Eric Karros settled in behind the cage as the Yankees took batting practice before their series opener in Dodger Stadium last month. During his 14 years as a major leaguer, plus two decades since as a television analyst, he had made it a point to arrive early on the field to watch only three men hit: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Giancarlo Stanton.
Now, he was adding a fourth player to his power list: Aaron Judge.
But the show Karros expected never materialized. Instead, Judge tapped the ball around the field working on his “barrel accuracy.” While Bonds, McGwire and Stanton entertained thousands with their one-dimensional, long-distance focus during batting practice, Judge often uses his time to work on the finer points — including his short game and, before grabbing a bat, his outfield defense.
“I never wanted to be just an offensive player that can only hit, and a liability on defense,” Judge said during a clubhouse conversation the next day. “Because I know everybody else on the field is working their butt off, especially that guy on the mound. He’s trying to go out there and make pitches and get outs.”
He added: “I can help him out by saving a run or stopping a runner from advancing on defense. And it’s going to help us win a ballgame.”
As the Yankees get set to start the second half of their season as visitors of the Colorado Rockies on Friday, Judge is working his way back from the injured list, with no timetable for his return. One of the biggest questions, for Judge and for the Yankees, is how much a player who deeply values his own versatility will be able to contribute with anything beyond his bat.
It is an odd question to ask about a player who hit 62 home runs last season and nearly won the American League’s triple crown. But since Judge’s debut in 2016, he has earned a reputation as a surprisingly good outfielder and athlete. His athleticism was perhaps underplayed last year as he filled in capably in center field during his record-setting run, moving over from his usual spot in right, and was second on the Yankees with 16 stolen bases.
With his first A.L. Most Valuable Player Award secured, thanks to all those home runs, Judge entered 2023 with a nine-year, $360 million contract, the title of Yankee captain, and a very clear determination to step up his game defensively. Until a freakish crash into a wall at Dodger Stadium resulted in a torn ligament in his right big toe, he had elevated his game to the point that his nightly highlight reels were nearly as likely to feature a great catch as they were to show a tape-measure blast.
It had seemed as if his first Gold Glove was well on its way.
Five days before that devastating play in Los Angeles, in which he bursted through the outfield wall to rob J.D. Martinez of an extra-base hit, he had used his 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame to go high over the eight-foot wall in Seattle to steal a home run from Teoscar Hernández of the Mariners.
“Two catches that you’ll see on Aaron Judge highlight reels 50 years from now,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “All in the same week. We’ll be watching those for a long time.”
The wall-busting catch in Los Angeles, however, was an unfortunate instance of Judge’s determination and fearlessness combining with the rest of the baseball world’s trepidation whenever he leaves his feet. After missing time with injuries earlier in his career, Judge has instilled in some a fear that his massive body could break down at any time.
“He’s always been a good defender. He’s robbed me of a few hits out in right field,” Martinez, the former Boston slugger, said the day before Judge’s injury. “He moves well, but he makes me nervous sometimes when he leaves his feet, just finding a way to land right. He’s a big guy, you know.”
While he has told reporters that he would not consider surgery on his toe during the season, Judge acknowledged that he may need to have it fixed in the off-season. And with the pain lingering even as he ramps up his baseball activities, he could be limited to designated hitter for the foreseeable future. That would give the Yankees back one of the game’s most dangerous bats, but it would create a logjam at a position already manned by Stanton and others.
It would also result in a far less capable defense than the team would have with Judge, especially considering that those two sensational catches did not even feature his best asset: a strong throwing arm that ranks in the 89th percentile of major leaguers, according to Baseball Savant.
From 2016 through the day he landed on the I.L., Judge was second in the majors with 58 defensive runs saved in right field despite being only 11th in innings played, according to Sports Info Solutions. Only Mookie Betts, a six-time Gold Glover, had more.
Nineteen of Judge’s runs saved were based on his arm, a total that ranks first among right fielders. In that metric, Sports Info Solutions awards credit to fielders for throw-outs and for runners holding on balls the player fielded.
“It’s just a lot of little stuff that goes unnoticed because he’s so rock solid at keeping the ball in front of him and then throwing the ball to the right base and making a lot of accurate throws,” Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ All-Star right-handed pitcher, said of Judge. “And he makes outstanding plays with the best of them. He’s just such an above-average, solid outfielder, which is the most impressive part.”
Additionally, Judge has mastered the art of playing in Yankee Stadium, a park known as a launching pad for home runs to right.
“You can ask the question whether he has an advantage or not playing right field in Yankee Stadium because if a ball is hit over his head, it is probably going out of the park,” said Mark Simon, a research and analysis specialist in the area of defense for Sports Info Solutions. “So he can play different there than he would in other parks.”
Judge is aware of this and has absolutely played it to his advantage.
“I feel like there are certain situations, especially at home and in right field, where if I can stop a runner from getting to second base, keep him at first, that allows our pitcher to maybe get a ground ball, get a double play, and then we’re out of it instead of a runner being on second base,” Judge said.
There was no Yankee Stadium factor for the Martinez liner. It did not go out of the park, but Judge did, leaping and then making the catch. The force of the impact sheared the metal gate latch off the wall, according to Dominick Guerrero, a groundskeeper at Dodger Stadium.
Martinez was left shaking his head, just like Hernández, who was still smarting a week after Judge’s home run robbery.
“For the next time, I have to hit it harder and farther,” Hernández declared, smiling and still chuckling over a Twitter exchange with Judge:
“He plays the game the right way,” Hernández said. “He is the guy everybody thinks he is. He wasn’t the M.V.P. for nothing last year.”
No one knows if that version of Judge will return this season. His presence in the lineup would be an enormous upgrade for the Yankees, even if his contributions are limited to what he can do with his oversize maple bats. But for Judge, not being able to make highlight-reel plays on defense would take away one of the best compliments he says a player can get.
“For me, just getting a high-five from your pitcher,” he said of what he takes away from a great play. “When you come back into the dugout, something like that is always the best. There’s someone who appreciates you laying out for a ball in the gap, robbing a home run or throwing a guy out. Just getting a little gesture from a pitcher because I know they’re locked in on the game.”
He added: “To see them taking the time to thank you for that and get locked back in, that’s what it’s all about.”
The Yankees, who could use every aspect of Judge’s game in their quest for a 31st consecutive winning season and a seventh straight postseason trip, will be crossing their fingers that he is back to earning those high-fives soon.