TAMPA — By the middle of Aaron Judge’s 2017 season, it was clear the Yankees would have no reason to swoon over the ultra-talented Bryce Harper when he became a free agent in October 2018.
That didn’t stop outside voices from begging Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman to sign Harper for more than $300 million despite having Judge, who made $622,300 in 2018 and isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2022 season.
Now, Harper is strapped into a 13-year deal worth $330 million in Philadelphia and the Harper-to-the-Yankees noise has been muted.
By the time Harper, who turns 27 in October, is done with his first year in Philly and Judge, who’ll be 27 in April, has completed a third full season in The Bronx, there is a chance Judge will have passed Harper.
Of course, Judge has to not only stay on the field he needs to be healthy when playing. In 2017 Judge played in 155 games but with a left shoulder injury that required surgery after the season ended. Last year, he arrived in spring training and was handed a limited work schedule. Then, on July 26, Judge was drilled by a pitch in his right wrist and suffered a chip fracture that kept him out for 45 games.
Now the shoulder and wrist are good and Judge is looking forward to playing a full season devoid of injuries.
“That’s always the goal. Stay away from fastballs high and in and don’t run into too many walls,’’ Judge said Wednesday after he went 0-for-2 with a walk in the Yankees’ 9-5 loss at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
In six spring games, Judge is 6-for-15 (.400) with three homers and six RBIs.
Across the last two seasons Judge and Harper are almost even at the plate. Harper has played in 927 big-league games to Judge’s 294 and obviously has an edge in experience. With 1,039 at-bats in two-plus seasons Judge is almost a year away from the 1,500 at-bat mark used by talent evaluators to get a better idea of what type of hitter a player will be moving forward.
Over the past two seasons, Judge’s .993 OPS in 267 games is higher than Harper’s .940 in 270 games. Judge has Harper beat in batting average (.282 to .279), on-base percentage (.409 to .401) slugging (.584 to .539) and homers (79 to 63). Harper’s 187 RBIs are six more than Judge’s.
Two out of three scouts asked to pick one or the other for their team chose Judge.
“More polished and consistent all-around player,’’ a Judge voter said. “Can beat you with defense, base running and bat. Harper only with bat.’’
This is Judge’s fourth big-league camp, and the landscape has changed.
“The first couple of camps I was just happy to be here and try to learn from future Hall of Famers. Then it was fighting for a job. Now I get to tinker. Matt Holliday showed me that in 2017. He said he was going to focus one game on hitting off-speed pitches. It is different things like that that continue to evolve.’’
Brett Gardner has seen the evolution.
“Early on in the minor leagues he was such a big guy with a big strike zone, and was searching for a swing a little bit searching for answers like all of us,’’ Gardner said.
Judge found it not only with his bat but his head, according to Gardner.
“Mentally, either you got it or you don’t,’’ Gardner said. “He is at or near the top of the list when it comes to that. The game can take you to bad places.’’