Aaron Judge’s absence looms large — in the clubhouse

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Jun 6, 2019

    Coley HarveyESPN Staff Writer

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    • Previously covered Florida State for Orlando Sentinel and Georgia Tech for Macon Telegraph
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    • Northwestern University graduate

TORONTO — Inside the New York Yankees’ home clubhouse, along a wall near the main entrance, are a pair of neighboring lockers. One belongs to Aaron Judge, the other to Clint Frazier.

When the Yankees are on the road, the two outfielders’ lockers are often placed side-by-side as well.

For Frazier, the Yankees’ brash and flashy 24-year-old up-and-comer who has drawn his share of headlines and public ire this week, the locker placement affords him the opportunity to routinely pick the brain of the 27-year-old megastar who is viewed as much more of a veteran than his major league service time would indicate.

“Dude, everyone in here is talking to him about something,” Frazier said. “I don’t know what the convos are, but why wouldn’t you listen to him?”

Listening — that’s exactly what Frazier had been doing in recent weeks when he’d talked to Judge. The conversations mostly revolved around defensive technique and boosting Frazier’s shaken outfield confidence.

“I just try to tell him, even the balls that he’s been clanking in the outfield, your first initial read of either going back or coming in, it’s always right. It’s always right,” Judge said. “I try to tell him, ‘You should trust it.’ The minute you trust your instincts … then that’s when you can kind of read it a little better.

“‘You’re an athlete, you’ve been doing it your whole life. Trust what you see.'”

It’s his routine offering of honest yet uplifting advice that has made Judge one of the most respected players in the Yankees’ clubhouse, along with veterans CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner, the two longest-tenured players on the team.

His advice has been dispensed often in the past six weeks, and not all of it to Frazier. At times this season he’s listened to other teammates lamenting struggles they’ve had in particular games.

“I try telling them, ‘Bad couple games? You’re still hitting .270 with 15 homers. You’ve got nothing to be worried about. If you have one bad game here, learn from it and keep it moving. You’re a big part of this team,'” Judge said. “So just trying to keep it positive, trying to do those kind of things.”

Despite suffering a left oblique strain on a swing April 20, Judge had still spent nearly all of his time with the team while resting and rehabbing the injury — until he left this past Sunday to continue his comeback in Florida.

The Yankees believe his presence has been necessary, important and incalculable.

“He’s like a coach,” first baseman Luke Voit said of Judge.

Manager Aaron Boone considers the 2017 American League Rookie of the Year a “huge presence” in the Yankees’ clubhouse.

“As upset as he was when he first got injured, one of the first conversations I had with him is: ‘You can still impact us in a big way,'” Boone said. “I absolutely feel like he has.”

“Aaron’s been really good to me. Behind the scenes, whether it’s hitting, basepaths, defense, he’s always chiming in on something for someone because he’s that respected and that good.” Clint Frazier

Asked recently what impact he has had on the way the Yankees have stayed afloat despite sending 18 players to the injured list this season, Judge shook his head.

“That’s all on those guys,” he said, pointing around the clubhouse. “They’re putting in all the work. I can say it might help, but they’re the ones standing in the box, they’re the ones out there performing. I’m just trying to keep them at that level. They’re the ones doing all the work.”

From the day he was hurt until Sunday, when he and fellow injured Yankees Dellin Betances and Greg Bird traveled to Tampa, Florida, to ramp up their respective rehabs, Judge had been with the Yankees for every game.

When they were at home, he was there. When they were in Kansas City, he was there. Baltimore? He was there. Tampa, Anaheim, San Francisco and Arizona? There too.

Judge caught all the usual pregame meetings he’d normally be part of, and he stood in the outfield and helped shag fly balls during batting practice once he was cleared to do that. He also got in the batter’s box and tracked pitches during between-start bullpen sessions, and he offered to do pregame defensive work with Frazier as the young outfielder’s struggles started becoming more magnified.

None of that went unnoticed.

“Aaron’s been really good to me,” Frazier said. “Behind the scenes, whether it’s hitting, basepaths, defense, he’s always chiming in on something for someone because he’s that respected and that good.”

Although the advice has helped, it goes deeper than that for Voit.

“Half the [injured] guys don’t travel like he does, so it shows that he cares and wants to be around the team and helping every way that he can without being out there,” Voit said.

The most tangible ways Voit believes Judge has helped impact his 15-homer season have come behind closed doors.

“It’s nice to have him in the hitter’s meetings, because he’s been in the league for two and a half, three years now. So it’s nice to have his background,” Voit said. “He’s very intelligent about when it comes to how pitchers attack. And it’s nice for me too, because we kind of get pitched the same way.”

Since Judge’s injury, Voit has been among the regulars hitting in the right fielder’s customary No. 2 spot. With combinations of the dangerous Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks and Frazier hitting behind him, Voit has had his share of pitchers throwing him hard inside of late. Once they’ve established that inside corner and gotten into favorable counts, they’re gone soft away with Voit more regularly than they did when Judge was in the lineup and hitting ahead of him. It’s a pitch-sequence formula Judge regularly sees.

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“So it’s nice to have him, and I can always lean on him. And just the way he’s in the dugout, it’s the same excitement as if he was playing, too,” Voit said.

With Judge now away from the team continuing a swinging program that should soon have him facing live pitching, and inching closer to a return to the lineup — which Boone said Wednesday could happen when the Yankees play the Red Sox in London later this month — a void has appeared.

An argument could be made that no one is feeling Judge’s absence more than Frazier.

Around the same time Sabathia threw the first pitch in Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium, Judge, Bird and Betances were taking off from the Big Apple for Florida. So when Frazier missed a ball later that night that got to the wall and allowed a run to score, and when he misjudged a pair of fly balls that fell, he didn’t have his extra coach to give him the nudge of encouragement he says he needed. And Judge wasn’t there after the loss, when Frazier declined to speak to reporters. Although he did speak exclusively to ESPN a couple of hours later, his decision not to address the collective media sparked days of discussion and criticism on social platforms, sports talk radio and local newspapers.

Judge also wasn’t there in Toronto on Tuesday when Frazier decided to riff with writers on what he felt was past unfair coverage of him, and the difficulty he has had fitting in. There were other Yankees present in Toronto that day, though, who were somewhat dismayed he didn’t take their advice prior to that eight-minute media scrum.

Perhaps even Judge’s presence wouldn’t have kept Frazier from saying much of what he did that particular afternoon. But then again, in all the time Judge has been around the team, Frazier had kept many of the thoughts he shared that day to himself.

Regardless, when he has been around, Judge has had a boundless impact on this still-hot, still-banged up team of backups, whether he’s playing or not.

“Really important,” Boone said. “He’s been a huge part of this, and a huge presence in all of it for the guys in that room.”

Long a proponent of team energy and chemistry, Boone believes the tone of any clubhouse can turn a good team into a great one. He’s hopeful the tone set by Judge can do that too.

“Some of the best teams I’ve played on, there’s something about the room from an energy standpoint that can be a factor in helping you win some games along the way,” Boone said. “How do you quantify it? I don’t necessarily know, but I do believe that it matters. And it can look a lot of different ways.

“Sometimes it’s guys that get along and everything’s great, sometimes there’s some angst behind it. That can be a great culture too, where guys get after each other a little bit. It can look a lot of different ways in my opinion, but I do think when you do have a strong culture, I do think it shows itself in some wins over the course of the year. How many? Maybe we’ll never know, but I think it matters.”