The rookie rises: Aaron Judge meets the hype with Home Run Derby power show

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 11, 2017

MIAMI -- He is who we thought he was.

Aaron Judge arrived in Miami for the All-Star Game festivities surrounded by daunting expectations stemming from his colossal first half with the New York Yankees. Giancarlo Stanton has fielded so many Judge-related questions here, he has run out of things to say. A baseball card signed by Judge just sold on eBay for more than $14,000. Prognosticators all expected Judge to make a deep run in the Home Run Derby, even though his only previous experience in the event came at Fresno State, when he captured the 2012 College World Series derby in Omaha.

When the time arrived for Judge's big league Derby debut, things got serious in a hurry. Miami's Justin Bour, a hometown favorite, cranked 22 homers in the first round, and Judge was faced with the proposition of posting a big, fat early number or calling it a night.

He responded by doing what phenoms do: He cinched up his belt, stepped in the box and put on a show.

Judge stayed alive with 23 first-round bombs to eclipse Bour, eliminated Los Angeles Dodgers rookie star Cody Bellinger in the second round and cruised past Minnesota Twins third baseman Miguel Sano in the finale for the title. The victory earned him a Gatorade dousing from his American League teammates and an emotional embrace with his friend and sidekick, Yankees batting practice pitcher Danilo Valiente.

It would be tempting to call the performance incredible, except that it's in line with everything else Judge has achieved this season.

"I've batted with him in the second group during BP," said Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, "so nothing he was doing out there tonight surprised me. Maybe some other people that haven't seen him take BP were a little bit surprised. But that's what I see all the time."

Judge keeps adding lines to a stunning rookie résumé. He joined Mark McGwire of the 1992 Oakland Athletics and Ken Griffey Jr. of the 1994 Seattle Mariners as the third player to be leading the majors in homers at the All-Star break and win a Derby. With his victory Monday, Judge joined Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano to give the Yankees an MLB-high four Derby champions.

It was a big night all around for the Yankees: Sanchez, Judge's wingman, took Stanton out in the first round in a 17-16 head-to-head thriller that eliminated what appeared to be the biggest obstacle in Judge's path.

The overall numbers were eye-popping. Judge's 47 home runs fell well short of Stanton's record 61 last year in San Diego. But he drove the longest ball of the competition a whopping 513 feet, and StatCast measured the overall distance of his homers at 3.9 miles.

"Aaron Judge is amazing," Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozunasaid. "That kid is freaking unbelievable. He's huge. I've never seen a guy hit like that, except for Stanton. Nobody can beat him. He jammed himself and hit it in the upper deck in center field. That's unbelievable."

Judge needed all the power and composure at his disposal to survive. Bour, who has emerged as a middle-of-the-order force this year in Miami, cranked seven homers in seven swings at one point and sent the crowd of 37,027 into a frenzy.

One minute, Bour was exhorting the fans and being feted to doughnuts and water during a break by his buddy and Marlins teammate, Stanton. Then Judge arrived and cleared the fence 23 times to tamp down the enthusiasm at Marlins Park.

"I felt sorry for Justin, man," said former big leaguer Clay Bellinger, who threw to his son, Cody, in the Derby. "He had the home crowd. He was hitting bomb after bomb after bomb. He hit 20-something and still lost. It's a shame.

"With the balls these guys hit, it's not even fair. [Judge] mis-hits balls 450 feet. That's what happens when you're 6-[foot]-7, 280 and you've got all that mass behind you. It makes it easier, that's for sure. He's doing something right."

Most impressive is Judge's ability to compartmentalize and navigate each challenge that comes his way. He leads the majors in homers (30), runs (75), on-base percentage (.449) and slugging (.697) as a rookie, and each time opponents think they might have located a hole to exploit, he finds a way to counteract their efforts.

Now Judge is the king of the MLB Home Run Derby. That's not bad for a kid who batted .179 in 27 games with the Yankees last season and wasn't assured a spot on the Opening Day roster upon arrival at spring training in Tampa.

"It was a blast," Judge said at the end of Monday's festivities. "I enjoyed every minute of it -- watching the other guys swing, coming here early and talking to the media. Everything about today was fantastic."

Based on the resourcefulness he has shown thus far in his career, it won't surprise anyone if Judge has another bit of magic in store for Tuesday night, when he will start in right field for the American League and bat third in his All-Star Game debut.

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