It was two years ago on a lazy March spring training day in Sarasota, Florida, and Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, was hyping a New York Yankees prospect named Aaron Judge to a reporter.
Then just 23 years old, Judge was beginning his second season in the organization, having hit 17 homers in Class A ball his first year. He stood out because he was 6-foot-7 and nearly 300 pounds, making him look like a pass-rushing defensive end in right field. At the plate, he had power that reminded Jackson of a bygone era.
“He’s got power like Stargell, McCovey,” Jackson said. “Opposite-field power, which is the best power you can have. That allows you to wait on the ball. He has power like a guy from the ’60s and ’70s.”
Now Judge has harnessed that power to surpass a feat from the ’80s, when Oakland’s Mark McGwire slammed 49 home runs during his first season, with the Yankees outfielder’s record-tying homer coming in the third inning Monday against the Kansas City Royals. The one that made him the first rookie with 50 homers was a solo shot in the seventh.
From Babe Ruth to Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds — and now including McGwire — no player has hit more than Judge in his rookie season.
Judge may not have a career that matches any of the players mentioned above, but no power hitter has ever started better. You can nitpick about alleged juiced baseballs this year or the fact that the 25-year-old Judge debuted at a much older age than many others — but that is your issue, not Judge’s.
Judge may win American League MVP honors as a rookie, despite the fact that he couldn’t hit anything for an extended stretch after the All-Star break. In this moment, Judge deserves respect because his accomplishment is about turning the power that Jackson spoke about so glowingly more than two years ago into actual homers.
There was a time not long after Jackson’s comments when expectations for Judge were lowered. Actually, it was only a year ago.
Judge had struck out in 42 of his 84 at-bats in 2016. Even after a strong spring training in 2017, the Yankees had such lingering doubts about Judge that he almost lost the right-field job to Aaron Hicks. Instead, he won it and put up the greatest rookie power season in history.
One day, someone may watch a young prospect and say that he has power like Aaron Judge’s. But we have never seen anything like this before.