By RONALD BLUM, AP Baseball Writer
Aaron Judge has transformed batting practice in the Bronx.
Balls thwack loudly as the New York Yankees’ rookie drives them onto the top of the restaurant behind Monument Park. Because of the 6-foot-7 power hitter’s high backswing, the grounds crew already has tightened the mesh above the batting cage to raise it. And a new piece is being fabricated to raise the top even higher.
“In the minor leagues, we just had to have somebody hold it,” he said Sunday. “They’ve got some better things to make adjustments here.”
Judge made his debut Aug, 13 and homered off Tampa Bay’s Matt Andriese in his first at-bat, as did Tyler Austin, the previous batter — the first teammates to homer in their first career at-bats in the same game. Judge homered four times, but had 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats before he strained an oblique muscle on Sept. 13 — ending his season and preserving his rookie status.
He is hitting .303 with 10 homers and 20 RBIs this season, matching Jose Abreu in 2014 and Trevor Story last year for the most by a rookie in April.
And his home runs are going far — and at high speed.
“He’s worth the price of admission just to come see him play in person for nine innings,” teammate Brett Gardner said.
Judge’s homers have averaged 413 feet, according to MLB’s Statcast. Among players with five or more homers, that’s seventh in the major leagues behind Avisail Garcia (432), Corey Seager (426), Miguel Sano (422), Nelson Cruz (416), Story (415) and Giancarlo Stanton (413).
Judge hit a 457-foot drive into the second deck at Pittsburgh against Antonio Bastardo on April 22, three days after a 448-foot shot against Chicago White Sox rookie Dylan Covey fell about five rows short of the flag poles behind Yankee Stadium’s left-field bleachers. Judge’s home run Friday against Baltimore’s Javier Aquino left the bat at 119.4 mph, the highest speed for a home run since Statcast began tracking in 2015.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi thinks Judge could reach the flag poles.
“I think he has a chance to get up there. I really do,” Girardi said. “He has the ability to hit a popup that will go 370 feet and be gone, where another guy hits a ball like that and it’s going to go 320 and it’s going to be an out.”
Judge has tried to deflect attention, saying that teammate Matt Holliday’s high backswing also is cause for the batting cage change.
Given Judge’s attention-grabbing home runs, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Fox push for Judge to be included in the field at Miami for the Home Run Derby on July 10. Stanton won last year, when he wasn’t even an All-Star.
After watching Judge take batting practice Friday, Baltimore Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said he was reminded of Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard.
“I like to watch those big guys hit. Better than pitching against them,” Palmer said.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Washington’s Anthony Rendon had six hits, three home runs and 10 RBIs on Sunday against the New York Mets, the first player to reach double digits in RBIs since the Angels Garret Anderson in 2007. Rendon hit a two-run single in the first against Noah Syndergaard, a solo homer in the third and a three-run drive in the fourth against Sean Gilmartin, a three-run double versus Fernando Salas in the fifth and a solo homer off backup catcher Kevin Plawecki in the eighth.
EMPTY SEATS BATTLE
The up-for-sale Miami Marlins host Tampa Bay on Monday and Tuesday, then play at the Rays on Wednesday and Thursday in the Citrus Series.
Tampa Bay has averaged 16,761 for 13 dates, second-lowest in the major leagues and just 77 ahead of Oakland. Miami has averaged 24,996, ahead of only Arizona, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the NL.
WHO HAS THE FLAG?
The Chicago Cubs host the New York Yankees as World Series champions for the first time in a three-game series that starts Friday. The Yankees finished a Series sweep with a pair of wins at Wrigley Field in 1932 and started one with two victories in 1938. New York is 4-4 at the Friendly Confines in interleague play, losing two of three in 2003, winning two of three in 2011 and splitting a pair in 2014.
AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker contributed to this report.
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