TAMPA, Fla. — For the first time, Aaron Judge admitted that the left shoulder he had arthroscopic surgery on in November started bothering him around the All-Star break last season — right about the time the New York Yankees outfielder went into an extended slump.
“I felt it midway through the season last year,” Judge reluctantly said Wednesday after a long pause, “but it came down to, ‘Can you play?’ And I could play. … If I was able to play, I was going to go out there and be ready for my team.”
The American League Rookie of the Year indicated surgery during the season had been a possibility, but believed it would be better to wait. He said he did not receive any cortisone shot last year on the shoulder.
“I felt it would be best to do it on the offseason because we were fighting for first place in the division and fighting for that playoff spot, and I wanted to be out there for the team,” he said. “I was able to play. I felt like in the offseason it would give us a couple months to rehab and that was the best time.”
Judge suffered a slump after the All-Star break when he hit .179 with seven home runs over a 44-game stretch through the end of August. He finished with his best month in September, however, hitting .311/.463/.889 with 15 home runs.
“I don’t like making excuses,” Judge said. “My shoulder, my knee, any injury. Like I said, I was able to go out there and play, so it falls on me, not the shoulder or some nagging injury.”
For now, the Yankees plan on taking it slow with Judge, although he says the shoulder feels good and he even took some batting practice in the cages on Wednesday.
“I feel like we’re right on the schedule progression we set up after the surgery,” he said. “With that, the games that matter are in April. So if I miss a couple games, which I probably will, early in the spring, I’d rather miss those games than miss games starting at the end of March or early April. So we’re on the right track and everything is working out the way it’s supposed to.”
The surgery cleaned out some cartilage and while the shoulder is at full strength, new manager Aaron Boone cautioned it’s best to play it safe when spring games begin Feb. 23. “I don’t need him getting three at-bats on February whatever,” Boone said. “We’ll just be smart in how we go about it. There’s time for him to get those at-bats before we break camp.”
Now all the MVP runner-up has to do is follow his historic rookie season with more of the same. He hit a rookie-record 52 home runs in 2017, drove in 114 runs, led the AL in runs scored and walks, and captivated fans with his enormous moon shoots.
“When he controls the strike zone, he’s as deadly as anyone in the game,” Boone said.
Judge did a good job of that last season, as evidenced by his 127 walks, although he struck out 208 times. His chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone was 22nd-best out of 144 qualified hitters. While he had a season strikeout rate of over 30 percent, his lowest rate of any month came in September, when he also had his highest walk rate.
Watching from afar in the ESPN broadcast booth, Boone was impressed with Judge’s season.
“In ’16, when he came up, he had some success but struggled quite a bit,” Boone said. “What I saw was a young player with the courage and the willingness to go make some adjustments in his approach and his swing and the mechanics … and those adjustments showed up last year in Day 1 of spring training.
“… I think it shows his aptitude and that drive. It’s not easy for a young player to make those adjustments.”
Boone and the coaching staff also have to address the outfield situation. Newly acquired Giancarlo Stanton has played all but one inning of his major league career in right field. Both he and Judge ranked well via defensive metrics, with Stanton fourth among right fielders with plus-10 defensive runs saved and Judge fifth at plus-9. Boone said the initial plan is to give both of them some reps in left field during practice, but wouldn’t commit to any outfield/DH rotation just yet.
“I’ve had conversations with both of them,” Boone said, “and whatever situation we work out in the end, I think we’ll have buy-in from two great players.”