- Aaron Judge provided one of the grandest showcases in Home Run Derby history on Monday night. He is baseball's new face, and the sport's best chance at increasing its popularity.
Baseball has a new face, and it has a gap in its teeth.
Aaron Judge’s mesmerizing performance in the 2017 Home Run Derby will live as one of the standout performances in the competition’s history, the kind that makes devoted followers out of casual fans and believers out of a population increasingly bored by the once-national pastime. On a night designed to celebrate the host team’s home run king—defending champion Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins—Judge’s collection of majestic shots entranced a crowd yearning to see the two compete in the final round. That matchup didn’t happen, but the sold-out crowd was treated to a spectacle that will join Stanton’s display in San Diego last year and Josh Hamilton’s 2008 performance in Yankee Stadium as the greatest showings in recent Derby history. It also secured his place as baseball’s most popular and marketable player.
While his competitors swung mightily to beat the four-minute clock, Judge seemed to barely exert himself while crushing balls over the Marlins’ dinger machine, off the glass windows that encase the stadium and even off the roof (which didn’t count toward his total). By the event’s conclusion, Judge totaled 47 home runs that traveled a combined 3.9 miles. At one point, he hit back-to-back home runs of 507 and 513 feet, distances reserved for unverified (and likely apocryphal) tales of homers hit by Mickey Mantle, Willie Stargell and Babe Ruth.
Baseball pundits are exhausted by discussion of the sport’s decline and its struggles to find a new marketable face in an era when the game is flush with spectacular young talent. It was supposed to be Angels centerfielder Mike Trout, the 25-year-old wunderkind on pace to be the greatest player of our lifetimes, but his bland demeanor and forgettable West Coast employer render his accomplishments (frustratingly) unknown to a large swath of the sports-consuming public. Nationals rightfielder Bryce Harper—a prodigious talent whose on-field attitude is a throwback to the hard-edged stars of decades past—was another candidate, but his inconsistency and gruff exterior haven’t produced a marketing sensation.
Now, baseball has Judge, a titanic 6' 7", 282-pound behemoth whose toothy grin is as endearing as his pulverizing swing. Judge doesn’t so much hit baseballs as he does demolish them. His homers produce a childlike sense of wonder akin to the first time one flushes an industrial-grade vacuum toilet or lights an illegally smuggled firework. It’s not just the casual fan who is amazed either; simply glance at the tweets of fellow big leaguers or heed the words of fellow Derby participant Charlie Blackmon, who told MLB.com’s Adam Berry after the game that his swing is “so quiet and simple that he looks like a contact hitter trapped in an ogre’s body.” Trout remains the game's greatest player, but Judge is emerging as baseball's most entertaining product. When Tampa Bay Rays All-Star pitcher Chris Archer was asked who the current face of baseball is, he offered this assessment to Tyler Kepner of The New York Times:
"First of all, he plays in New York, and second, he’s a presence ... and he’s doing what he’s doing. So at this very particular moment, it’s him. I’d say, in the past, Trout, definitely. Harper, definitely. But right now? Aaron Judge.”
And it’s all coming from a mild-mannered giant who hails from a rural California farming town some 50 miles southeast of Sacramento. The native of Linden, Calif.—population 1,784—rebounded from a dreadful callup in 2016 that produced a .179 average and a 50% strikeout rate into one of the game’s most feared hitters in the sport’s most ruthless media market. Baseball probably needed a Yankee for it to have a new face, and now it has a player who isn’t a one-dimensional power hitter, but a complete and disciplined player competing for a Triple Crown in his rookie season. Sure, he leads all players with 30 home runs, but he’s second in walk percentage, earning free passes in 16.7% of his at-bats.
In the context of Monday night’s Derby, Judge completed two crucial tasks for baseball: He likely assured that viewership will grow for next year’s competition when he tries to defend his title in the hitter-friendly Nationals ballpark, and he probably juiced the ratings for Tuesday’s All-Star Game, which returns to an exhibition event after deciding World Series home-field advantage for the past 14 seasons.
After years of marathon Derbys that dragged well over four hours, Major League Baseball intelligently changed the rules into a timed format that not only condensed the event, but also offered the prospect of buzzer beaters and walk-offs. The format worked perfectly in its first year, when then-Reds third baseman Todd Frazier thrillingly defeated Dodgers rookie Joc Pederson at his home ballpark in 2015. Last year, Stanton broke the competition’s record with 61 dingers in the competition. Unlike years past, when the players and fans were both fatigued by the end of the semifinals, the new format and a healthy crop of young sluggers make it essential viewing for baseball fans and an intriguing option for sports fans bored during everybody else’s off-season. Judge was the star of Monday’s show, but viewers also saw another promising young power hitter in Minnesota’s Miguel Sano, a player who receives no national exposure but routinely cranked long homers into the final round. If Judge and Stanton agree to participate next year and, hopefully, until they no longer want to, viewership should increase.
That may make the Derby even more popular than the All-Star Game itself. The MLB All-Star Game remains the most respected of any of the four major sports, but it will no longer decide home-field advantage, a controversial and flawed concept that was generally unpopular with teams. If fans and casual viewers now think that the All-Star Game is a meaningless exercise, then they’ll miss the chance to see Judge square off against National League starter Max Scherzer, who leads the NL in strikeouts (173), strikeouts per nine innings (12.33) and Wins Above Replacement (4.9). After conquering the Derby on Monday, Judge’s at-bat in the first inning tomorrow night (he’s hitting third for the American League) should be a captivating affair. If the NBA All-Star Game can command respectable viewership ratings for a glorified dunk contest, baseball should be able to reel in viewers with charged, competitive at-bats among the game's best. The tantalizing prospect of a Judge home run only helps that hypothesis.
Should you think the All-Star Game has lost its value, I encourage you to return to one of the most exciting moments in recent baseball history: Pedro Martinez striking out the game’s most feared power hitters in 1999. That game didn’t decide home-field advantage, and it’s hard to fathom a more exhilarating display of dominance than what Pedro showed on his own home field.
Ultimately, it returns to Judge, an affable 25-year-old beloved by coaches and teammates who spends his postgame interviews thanking everybody else (after winning the Derby he saluted the fans first and then Yankees batting practice specialist Danilo Valiente), who possesses the most irresistible quality of any baseball player: power. Just like the Home Run Chase of 1998 salvaged baseball from the fallout accompanying the 1994 work stoppage, Judge looks like the player who can help elevate baseball from its sluggish national popularity. While it’s sad that casual sports fans likely won’t care about Trout’s annual greatness or Harper’s raffish appeal, they might rise for the mammoth home runs of a man in pinstripes.
The Judge now presides over baseball, and we’ll see how many new faces enter his chambers.