Here's why people believe Aaron Judge can be the next Derek Jeter for the Yankees

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

On Sunday, Aaron Judge went 0 for 4. There is nothing particularly interesting about an 0-for-4 afternoon. Going into Monday, hitters had gone 0 for 4 precisely 1,614 times this season, and almost all of them treat their 0 for 4s like a charley horse, temporarily painful and best shaken off. Judge prefers another tack. Four years back, before he was the major leagues’ most fearsome power hitter, before he inspired the New York Yankees to create a special section in their billion-and-a-half-dollar stadium devoted to him, Judge was a green draft pick who sought advice from a sage veteran and glommed onto one particular piece.

“Enjoy the 0 for 4s,” Judge said. “Not really enjoy them, but learn from them. Don’t make everything a negative. Turn it into a positive. The days you’re 0 for 4, ask why you were 0 for 4. Was it the pitcher making good pitches, and I just need to recoup and get ready for the next day? Or was it something with my swing? Or did I not prepare the right way? Learn from those so you can turn everything into a positive.”

Never was Derek Jeter a particularly vocal leader. No rah-rah cheerleading or back-slapping motivation. He did so by example and by deed, like the time he was rehabbing his bum ankle in Tampa, saw the new first-round pick had arrived, walked up to him and said. “Hey, Aaron, great to meet you. Great to have you on board.” And though this may seem like the normal, reasonable, proper thing to do, baseball culture does not exactly encourage any of them.

New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge leads baseball with 15 home runs. (Getty Images)

So it wasn’t just because Derek Jeter is Derek Jeter that Aaron Judge clings to his words these days. It’s because there was real kinship there in that Judge, too, from the time he was little, had been taught how to treat people well and embodied it. Everything comparing Judge to Jeter seems like New York tabloid hype, clickbait central casting, all of the typical media bloviating that surrounds the latest big thing in pinstripes.

And then Judge talks. And his teammates talk about him. And it starts to make sense.

Here’s something you may know about Judge: His parents, who adopted him the day after he was born, are teachers. Here’s something you may not know about Judge: Were he not 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds of home run-hitting genius, he would’ve joined them.

“I’d be a teacher,” Judge said. “I like seeing that light bulb click. I just like helping people, to be honest. I want to see people do well. And I want to see them get the most out of themselves.”

Judge’s father, Wayne, taught phys ed mostly. His mother, Patty, bounced around from subject to subject and ended up giving lessons in leadership. These are the ones that stuck with Judge. Prepare. Be on time. Execute. Don’t necessarily do the talking. Sometimes the leader can be the one who compels those whose words may be more impactful to utter them.

“Somebody can lead by example or vocally,” Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said. “Jeter was a guy you could watch and do things the right way. Mo [Rivera] was a guy who could speak up. Aaron is a guy with the ability to do both. That’s hard to find, especially in someone that young.”

Sabathia is the second-longest-tenured Yankee as well as their second-oldest, and neither he, the most tenured (Brett Gardner) nor the eldest (Matt Holliday) can stop raving about Judge. Two or three days into his cup of coffee with the team last season, Judge went up to Sabathia and asked why the Yankees didn’t play more music in the clubhouse. Rather than remind Judge a rookie’s place in the clubhouse, Sabathia conferred with outfielder Aaron Hicks and handed over DJ duties to Judge.

“I think it’s the first time I’ve ever been in a clubhouse where no one complains about the music,” Hicks said. “He’s just a good, genuine person. He cares about his teammates. There’s nothing really bad you can say about him. He does it the right way.”

At 25 years old, Judge is threatening to do things no rookie has done before. His 15 home runs lead baseball. No rookie has hit 50. Only Mark McGwire, with 49, cracked the 40-homer threshold. He’s walking more, too, and striking out far less than last year, when he punched out in half of his 84 at-bats and looked lost at the plate.

Judge never panicked. He came to spring training without a job, laid low during spring training and simply acted like he belonged. Some Yankees veterans pay the clubhouse attendant dues for minor leaguers who play in big league games during the spring. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s a nice gesture for millionaires to pay it forward to those making pennies in the minors. Rare is the rookie who chips in to the kitty. Rare, too, of course, is a player like Aaron Judge.

Take the time last month he was at the New York shoe mecca Flight Club doing some shopping and thought not of himself but Holliday.

“I saw Matty was rocking the old-school Air Force Ones,” Judge said. “I saw a couple pairs that I thought he might like to wear during BP. I shot him two pictures, said, ‘Hey, which one you like?’ He said, ‘Surprise me.’ I thought I’d do something nice.”

Which did Judge choose? The Derek Jeter version with pinstripes to match the Yankees’ home jersey, naturally.

New York introduced the Judge’s Chambers in the right field bleachers of Yankee Stadium this week. (Getty Images)

Because it’s barely seven weeks into his breakout, and because baseball is the sort of game that can turn on a player in a blink, anointing Judge anything is pre-emptive. It is fair, Sabathia said, to point out that his makeup is off the charts and he possesses the sort of fortitude to thrive in the New York fishbowl. And it is also fair, Yankees DH Chris Carter said, to call Judge’s prodigious power among the game’s best. Carter led the National League in home runs last season, and when asked if a past teammate had been capable of hitting a ball farther than him, Carter said, with a good amount of confidence, “I don’t think there’s been anyone. Ever.” Then he joined the Yankees and met Aaron Judge. “Every day,” Carter said, “he’s hitting it farther than everyone else.”

If all this sounds too good to be true, well, yeah. Just think about how long the Yankees have been waiting for someone like Judge to show up to the Bronx. Jeter debuted in 1995. They’ve drafted more than 1,000 players since then, signed hundreds more international free agents. The closest to Jeter, in terms of talent, was Robinson Cano, and he left for Seattle. Judge isn’t just the latest heir. He is the likeliest.

Downs eventually will accompany the ups that have sustained Judge thus far. He snapped an 0-for-10 skid Tuesday. There will be more. And when they come, he’ll remember that advice he got from Jeter that heartened him during his struggles last year and continues to today.

“Not too many people get a chance to be on a major league field,” Judge said. “I’ll take an 0 for 4 if I get to step out on that field.”

Like so many other things Aaron Judge is doing, he might even enjoy it.

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