At 25 years old, on a young Yankees team that has surprised with its ahead-of-schedule relevance, Judge is a rare combination of rookie and MVP candidate. He may also be baseball’s biggest star. He led the American League in All-Star fan votes, he’ll headline Monday’s Home Run Derby, and a section of Yankee Stadium bleachers has been recommissioned as “Judge’s Chambers,” where devotees dress in robes and wave gavels. His statistics, impressive as they are—30 home runs, the highest slugging percentage and wins above replacement in the Majors—make up only part of his appeal, the main draw being the sheer scale of his presence on the field.
Judge would be large by NBA or NFL standards, but within the context of his chosen sport he is a titan. At six feet seven inches tall and 282 pounds, everything he does is outsized. He stands statue-still at the plate and, when he gets a pitch he likes, sweeps his bat to it, sending it zooming skyward faster and farther than anyone else. If he were a video game creation, Judge’s “power” attribute would be slid all the way up to 99—his uniform number, incidentally.
Judge not only sets this season’s standards, but he also exemplifies its trends. Across baseball, 2017 has been a festival of homers. They are being hit at a higher rate than at any point in history, and the methods for appreciating them have evolved in kind. MLB’s data-compiling program Statcast now measures “launch angle” and “exit velocity,” metrics that look favorably on Judge, who already owns the three of the four hardest-hit home runs since tracking began in 2015. For a sport always trying to court younger fans, the combination of deep shots and Statcast data is highly internet-friendly, and the Yankee outfielder testifies to their star-making potential. Judge goes yard, MLB tweets out a video replete with figures—“the first player to have SIX homers recorded at 115+ mph in a season”—and his jersey sales climb.
However much it yearns for shareable stars, though, baseball retains a temperate streak, so the question that follows Judge is the one that has been asked of every upstart rookie since their accomplishments were shared solely by newspaper and radio: Can it last? So far, the counterstrategies usually deployed on young sluggers—pitch them inside, throw breaking balls out of the strike zone—haven’t quieted him, but his season to this point has the feeling of a sunny first act, with some requisite trouble still to come. His size and the big swing that comes with it, so useful now, may yet need some adjusting as pitchers test for weakness.
A similar uncertainty tails the home-run boom in general, and a minor industry has grown around hypothesizing about its causes and staying power. The story du jour is that, following a fallow period for offense, MLB fiddled with the baseballs to help them fly farther; “Are Juiced Balls the New Steroids?” a recent FiveThirtyEight article asked. A parallel theory holds that players are using the new analytics at their disposal, varying launch angles to loft pitches in the air. Each explanation makes room for an eventual reversion to historic norms. The equipment could return to old standards, and those uppercutting batters might overdo it.