Aaron Judge wanted to apologize after that game. He’s not your traditional lead-off hitter, so when Tigers starter Beau Brieske threw him a fastball to start last week’s game, the slugger simply hammered it for a home run.
“Just saw what I liked. I really wasn’t gonna swing, but then saw something I liked,” Judge said of the fastball he crushed. “I felt bad for [Josh Donaldson] behind me. … usually when DJ [LeMahieu] is leading off he gives me about seven or eight pitches that kind of warm me up and let me see the pitcher, but I only gave JD one pitch to see what he’s got.
“Luckily I was able to get a run in.”
Judge has started six games leading off in his career and five times this season, including both Saturday and Sunday. While he apologized for not being the traditional lead-off hitter, who works a lot of pitches and gets on base, Judge does fit the mold for the way the spot is being used more and more.
“It’s not as important to work the count more based on how good the pitcher’s stuff has gotten… also most starting pitchers aren’t going three or four times through the order so the pitch count thing isn’t as important,” one MLB rival coach said. “The first pitch of the game is probably one of the only times a fastball is the primary pitch thrown.”
That and the fact that there is so much video on pitchers that hitters can study before the game is reshaping the thinking of who is leading off. Yankees manager Aaron Boone cited the Dodgers using Mookie Betts and the Blue Jays using George Springer in that role.
“I mean, I like him wherever he’s going to hit,” Boone said of Judge. “We’ve only done it a few times now, right? [Sunday], I originally didn’t have him leading off, but once we had to move the lineup around a little bit, for me I like to create as much balance as I can. But, certainly, like him getting up there as many times as possible.”
What’s not to like? Judge, who is a pending free agent at the end of this season, is not only on pace for a career year, he’s on a historic pace. With 24 home runs, he leads the majors. He’s slashing .318/.391/.686 with a 1.077 OPS in 58 games this season.
Judge has three career leadoff home runs now, all this season. In his five starts atop the lineup, Judge is hitting .368/.391/.842 with a 1.233 OPS.
But with that power, it’s hard for Boone to ignore hundreds of years of baseball and not be tempted to try and get someone on base ahead of Judge, so he can help drive in more runs. Of his major-league-leading 24 home runs this season, Judge has 18 that are solo shots and the Yankees have scored just 33 runs on his homers.
So, Boone has used six different lead-off hitters this season. LeMahieu is their most frequent lead-off hitter, hitting atop the lineup 24 times.
“I don’t mind leading off,” Judge said. “It doesn’t really matter if I’m leading off or hitting second. You gotta keep your approach the same.”
The first 60 games of this season have been something of an emergence for Judge, breaking through some of the roles he’d been in for the last few years. Sunday, Judge made his 25th start in center field, closing in on the 35 starts he has made at right field, where he spent most of his career.
Judge played center as an amateur and likes being in the center of the defense.
“I can move guys around a little bit more because I’m right there in the middle so I can see different things. What guys swings are, where the pitches are, because in right and left, you are kind of just reacting. You can’t really see it. … . I just enjoy it,” Judge said earlier this month.
The versatility in the field and in the batting order is something that the Yankees are embracing more and more. It is also going to be another thing Judge can sell on the free agent market this winter — if the Yankees let him get there.