Murti: How 'here we go again' has completely changed meaning for Aaron Judge

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E

Aaron Judge vividly remembers what they were saying after his first spring training at-bat in 2017: and it wasn’t fans chanting “M-V-P!”

This was before his breakout Rookie of The Year campaign. Sure, Judge was a top prospect and debuted with a splash the previous August, hitting a home run in his first Major League at-bat. But in February 2017, he was just another player with a high uniform number trying to make the team, after batting .179 with four home runs and a whopping 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats the year before.

His first at-bat of spring was a chance at a fresh start…and then Judge waved at a breaking ball in the dirt for strike three.

“I struck out, started walking back towards the dugout, I heard three old guys sitting above our dugout say, ‘Here we go again, same stuff we saw last year,’” Judge recalled during a recent conversation at Yankee Stadium.

It’s been more than five years since that day in Tampa, and Judge is now polishing off the one of the greatest seasons in Yankees – nay, baseball – history. Two home runs Sunday in Milwaukee gave him 59 for the season, now within two of Roger Maris’ Yankees and American League record set in 1961.

With a Major League leading 127 RBI and a .316 batting average that’s tied for second in the AL, Judge also has a chance to become the first Yankee to win the Triple Crown since Mickey Mantle in 1956.

But what he heard walking back to the dugout after that first strikeout of the spring is still pretty clear in his mind.

“You don’t forget things like that,” Judge said.

It wasn’t the strong first impression he was trying to make.

“I was fighting for a job,” Judge said. “I’m just a minor league guy that got called up and got done hitting .179. I’m like, ‘Who am I?’ I can’t sit here and work a spring training and get ready for the season. I’ve gotta be ready to go and impress the front office and the coaching staff that I can come up here and play.”

It’s funny how his batting average from his cup of coffee in 2016 still hangs in Judge’s head, even with all he’s accomplished since. In a sport built around failure, that failure keeps pushing the 30-year-old soon-to-be-free agent.

“I was kinda pissed at myself. My first at-bat I strike out, I’m like, ‘Oh this isn’t good.’ And then I hear the three guys above the dugout say, ‘Here we go again.’  So that was just kind of a wakeup call for me to go out there and be like, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta go out there and earn it, you’ve gotta go out there and be ready, don’t take anything for granted,’” he said.

Judge remembers putting himself in a hole by looking at strike one, a fastball down the middle that set up the rest of the at-bat.

“I wasn’t ready to hit,” Judge said then, shaking his head and explaining how he thought taking the first pitch of the first at-bat of the first exhibition game was a good idea.

His second at-bat, Judge was definitely ready to hit. This time, he swung at the first pitch down the middle and slammed it off the top of the Steinbrenner Field scoreboard in left-center. Not many balls in that park have been hit harder or farther. He had, as they said in the movie Bull Durham, announced his presence with authority.

By that summer, Judge was a rock star. He smashed 52 home runs (a rookie record broken in 2019 by Pete Alonso of the Mets), was runner-up for American League MVP, and helped the Yankees get within one game of the World Series. Judge has since become the face of the Yankees, maybe the most recognizable star in the sport, and with his home run prowess fully established, his are the must-see at-bats every game.

Even more remarkable, though, is how he’s become a more complete hitter than ever before.

After batting practice one day last month, Judge and I talked about his approach and how that long ago day in Tampa, what happened from the first at-bat to the second, helped him evolve as a hitter.

The simple lesson of that day, be ready to hit, is firmly planted in Judge’s mind. He credits what has become a finely tuned routine for putting him in the right place both physically and mentally. These days he gets only one or two pitches a night to actually do damage, and that’s the price you pay for having a Ruthian season atop Not Murderers Row. But the routine is what gets Judge into the right place at 7:05 every night.

“It starts in batting practice,” Judge explained. “It starts in my cage work, preparing the right way knowing that I got all my drills done, I got all the swings I needed to, I got all the feels I needed to so that I can go out there (at game time).

“For me it’s my routine. I have to check all the boxes, and once I check all the boxes, now when I step on the field it’s time to go have fun and I’m prepared, you know? Ready to go. When you have fun, that’s when you can play loose and you can kind of be on the attack. But when you’re thinking about ‘I didn’t get enough swings in’ or ‘I really didn’t stretch out that well, maybe I’m going to be a little tight,’ then all of a sudden (Judge snaps his fingers) it’s strike one.”

And that’s how it snowballs, he said.

“(Now) you’re like ‘Aw, I should have hit that one!’ Before you know it you’re thinking about something else, (snaps his fingers again) you’re down 0-2. Then you’re walking back to the dugout like, ‘Man, what did I just do there?’ And then it snowballs into the next at-bat,” Judge explained. “So for me it’s all about the preparation. It’s why I’m getting here at 2:00, all the stuff I’m doing throughout the whole day, just to get ready for that one pitch.”

Sometimes a less-is-more approach works too, with strategically planned off-days earlier in the season. Manager Aaron Boone has described Judge as knowing his body better as he’s gotten older. Once seen as injury prone, Judge has now played over 140 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career.

And the Yankees and their fans have gotten their money’s worth nearly every night from Judge, especially in the second half of the season. In 53 games since the All-Star Break, he’s batting .374 with a .508 on-base percentage and 26 home runs. That includes 15 games in September in which Judge is batting .491 with a .586 on-base percentage and eight homers.

So what does Judge hear from fans when he heads back to the dugout these days?

“Depends on the result,” Judge says with a laugh. “If I’m striking out I kind of hear the same thing, but if it’s a different result it’s a little better thing.”

Next time the guys behind the dugout say, “Here we go again,” they will be talking about home run number 60 – and beyond – in a season unlike any other in our lifetime.

Follow Sweeny Murti on Twitter: @YankeesWFAN

Listen live to WFAN via:
Audacy App  |  Online Stream  |  Smart Speaker

Follow WFAN on Social Media:
Twitter  |  Facebook  |  Instagram  |  YouTube  |  Twitch