Ned Yost is not the kind of manager who dwells on statistics. Two years ago, his Kansas City Royals had the fewest strikeouts in the majors and won the World Series. Hitting for contact was in. Yet as Yost leafed through the daily stats pack in a Yankee Stadium office Monday morning, he rejected the idea that strikeouts might be a problem for Aaron Judge, the Yankees’ rookie slugger.
In a few hours, Judge would tie and then break the major league record for homers by a rookie, ending the day with 50, one more than Mark McGwire hit for Oakland in 1987. So what if four times as many Judge at-bats have ended with strike three?
“A lot of times I wish we would strike out,” said Yost, whose hitters lead the majors in grounding into double plays. “The things that I look at, he’s got 202 strikeouts, but he’s also got almost 120 walks. His on-base is over .400. I don’t care about the strikeouts. Give me everything else.”
Judge offers so much else that he should now be the front-runner for the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Only one American League player has a higher on-base plus slugging percentage: Mike Trout, the two-time Most Valuable Player for the Los Angeles Angels who missed more than six weeks this season with an injury.
Judge leads the league in runs scored while hitting .283 with 105 R.B.I., but here is the biggest reason he should win: Nobody plays the modern game better. Besides his two homers in Monday’s 11-3 rout, Judge added his 120th walk and his 203rd strikeout. His homers, walks and strikeouts lead the A.L. In his first full major league season, Judge has become the manifestation of the game in 2017.
Major League Baseball has set a single-season record for total home runs, as strikeout and walk rates continue to rise. Plate discipline, launch angle, exit velocity. Patience, power, production. That is baseball today.
More well-rounded players who rarely strike out — like Houston’s Jose Altuve, Boston’s Mookie Betts and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez — have also led their teams to postseason berths. All play an exhilarating style of baseball. But it is hard to believe anyone has been more of a force than Judge.
“When we left spring training,” Yankees Manager Joe Girardi said, “I said, ‘If he gets the barrel of the bat to the ball, he’s going to do a lot of damage — and if he does it on a consistent basis, he’s going to have a huge year for us.
“And that’s what he’s done. You can talk about the home runs, the runs, the R.B.I.s, the walks, the defense, the base-running — over and over, he’s a complete player.”
There has never been a player who strikes out so much yet makes up for it so emphatically. Only five other players have struck out 200 times in a season: Mark Reynolds (three times), Chris Carter and Chris Davis (twice each), Adam Dunn and Drew Stubbs. In one of those seasons, Davis placed 14th in the M.V.P. race. That is the highest finish ever by a player with at least 200 strikeouts.
Naturally, Judge said he had not considered the possibility of being the most valuable player, an award won by just two other rookies: Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Judge is much more comfortable talking about team accomplishments.