Murti: Could Judge Provide Yankees With A Willis Reed-Type Boost?

Also, Andujar Eyes .300, And Who's Starting Wild Card?

Sweeny Murti
September 12, 2018 - 11:28 am
Aaron Judge Hits

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There isn’t a lot of time to figure out what kind of a factor Aaron Judge could be in the postseason for the Yankees. Everything changed the night of July 26. 

The Yankees have only 17 games left. Judge is up to live batting practice, but you’re still not to the point where you can accurately predict the day he comes back. When Judge finally returns from a fractured wrist, the Yankees aren’t going to run him into the ground. It’s not like their chances of making the playoffs rely on his return. The Yankees are all but locked into the wild-card game, and the hope is they can hold off Oakland and host the game instead of fly out west.

But what about Judge? How much can the Yankees really expect from him? There isn’t enough time to get 40 or 50 at-bats to find his swing again. He may get fewer than 10 games to get back in there and see what’s what.

And for the Yankees, this will be kind of like looking for the Willis Reed effect. Reed famously limped onto the Madison Square Garden floor for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, hit his first two shots of the game, and that was that. His presence lifted the Knicks, sent a message to the Lakers and set the tone for a Game 7 victory that brought the Knicks their first NBA championship.

MORE: Aaron Judge Takes Batting Practice In Minnesota

It’s not the same thing, but if Judge can show just a little bit of power in the final week of the season, it will send the message that he is a dangerous hitter in the lineup. Just a couple of Statcast blasts will show up instantly in highlight feeds -- and scouting reports -- to let the league know that Judge isn’t just there for show.

Opposing pitchers will certainly test Judge with inside fastballs, not to hit him again but just to see how he handles those pitches and if he is able to barrel them up. 

If Judge continues to make progress with the outdoor batting practice he started this week in Minnesota, maybe the Yankees can get him a few games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in their playoff series and then get him some big league ABs over the final eight to 10 games of the season. Remember, an extra day or two isn’t going to give him the magic number of at-bats, so no need to rush him. The Yankees’ main goal is to get a healthy lineup onto the field Oct. 3.

Reed only needed to make two shots to lift his team and become one of the legendary figures in New York sports. It will take a little more than that from Judge to get this team to a championship, but his presence could be just as uplifting. 

MR. .300?

The last Yankee to hit over .300 (with enough qualifying plate appearances) was Robinson Cano in 2013. Miguel Andjuar might break that drought, sitting at .299 with less than three weeks left in the season.

No, batting average isn’t what it used to be, with on-base percentage taking greater significance. Andujar doesn’t walk enough to be an OBP monster, sitting at .333 entering play Monday. 

MORE: Report: Yankees Voice Displeasure To MLB About Josh Donaldson Trade

But his bat-on-the-ball skill and ability to drive the ball are impressive. Andjuar has “only” 91 strikeouts in his first 511 at-bats. My first thoughts on seeing him hit were that he reminded me of Alfonso Soriano with his lightning-quick wrists and extra-base power. But the more I see him, the less I think that is a good comparison because of Soriano’s extreme swing and miss. 

Judge had one of the best offensive seasons in Yankees history last year, so we don’t have to dig that far into the memory banks for a season that looked this good. But it was striking to me to see Andujar’s batting average around that .300 mark and note that it hasn’t been done in five years.

Cano was also the last Yankee to hit 40 doubles in one season. He did it five straight years from 2009-13. Andujar smacked his 40th double Monday night. It’s that combination of .300 average and 40 doubles that made me take a step back to look at Andujar’s season.

In a year when Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez are major disappointments and Judge will miss about a third of the season, Andujar is the guy who stands out as the best hitter. And yes, I did not forget Gleyber Torres. But Torres has a much higher strikeout rate. And even though Torres is more of a total package considering his defense and higher on-base ability, there is something special about seeing Andujar drill pitches from corner to corner and gap to gap. 

The Yankees hope that their star hitters bounce back both down the stretch and in 2019. But for now Andujar has been a gift. He is without a doubt the Rookie of the Year and he could earn himself a few MVP votes, too.

WHO’S THE ‘WILD’ MAN?

Who starts the wild-card game? The answer has become a little more complicated than the Yankees had hoped.

Luis Severino is the Yankees’ best pitcher. Unfortunately, he hasn’t pitched like an ace more than two months now. After beating the Red Sox on July 1, Severino’s ERA was 1.98, and I was among those who thought Severino was on his way to the best season by a Yankees pitcher since Ron Guidry in 1978. But Severino has been hit harder since then (his ERA is up to 3.52), and the reasons are unclear. 

There have been signs of improvement, but there have not been any starts nearly as dominant as the ones we saw in the first half that made us know Severino was the guy to call on in a must-win situation.

MORE: Murti: A Contrarian Case For The Yankees Sticking With Greg Bird

Lately, that’s been Masahiro Tanaka. He struggled through a bad season last year, but came up big in the postseason. He scuffled again at the beginning of this year but has bounced back with the types of games that make you feel like his big-game ability is exactly what you need in a one-game do-or-die.

Some people seem to favor J.A. Happ as the wild-card starter, and why not? All he’s done is go 6-0, allowing only 14 runs in eight starts since the Yankees acquired him in late July. There can be very little argument for giving him the must-win start, but I have think I’ve found a reason.

Tanaka has proven to me he is capable of putting the Yankees on his back for the wild-card game. He has relished big-game assignments and is pitching like he wants the job. If he’s right -- and he has been lately -- I have no doubt in that ability. Remember, he only needs to give you five innings, and if the Yankees have the lead, they can start rolling out the most feared bullpen in the league. Everyone will be rested and ready. 

But what happens after that? Well, it will be a best-of-five division series against the Red Sox. And that is why I would save Happ, because I want him to start Game 1 at Fenway Park and face the Red Sox one more time in the best of five.

Yes, I understand you have to get there first, but I’m not fearful of putting Tanaka in a must-win spot. And if I can get through that game without using Happ, I have a guy who has pitched extremely well against the Red Sox the last two seasons lined up to pitch twice in the best of five. 

The bullpen becomes a major strength because of the schedule. Travel days mean there are only two times -- once in the ALCS and once in the World Series -- when you have to play three days in a row.

Yes, you have to win the first game to get to the rest. And yes, you don’t want to second-guess yourself all winter if you lose that game. But I don’t think starting Tanaka is a roll of the dice. I think it’s a good move. And I’ll take that even farther by saying I’m not completely off Severino in the wild-card game yet. But he does have to show me a couple dominant outings before we get there.

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN