Fans see the highlights of Judge repeatedly knocking pitches out of eerily empty ballparks during the pandemic and wonder if he’s back to his 2017 form. What they really should be wondering is how he managed to not put together a streak like this during the first half of that magic rookie season.
A learning curve, then a prolific rookie season for Aaron Judge
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Aaron Judge spoiled New York Yankees fans on Day 1 of his major-league career – and again on Day 2. The 6-foot-7 tower of power homered in each of his first two MLB games following a mid-August call-up in 2016. That turned out to be a tease – a tantalizing one, but nevertheless a tease.
Judge would hit just two more homers over the remainder of the year. He finished the season with a .179 batting average, four homers, and 10 RBIs. His 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats showed he had work to do.
The 2017 season was pure magic, however. With his rookie status still intact, Judge homered 52 times, drove in 114 runs, and batted .284. The league-leading 208 strikeouts were about 50 too many, but Judge also walked 127 times. The AL Rookie of the Year balloting was a rout as Judge earned all 30 first-place votes, and he placed a distant second to Jose Altuve in the MVP race.
Aaron Judge had two distinct 2017 seasons
Something happened to Aaron Judge midway through his prolific 2017 season. After hitting .329 with 30 homers in his first 84 games, Judge went into a funk that began with a 1-for-21 slump in the five games immediately after the All-Star Game. He would hit just .185 with 11 homers and 84 whiffs in a nearly a two-month span before breaking out of it in mid-September.
Judge admitted after the season that he had some shoulder discomfort. One possible culprit could have been the night before the All-Star Game, when he won the home run-hitting contest. The repeated wicked cuts in a short time while trying to jack the ball out of the park may have been too much.
Whatever the cause, his numbers suffered until he belted 11 homers in his final 16 games of the season.
The injury bug would be less gentle in the ensuing two seasons. Playing about two-thirds of the games in each season, Judge hit 27 homers in 2018 and again in 2019.
The oddity of the rookie season
Aaron Judge’s streak of homering in five straight games early in the pandemic-delayed 2020 MLB season pulled him to within three games of the major-league record shared by Dale Long, Ken Griffey Jr., and Don Mattingly entering Monday’s action.
But it also raised a question: With those 30 homers in the first 84 games of 2017, how did Judge manage to not pull off a similar feat? The New York Yankees star homered three games in a row from April 9-12 with one day off in the mix, again from June 10-12, and then once more from July 4-7.
With so many round-trippers in such a short span, especially when scouts for opposing teams still didn’t have much of a book on him, it seems improbable that he couldn’t stretch one of those hot spells out for a game or two longer.