John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
So now we know Mike Trout, baseball's first $400 million man, almost certainly won't ever be bringing his talents to the Bronx, and in a sort-of-related matter, Aaron Judge is currently sporting a rather insane 1.061 slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League, hitting extra-base rockets all over Florida.
How is it related? Well, with Trout agreeing to a 12-year, $430 million contract extension with the Angels, it's only natural to ask: when do the Yankees lock up Judge?
I'd say the sooner the better, before he wins the AL MVP award in 2019 and his price begins to climb toward Trout territory.
He is four seasons away from free agency, so in that sense there is no rush. If Judge continues to be the face of the Yankees, a more quotable version of Derek Jeter, it's hard to imagine Hal Steinbrenner wouldn't pay whatever it takes to keep him in pinstripes.
Still, Hal is all about bottom-line efficiency, and with that in mind it makes sense to sign Judge long-term when he'd be willing to take a discount while he's this far away from free agency.
Say, 10 years, $240 million?
Yes, Judge will be 30 by the time he reaches free agency, so you can make the argument the Yankees can afford to wait and see, but if you've been watching this spring, you know there's reason to believe he's still getting better as a hitter, perhaps ready to win that first MVP award.
The competition will be fierce, with Trout and Mookie Betts practically locks to continue playing at such a high level, but considering that Judge seems to be maturing into a more complete hitter than the rookie who hit 52 home runs in 2017, would you really bet against him?
Not that Grapefruit League stats are the best gauge, obviously, but in Judge's case it's about more than just the numbers, as his new, two-strike, no-stride approach seemingly has made him less prone to chasing pitches and striking out.
And suffice it to say people are noticing.
"It'd be hard not to," one major-league scout said Monday. "With all the hard contact he makes, if he cuts down on his strikeouts it's scary to think about what his numbers might look like."
We know by now that Judge is far from a wild swinger, yet he has still struck out 360 times the last two seasons, despite playing only 112 games last season due to a fractured wrist.
As a rookie his 208 whiffs were the most in the majors, even while he was hitting those 52 long balls and hitting for a .284 batting average.
Now he is determined to make more contact, thus the no-stride approach with two strikes that allows him a longer look before committing to the pitch. And so far the results have been spectacular, as Judge has found he can still hit the ball over the fence with ease, even without a stride.
Three of his six home runs this spring, in fact, have been hit with two strikes, and he is hitting rockets to all fields. In 13 games entering Tuesday, Judge is hitting .333 with 11 hits, all of them for extra bases as he has four doubles and a triple to go with his home runs.
All of which accounts for that insane 1.061 slugging percentage.
Meanwhile, Judge has struck out nine times in 37 plate appearances, so it's not as if he's no longer swinging and missing. But if he gets more comfortable with his new two-strike approach, perhaps he swings-and-misses significantly less.
Could it be that simple?
A second scout who has seen a lot of Judge this spring doesn't think so. In fact, he doesn't think the no-stride approach is as responsible for the big numbers as another fundamental improvement at the plate.
"What he's doing so well," the scout texted last Wednesday, "is staying anchored on his back side. That keeps his head still and allows him to see the ball well while staying behind it.
"If he can do that, he's still going to strike out but seeing the ball as well as he is will lead to fewer chases out of the zone. I expect his strikeout numbers to decline but still be high."
In any case, the bottom line is Judge is getting better as a hitter, in part because he's making adjustments, so it figures that his best seasons are ahead of him as he enters his third full season in the big leagues, turning 27 in April.
Indeed, Judge has shown an ability to improve throughout his pro career. Even in the minors he needed extended time to conquer every level, and everyone remembers how overmatched he looked during his first taste of the big leagues in 2016, hitting .179 while striking out 42 times in 95 plate appearances.
The next spring he said he had spent the offseason studying video of great hitters, including Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, and Josh Donaldson, and noted, "The one big thing I picked up was how they controlled their lower half. That's what I'm working on, controlling my back hip so I'm not lunging."
Voila. Suddenly Judge wasn't chasing as much, on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honors and finished second to Jose Altuve in the MVP voting. And after being derailed by the fractured wrist last season, he is once again hungry to improve, hoping his new two-strike approach will lead to another leap forward.
"You always look for ways to get better," he told me during a conversation in Tampa earlier this spring. "If you're not doing that, you shouldn't be out here."
He's the real deal, all right, a natural-born leader, a much better hitter than Giancarlo Stanton, and the obvious choice to be the next captain of the Yankees in the coming years.
In short, Steinbrenner should want to make sure he keeps Judge in pinstripes his entire career, as the Angels are doing with Trout. But the longer he waits, the more it's going to cost.