Aaron Judge spent his rookie season in 2017 hitting baseballs in ways no one had done before. The New York Yankees slugger, who would go on to be named American League Rookie of the Year, stood at the top of the game's pantheon of famous faces by wowing fans with his prodigious talent.
Judge seemed to have hit his physical prime just as Major League Baseball was in dire need of new stars. His performance went beyond historic numbers and stats to give baseball fans something they didn't know they were missing -- a generational talent with an engaging personality.
Mike Trout has undoubtedly been an incredible ambassador of the game by virtue of his pure talent. At 29, the future Hall of Famer still makes us gasp at his accomplishments and incredible ability. Nonetheless, when commissioner Rob Manfred essentially accused the Angels' phenom of not devoting "the time and effort" it would take to expand his brand, it was seen by many as a knock on Trout for not doing his part to improve MLB's popularity.
That has not been a problem for Judge.
"Phenomenal. There is no other word to describe it," touted Manfred during the 2017 All-Star Game. "He is a tremendous talent on the field, a really appealing off-the-field personality, the kind of player that can become the face of the game."
Judge says all the right things: "This is what you live for." "This is what I dreamed of as a kid, rocking stadiums and tie ballgames, and a chance to be a hero." He never talks about numbers or graphs or launch angle or exit velocity. And he dominates them all.
Success breeds success as much as it breeds money-making endorsements.
Judge embraced his role ahead of this coronavirus-shortened 60-game season with a new sponsorship and marketing deal with beverage behemoth Pepsi, which includes national promos centered around the two-time All-Star reaching out directly to fans.
"Those little moments, those little memories you can make, I know fans never forget. But even us as players, that's something I always look forward to and I never forget," Judge told ESPN. "Working with Pepsi, it's global; it's a big opportunity for me. In baseball, a lot of our superstars aren't out there. But I think social media is going to start slowly helping us out. A lot more guys are getting on social media. A lot more are reaching out to fans, interacting.
"That's one thing I see LeBron James do a lot all the time, he's talking with fans, he's always getting the message out there, putting his opinion out there and talking with people. That's where it starts with us, just being more vocal and letting the fans see the personal side of us."
Casual fans will be drawn only to a particular sport by its stars. And being one of the top faces in sports leads to an athlete repeatedly being featured on advertisements to attract fans or sell a particular product.
But the truth is that in professional sports, stardom sells -- and injuries don't.
Judge is one of the most popular players in baseball. That is a fact. In the right fielder's first three full seasons in the majors (2017-19), his jersey was the top seller in all of MLB.
He won the 2017 Home Run Derby, then went on to surpass Babe Ruth for the most homers hit by a Yankee in his home ballpark (33). Judge was the 2017 Rookie of the Year after breaking Mark McGwire's rookie home run record (49, 1987 Athletics) and setting the new standard at 52. (The Mets' Pete Alonso broke Judge's record by hitting 53 last season.)
Judge hit 25 home runs before the All-Star break in consecutive years (2017-18), becoming only the second Yankee to do so, joining Roger Maris (1960-61). When Judge hit four home runs in the 2017 postseason and three more the following postseason, he became just the second Yankee to hit at least three postseason homers in consecutive years, joining "Mr. October" Reggie Jackson (five home runs in 1977, four in 1978).
Judge ranks among the best power hitters in the majors in numerous categories, but not in durability.
Judge doesn't have to prove to the Yankees what he can do when healthy; he's a high-impact player who is always willing to outwork the competition in chasing down fly balls and crushing home runs at a record pace. Now he has to prove he can still play at the promising level he has in the past despite a litany of injuries.
During his stellar rookie season, Judge played in 155 games. In 2018, he suffered a chip fracture in his right wrist after being hit by a pitch, which limited him to 112 games. Judge appeared in 102 games last year, missing time mostly because of a strained left oblique.
This year, Judge was one of many Yankees who benefited from the delayed start to the season. At the onset of spring training in February, Judge was significantly limited because of a stress fracture to his first right rib and a subsequent punctured lung, an injury he attributed to an attempt at a diving catch he made at the end of last season.
The unexpected hiatus of 3½ months gave him time to heal, and Judge upheld his own claims of having returned to full health by playing in the Yankees' first 17 games of the abbreviated 2020 season, belting nine home runs and slugging .758 with a 1.101 OPS.
Then it was déjà vu all over again.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone disclosed that Judge, who was out of the lineup Wednesday, a day after being taken out of a game the Yankees were leading 8-0 in the sixth inning, is day-to-day dealing with lower-body tightness. Boone steered clear of any guarantees that Judge would play in the wraparound four-game series against the Red Sox that starts on Friday.
A player's size can significantly impact his ability to crush home runs or make athletic catches in the outfield. According to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, at 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, Judge is the biggest position player in major league history.
That means Judge has had to deal with both the benefits and drawbacks of being much larger than the average hitter and fielder. And in trying to prove that his body can handle the grind of a baseball season, Judge might have to adjust his all-out style of play.
"It's about playing smarter," Judge said when addressing injuries such as cracking a rib diving for a ball. "That's what you learn over the years with experience. You learn from experience what balls to dive for, which ones you can get to."
Too many promising careers have ended with one devastating hit or one wrong step, and when it comes to immensely talented athletes, Judge hopes he doesn't leave fans wondering what might have been. Being an everyday player, and the kind of athlete who can be relied upon as such, is imperative for Judge.
"You've got to be out there if you're going to be the leader of a team and a force in a lineup," Judge said in the spring. "Some of those things, like getting hit in the wrist, that's stuff you can't really do anything about. Last year, pulling an oblique, that makes it tough. But my stance is still the same. If you're going to be a leader on a team, you have to be out there every day."