BY KEVIN KERNAN
LARAMIE, Wyoming – What a week for Aaron Judge.
The slugger won the American League MVP in a runaway. I’m surprised it wasn’t unanimous, garnering 28 of the 30 first place votes, and now the Dodgers are in the process of clearing about $100 million in payroll, creating another possible landing spot for the free agent slugger.
It’s good to be Aaron Judge.
You have baseball in the palm of your hand and can call your own shot.
Aaron Judge is the American Dream come true in a big way, a 6-7 slugger, who controls his own destiny – and that destiny keeps getting more interesting.
Judge bet on himself and now he can collect big time wherever he wants. He can remain with the Yankees and break Hal Steinbrenner’s bank, he can go home to the San Francisco Giants who said they would not be outbid by anyone for his services – or the Dodgers, who always seem to pull off a free agent or trade surprise, can sign Judge; assuring them of a first place finish in the NL West year after year with that talented roster and assembly line of young players coming through the Dodgers system under Andrew Friedman and Stan Kasten.
The Dodgers are all about entertainment, and adding Aaron Judge to that mix could make life that much more enjoyable for Dodger fans. As for playing in perfect conditions, there is no better place to play baseball than the baseball climate of Southern California; and to play for a team that has the talent to win it all makes all the difference.
Who wouldn’t want to play for the Dodgers?
And I have said all along in my many warnings to the Yankees about Judge: beware of the Dodgers. But too often the Yankees feel they are they only fish in the pond, and that arrogant assessment put in them in this position in the first place.
I am writing this column from Laramie where it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit as I type; a little different from a perfect Southern California night. But right about now you are saying to yourself, what the heck are you doing in Wyoming?
Why am I here?
This is the 20th anniversary of a sojourn made by a group of baseball people to enjoy a weekend of camaraderie thrown in with a University of Wyoming football game and eating a lot of meat. The trip is called Wyomania – and for two decades it’s been fun to make, and although I haven’t made all the trips, I have made more than my share.
It is a good time to touch base with other baseball people in an environment that’s not a structured baseball event and it also never hurts to see a game, any game, through the lens of a fan every once in a while – instead of sitting in the press box or in front of a TV.
The tailgate isn’t bad, either; and some of the crew even wound up at The Cowboy Saloon and Dance Hall on Friday night, “Laramie’s premier country western destination for live music and nightlife.” Being here got me to thinking about the draft routes of both Aaron Judge and Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
Never underestimate the will of a player, no matter the sport, and the conditions that player has to play in.
AMBS with War Paint in Laramie, Wyoming.
I was talking to a scout about all this and the thought occurred to me that through the years we got to see Allen play football here at War Memorial Stadium, a stadium that was built in 1949. It sits at an elevation of 7,220 feet above sea level, the highest Division 1 FBS college football stadium in the U.S. It’s a home field advantage and disadvantage – and also not a place for wimps, with the wind whipping and the snow flying this time of year.
The point is, it is not an easy place to play or even watch a game.
The same way teams did not want Aaron Judge (he swings and misses too much), teams hung a similar label on Josh Allen, also a monster of a man.
The rap against Allen was that his completion percentage wasn’t high enough to succeed in the NFL.
As another scout told me, unfortunately it’s algorithm over athlete.
Never underestimate the will of a player, no matter the sport, and the conditions that player has to play in; and certainly, the Bills did their homework with Josh Allen where other teams did not. The same could be said for the Yankees with Judge: they did their homework.
Laramie is a really tough place to complete passes.
When Allen played here I did take a foray into the press box and at the time, in the 2017 season, I was surprised to see only a younger scout there watching Allen for the Jets. I was doing some Jets and Giants (like the day Eli Manning lost his job) coverage then. I certainly have no issue with young scouts; but having covered the NFL with the George Young Giants and later the Bobby Beathard Chargers in mid-90s, including the 1994 team that went to the Super Bowl, and that this being so late in the 2017 season, I was surprised to see the Jets not more heavily scouting Allen – because, really how hard is it to send several scouts to a football game?
You simply fly to Denver and drive here.
December 3, 2016: Josh Allen (17) of the Wyoming Cowboys. The Wyoming Cowboys hosted the San Diego State Aztecs in the Mountain West championship game. (Photo by Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
At this point you’re not “monitoring’’ the quarterback as appeared to be the case for the Jets, you must be heavily “scouting’’ the quarterback and the entire situation.
That Jets front office blew it big time.
Who knows how many eyes the Jets locked on Sam Darnold playing for USC that weekend, but it had to be more than the nice young man watching Allen. On that windy, cold day Allen had a big day and that alone should have opened the eyes of the Jets.
If they were really watching.
Allen’s toughness and leadership stood out. The same with Judge. When I first saw him on the back fields of spring training in Tampa in 2015, his toughness and leadership stood out to me. I only wish I had seen him at Fresno State, but this weekend I did talk to a non-Yankee scout who did see Judge play at Fresno State and what did his see back then?
“He was a great athlete and you could see the power and the leadership,’’ the scout said. “He was a great teammate, great makeup. He checked all the boxes.’’
Unfortunately for too many teams, Judge also checked the “too many swings and misses’’ box but that’s the way it goes, just as for too many football teams, most notably the Browns and Jets, Josh Allen checked the “not high enough completion percentage’’ box.
Allen will continue to get better. Judge will continue to get better, each because of the work ethic and values they own.
Certainly Judge and Allen aren’t perfect – there are some flaws – and Judge should learn from this year’s postseason.
Let’s recap, Judge led the world this regular season with 62 home runs. He also produced 133 runs, 131 RBI, a .311 batting average, 391 total bases, a .425 on base percentage, a .686 slugging percentage, and a 1.111 OPS.
Then came the ALCS. The Astros pitching shut down the Yankees completely – and especially Judge in the sweep. Judge finished that series with a .063 batting average, four strikeouts, and a .063 slugging percentage. Judge had one hit in 16 at-bats, a single.
Judge will learn from this.
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 6: Fresno State University outfielder and 32nd overall selection Aaron Judge poses next to the Draft board during the 2013 First-Year Player Draft at MLB Network's Studio 42 on June 6, 2013 in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Photo by Paige Calamari/MLB via Getty Images)
Both Judge and Josh have incredible skills in their respective sports and are team leaders who are driven to win, and in this analytical world we live in (thanks, Nerds) a lot of that is overlooked: the heart, guts, and head of the athlete. In both Judge’s case, 32nd pick of the 2013 draft and in Allen’s case, the No. 7 pick of the 2018 draft, the third quarterback selected. The Browns went with Baker Mayfield with the first pick and the Jets went with Sam Darnold with the third pick in the draft.
How did all that work out?
How’s the completion percentage of those two guys (who both moved on from their original teams after complete failure)?
The Jets were extremely confident they had their quarterback in Darnold. The Browns were extremely confident they had their QB in Mayfield.
And here we are now and the Yankees let Judge become a free agent.
Remember, the Yankees had all those years to sign Judge long term, but kept playing the one year at a time game, knowing they had the financial hammer – and did not offer that long term deal until the eleventh hour before this past season. By that time Judge had said, “Enough.’’
He had come this far so why not go the extra mile to become a free agent, see what he is worth on the truly open market? The Judge’s Chambers can take place in any city and in LA Judge would be locked onto a team that had a super legitimate chance to get to the World Series every year.
The Yankees cannot get past the Astros and they have run into other speed bumps. The Dodgers only have that 2020 World Championship to brag about recently (the Yankees have the Way Back Machine and 2009) and yet, it always seems like an upset when the Dodgers get knocked out of the postseason. Perhaps adding Judge’s talent and leadership would give them that extra World Series boost.
BRONX, NY - AUGUST 6: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees looks on from the dugout against the Seattle Mariners during the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium on August 6, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)
The Dodgers non-tendered Cody Bellinger this week, so they got out from under the $18 million they would have had to pay him. Judge showed with the Yankees he could play centerfield so if the Dodgers want to they could have Judge in center next year and for years to come, but also Mookie Betts, who has won five Gold Gloves as a right fielder, would move to second base if the Dodgers acquired Judge.
Judge did play 74 games for the Yankees in centerfield and right now the Dodgers don’t have a centerfielder.
“Aaron Judge is a really good outfielder,’’ one scout from another American League team, not the Yankees, told me. The scout went on to say that Judge could easily fit into centerfield at Dodger Stadium.
The scout added that in the annals of MLB, Aaron Judge will go down as one of the greatest draft picks ever made.
This scout had seen Judge at Fresno State and loved what he saw. So did the Yankees and their scouts and Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees VP and director of amateur scouting.
The Yankees made Judge the 32nd pick of the 2013 draft and the rest is history.
Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen (17) posing during photo shoot at California Lutheran University. Thousand Oaks, CA 5/19/2018 (Photo by Kohjiro Kinno /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
As for those “swing and miss’’ issues:
My answer to all that is simple. There were at least 62 times this past season that Aaron Judge did not swing and miss as he set the home run record for the American League, beating Roger Maris’ mark of 61 home runs that stood since 1961. Maris’ mark beat the legendary Babe Ruth’s mark of 60 home runs set in 1927.
Aaron Judge kept the AL record in the Yankees family and that meant a lot to him. But it also is the perfect way to close the book on the Yankees and move to greener pastures financially and otherwise for Judge if he decides to leave the Yankees and go back to his home state of California.
And isn’t it something that in an era in which most people in charge of teams say strikeouts really don’t matter, they skipped Judge because of swing and miss. That is a perfect example of what is wrong with the game today. First of all, strikeouts do matter, and that is proven every year in the postseason – when the team that more often puts the ball in play usually wins the series.
It’s been my belief the Dodgers would be fools not to go after Judge and the Dodgers are not fools. They have shown year after year they will do what they have to do to make the team better, whatever it takes.
The Dodgers are LA in every way, they are baseball entertainment. The Giants said they will do financially what it takes to land Judge. The Yankees want to keep Judge.
I can’t wait to see how this all plays out. In the meantime I will continue to watch Josh Allen bounce back from that crazy fumble loss to the Vikings and on Saturday, in the deep cold and high elevation of Laramie, catch another Wyoming football game.