The Leaning Tower of 161st Street

Aaron Judge, hitting one of the home runs that have been dropping jaws all season thus far.

Aaron Judge, hitting one of the home runs that have been dropping jaws all season thus far.

These, I thought to myself, were the kind of home runs I saw Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Dave Kingman and Mike Schmidt hit. Not just home runs but conversation pieces. Not just an unimpeded trip around the bases but anything from a potential flight onto the number 4 el tracks to a broken window behind a ballpark.

Aaron Judge has that kind of power. The kind that drops jaws so low their owners run the risk of dental damage. And you hope that the Yankees’ staggering rookie, a Leaning Tower of 161st Street, has it in him and around him to forge a career more like Mays and Schmidt than like Mantle and Kingman.

You hope he proves an all-around player who can threaten the outcome of a ball game in more ways than three, rather than either an injury-and-indulgence prone haunt or a player soiled by early and frequent coaching malpractise.

Right now the performance papers say Judge is on track not just to finish 2017 as the American League’s Most Valuable Player but a potential Triple Crown winner. He got an accidental bump on the former track when Mike Trout went down for a six-to-eight-week count with a torn thumb ligament incurred while stealing second base in late may. He put himself on the latter track.

Judge looks like a five-tooler who needs a little more seasoning and confidence in right field; he has a fine fielding percentage and range factors right at the league averages, and with three out of five righthanders in the Yankee starting rotation he’s getting about the work you’d expect him to get.

And he isn’t just a bomber. At this writing he leads the American League with 39 walks and only three were on the house. That’s what it does for you when you quit swinging at everything within reach and bring your strikeout rate to a manageable point. Judge has whiffed 72 times through this morning and hit into ten double plays. I think I’d rather have the strikeouts than the DPs, too.

But he has 74 hits and 23 percent of them are home runs. Of his other 52 hits, 11 are doubles and two are triples. And while you don’t think of him as a base stealer, he happens to have a .625 stolen base percentage—which ain’t exactly Rickey Henderson, of course, but he’s not liable to run you out of an inning, either, with good enough speed for a 6’7″ galoot and an ability to take an extra base where available. (He also leads the league in total bases so far.)

So which way does Judge project to go? Set aside the general insanity of projecting a superstar career onto a hotter-than-hell rookie who’s still making his bones for a moment and has already inspired the Yankees to designate a portion of the stands as the Judge’s Chambers. Not to mention the talk already of record-setting exit velocity, distance, and maybe a run at Roger Maris’s 61-homer season.

Even his uniform number is an eye-opener. It wasn’t his choice; the Yankees hung it on him in spring training 2016 (traditionally, high numbers indicate a low chance of making the club), and now he says he wouldn’t switch to other preferred numbers if they became available. But like the hockey immortal who once wore number 99 (Wayne Gretzky), if Judge keeps all this up they may be calling him the Great One, too, in due course.

If.

Will Judge prove to be a Mantle who had tools to burn, power to spare, a body that could have been tried by jury for treason, and a personality wracked by fatalism enough to send him careening toward self destruction? Will he prove a Kingman whose jaw-dropping power turned out to be his only calling card, after being mishandled early and often enough that he became indifferent to almost anything but those intercontinental ballistic home runs?

Or will he prove a Mays who knew how to smile while he laid the opposition to waste while overcoming no few obstacles (including surprising neighbourhood racism in San Francisco and a bitter divorce) not of his own making along the way? Or a Schmidt who overcame his early struggles to become one of his league’s most continuous threats at the plate and with the leather, granted that he doesn’t play a position with half the action or the risk as Schmidt, the arguable greatest third baseman ever to play the game, played?

So far, Judge doesn’t seem prone to Mantle’s dark sides. He’s a mellow Californian and committed Christian who doesn’t impress anyone as being overly impressed by what he’s accomplished so far. (Neither was Maris, for far different reasons.) Talk to him in an interview and you’d think the kid believes he’s one of the least important Yankees, never mind that his teammates seem to love talking him up or that Yankee fans haven’t been this excited about a single player since Derek Jeter’s career wound down.

But he isn’t prone to Kingman’s bewilderment, either, and doesn’t seem to have Kingman’s switch that wondered, too often, too painfully, too mistrusting, what it would take for people to back off, settle him someplace, and let him play without the weight of both excessive expectations and excessive fury over the simplest mistakes. The Yankees should only be smart enough to see that what doesn’t seem broken doesn’t need a repairman.

Right now Judge is as personable as Mays once was and as composed as Schmidt once he matured. Dick Allen once had to advise Schmidt, near the end of Allen’s career and the beginning of Schmidt’s, “Mike, you’ve got to relax. You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”

So far, nobody seems to have to tell Judge to relax, have fun, and remember skipping supper to play ball when he was growing up. The only ones right now who wish he wouldn’t skip supper are American League pitchers. He’s been making meals enough out of them.

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