Aaron Judge turning into challenge Yankees will embrace

BOSTON — Think of all the headaches the Yankees have endured in 2021.

Ponder all of the long-term concerns and questions raised by this near-half-season, combined with last year’s COVID-shortened campaign.

Now go ahead and contemplate how much worse all that would be if Aaron Judge’s 2021 didn’t look so darn different, in a most positive way, from his three prior years.

The only complication Judge has introduced into this franchise’s morass of angst is that his good health and strong performance this season, if not as strong as his American League Rookie of the Year platform in 2017, muddies the calculation of how large a contract he deserves with free agency looming after next season.

That’s why I think it’s too early to start ballparking that contract. Let Judge finish this season and then we can start to really drill down on that.

Yet at this juncture, when the Yankees must worry about so many plans going wrong, they can be thankful and satisfied that, so far, Judge looks so right — and then some, really. After all, it’s not as if the Yankees envisioned Judge being an important part of their center field mix.

Aaron Judge
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

The Yankees’ 5-3 loss to the Red Sox on Friday night at Fenway Park marked Judge’s center field debut at this challenging venue and his sixth start of the season at the position. He handled four flyballs without incident.

“He’s so fundamentally sound out there,” manager Aaron Boone said of Judge after Friday’s game. “I thought he made the plays seem relatively seamless out in center field tonight.”

Judge stepped up on the defensive side after the Yankees traded Mike Tauchman to the Giants (for whom he has struggled, as he did with the Yankees), Aaron Hicks suffered a season-ending left wrist injury and Brett Gardner really scuffled offensively. While Gardner, still an asset on defense, gets most of the starts in center, Judge has given him some much-needed breathers and has not hurt the Yankees. Through Friday’s play, Judge graded out at zero defensive runs saved and zero outs above average, meaning that, if he hasn’t shined at the position he played more regularly in college, he hasn’t hurt the Yankees there, either.

And of course his offense helps the Yankees plenty. The .282/.379/.506 he carried to work on Saturday, giving him a 145 OPS+, aligns closer with his production of 2018-2020 (150, 142 and 142 on the OPS+ front) than his tantalizing 2017 (171). Yet his most important measure might be games played: 71 out of 75, with 68 of those starts. That represents a vastly superior ratio to his 2018 (112 regular-season games played of 162), his 2019 (102 of 162) and his 2020 (28 of 60) campaigns. If Judge, nearly at the season’s halfway point, can duplicate everything about his first half, he’ll leave himself and the Yankees in a far better state of mind about his status than we’ve seen in a few years, regardless of how the team fares overall.

Oh, Judge can still be streaky on offense. When he enjoyed a breakout contest against the Royals on Thursday, homering, doubling, singling and walking twice, it ended a .205/.255/.227 funk over 10 games.

“I kind of feel like I’ve been swinging underwater,” Judge said after Thursday’s game, attributing his slump to a stride issue that he corrected. Maybe it just comes with being such a big guy, the challenge of keeping everything aligned.

It was reasonable to wonder whether Judge’s physique has made it challenging, also, to stay on the field. Yet the behemoth, listed at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds in the 2021 Yankees media guide, has mastered that feat to date. As long as that continues, the Yankees will view Judge’s long-term valuation as a challenge they’ll happily embrace.

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