecdotal evidence of the unquantifiable things, too. The myriad ways his leadership impacts the team. The subtle head nods he gives while sipping cup of water after a home run, indicating there’s more where that came from.
But they do not have a full season of data … at all. The Yankees simply do not have an unmarred full season’s worth of statistics — they can’t even count 2017, a campaign in which his shoulder shredded piece by piece throughout the month of August. And as they eye paying Judge the type of money that’ll take him into the Mookie Betts stratosphere following the 2022 season, they’ll need to see that type of thing.
At least once.
Entering 2021, Judge has been willing to contort his body and address his limitations in ways he might not have acquiesced to if it weren’t so important for his long-term future.
Yoga? No problem. No more nightshades? Well, it worked for Tom Brady, right?
So far, so good on Judge’s willingness to experiment to maintain his physique for as close to 162 games as he can possibly get. But as long as Tropicana Field’s synthetic turf exists, there will always be natural worries about the way his muscles will react.
And until the Yankees have a document to point to where every piece of the pie is colored in, they might not be willing to flex their financial muscles in response to Judge attempting to stretch his physical ones.