Scouts Wanting Power Can Tell It To The Judge
Fresno State outfielder Aaron Judge has the type of build that would stand out regardless of the sport he chose to play—and at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, he had plenty of options.
There's no questioning his size, strength or athleticism. The biggest question scouts have regarding Judge this season is how much of his tremendous raw power will translate into games. He makes balls disappear in batting practice, but he hit just four home runs for the Bulldogs as a sophomore.
The questions about what kind of offensive player Judge will be makes him one of the most polarizing prospects for the 2013 draft. But that he's even hitting a baseball at all is refreshing, going against the trend of baseball losing premium athletes to sports like football and basketball.
Always the biggest kid in his class growing up, Judge's first love was basketball.
"My dad really excelled at basketball and when I was growing up, I wanted to be an NBA basketball player," Judge said. "But as I started growing up, I fell more in love with baseball and that became my true love."
Judge is still earning comparisons to basketball players because of his size and physique. In the Cape Cod League this summer, at least one scout compared him to Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin.
"It's pretty awesome because Blake Griffin is actually my favorite basketball player," Judge said. "So it's kind of cool to be compared to such a great athlete, superstar and a great person, too."
But could Judge dunk over a Kia, like Griffin famously did in the 2011 slam dunk contest?
"I don't know about that," Judge said with a chuckle. "Maybe get me a little go-kart or something and I could jump over that."
While baseball was always his favorite sport, there was a time when he considered football, too. As a senior at Linden (Calif.) High, Judge set school records for single-season receiving yards, single-season touchdowns and career touchdowns.
"I got most of my offers from college for football, actually," Judge said. "Not too many schools really talked to me for baseball. I played wide receiver in high school, so most of them talked about bulking me up and putting me at tight end . . . I got letters from different schools every day, basically."
Choosing the right sport to play was the tough decision. Once he picked baseball, choosing his school was easy.
"Adam Virchis, who's the West Coast crosschecker for the White Sox now, was the Northern California area guy when Aaron was in high school," said Pat Waer, who was Fresno State's recruiting coordinator before moving to the same role at his alma matter at Washington State. "He was a three-sport kid and hadn't played a ton of baseball. Virch kind of tipped us on him and he came to our camp and it was a no-brainer after that with the body and the size and the power . . . fantastic family, great kid, great student.
"When a kid who's 6-7 walks onto your campus and can do it physically and has the makeup he has, it was a no-brainer for us. Both his parents were alums and they're both teachers, so it was a great fit."
Even after choosing baseball, Judge's path to becoming one of college baseball's top prospects has been winding. As a three-sport athlete in high school, he did not play in any major showcase events. While he plays center field for the Bulldogs now—and profiles best as a pro in right field—the Athletics drafted Judge as a first baseman in the 31st round of the 2010 draft. But most scouts preferred Judge on the mound in high school. They told him he was too tall with too many holes in his swing to be a hitter.
"That's kind of why I went here," Judge said. "To prove people wrong, that I can play this sport and be a hitter."
From a historical standpoint, those scouts may have a point. According to Baseball- Reference.com, the only hitters 6-foot-7 or taller to collect more than 1,000 big league plate appearances since 1947 are Frank Howard, Tony Clark and Walt Bond. Even if you subtract an inch, it adds just six players to the list: Dave Winfield, Dave Kingman, Adam Dunn, Darryl Strawberry, Richie Sexson and Corey Hart. Most of those players have another thing in common, in addition to their height: big power and big strikeout totals. It becomes easy to see why there's somewhat of a split camp on Judge within the scouting community.
Judge has tremendous raw power, but it hasn't shown up in games yet. Over his first two years at Fresno State, Judge hit six home runs. But he isn't worried about it and he isn't changing his approach at the plate.
"The main problem I had last year was I was trying to go out there and everyone is like, 'Hey, you're 6-7, you had two home runs your freshman year, you should be hitting a home run every at-bat,' " Judge said. "My sophomore year I kind of got that into my head and I kind of got out of my swing. So this year, I'm just trying to go out there and do what I usually do and just hit hard line drives, gap-to-gap. If I get one good, it might go out. But I have enough power that, even if I miss a ball, it might go out. So instead of just trying to hit home runs, I'm trying to stay
inside and do what I do best. The power will come eventually."
There are three factors that ease scouts' minds somewhat when it comes to Judge's power. One is that half of his four home runs in 2012 came against Stanford ace righthander and first-round pick Mark Appel. Then he went out to the Cape Cod League and hit five home runs with a wood bat.
"It was a great gauge for me to go out there and see how I stacked up against all the best hitters in the nation," Judge said. "It was great going out there every day and playing against great guys that I've seen on TV, and finally getting a chance to play with them and against them was a great honor for me."
Also during the summer, Judge won the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby in Omaha.
Even if some scouts have questions about his power production, Judge isn't just a slugger. He is a good pure hitter for his size.
"The power's there, just because he's a big, strong human, but it's a simple, flat stroke that is really productive for the college game," Waer said. "I think with 500 to 1,000 minor league at-bats that don't really mean anything, he's going to learn the loft and all the things he needs to hit for power consistently. It's in there. Power's usually the last thing to come for guys."
Judge cut his strikeout rate from his freshman year to his sophomore year and nearly doubled his walks. Over the Bulldogs' first two weeks in 2013, Judge was hitting .423/.444/.692 with two home runs already. Some scouts who saw Judge over the summer felt he could be too passive at the plate, and it's something he's been trying to improve upon this year.
"That's one thing I wanted to work on in the fall and take it into the spring this year was getting more aggressive," Judge said. "I'm batting in the middle of the lineup this year, so I want to go out there and produce runs for this team. During the fall, I worked on attacking pitches more instead of sitting there and waiting for my pitch."
Some of the complaints seem like nitpicking to Waer.
"Scouts ask me all the time, 'Where do you think he's going to go in the draft?' because the power numbers haven't been there," Waer said. "If he doesn't go in the first round, I don't know what a first-rounder is. With the body, the makeup and the raw physical ability, I think guys are now looking for reasons not to take him, and there aren't any. He's a fantastic kid."