On a cloudy day in early January, Aaron Judge walked into the Yankees’ player development complex in Tampa, Florida. Hitting coach Dillon Lawson and infielder DJ LeMahieu were already working in the batting cages inside. They greeted Judge and congratulated him on the contract he’d signed a few weeks before, guaranteeing him a staggering $360 million over nine years.
Judge turned to Lawson. “So, what do you got for me?” he said. Judge wanted something specific to work on during this voluntary winter session, a flaw on which he could focus. Lawson hesitated. He was intimately aware of the obvious reality: Judge hit 62 home runs last season. He set an American League record for power last season. He became the biggest star in his sport last season.
“What — you don’t want to just run that one back?” Lawson said. But Judge gave only a courtesy laugh.
It wasn’t that Judge wasn’t touched by the praise. It was that his own record-breaking season isn’t how he frames what was or what might be for this team, a group of players that won 99 games in 2022 but failed — again — to deliver the Yankees a first World Series since 2009.
The difference this year, Judge believes, will lie in the small margins. In the little moments. In the marrow. The Yankees, Judge thinks, are so close to getting what they want that it’s impossible to be certain what tiny improvement might push them over the line. (It doesn’t hurt to keep hitting home runs, either. In his first three games, he already has two.)
So no, Judge told Lawson, he doesn’t want to run back last season. And even in January, he didn’t just want to shake the dust off his swing. He hefted his bat and stepped into the cage.
“There’s got to be more,” he said.
TWO DAYS BEFORE the Yankees’ first exhibition game in late February, Oswaldo Cabrera, a young Venezuelan utility player entering his second season in the majors, bounded into the clubhouse with a binder and a paperback book tucked under his arm. The book was “El Arte de la Guerra,” a Spanish translation of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” — the famous Chinese military treatise that has found a modern audience among those wanting to better understand the connection between mental strength and success.
“I have talked to him a lot about the mind,” Cabrera said, nodding his head at Judge’s locker just a few places up the row. “He talks to me about how important it is, how it means so much. That’s what I am learning now. And look at his career — why wouldn’t I want that? Why wouldn’t I want to do what he is doing?”
Later, Judge smiled when he heard about Cabrera’s reading choice. This is the sort of incremental improvement Judge embraces. Teammates understandably want to grill him on the details of how he loads weight to his back foot or the mechanics of his swing path, but the intellectual part of being a professional athlete has always intrigued Judge even more.
In his first few years with the Yankees, Judge picked up a habit of swiping dirt from the ground while at the plate, squeezing it with his hand and then tossing it away as a sort of mental trigger to help put a bad swing behind him. As his star — and the stakes of his career — rose higher, Judge searched for more mental advantages, digging deeper and deeper not only into the things he chose to do but also into the way he thought about doing them.
Books, like Ryan Holliday’s “Stillness is the Key” and Gary Mack’s “Mind Gym,” became a significant and consistent part of Judge’s cerebral development. He rotates through a variety of meditation apps (with a preference for Calm). He utilizes different wearable stress-relief devices, including one that has made its way around the Yankees’ clubhouse and, as Judge puts it, involves “holding it in your hands and it vibrates and man, it makes you feel relaxed.”
Judge gestured at the rest of the locker room: “This is all a tool that I use. Look around — everyone in the league has a bat. Everyone goes to the cage, does drills. Everyone. But somebody that doesn’t use this, doesn’t use these techniques or doesn’t have somebody they can talk to — I think I’ve got an edge on them.”
Among the most important people who contribute to his success, Judge said, is Chad Bohling, the leader of the team’s mental conditioning department. One of the routines Judge developed with Bohling is a ritual for the moment just before he goes out to the field. At exactly the same time before first pitch — “You can set your watch to it,” manager Aaron Boone said — Judge leaves the clubhouse, ducks into Bohling’s office and watches one of several videos Bohling has prepared that feature a flurry of positive images: Judge making a smooth defensive play or a sequence of excellent swings, one after another. Sometimes there will be a clip of an iconic athlete, like Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning. Sometimes there are images of Judge rounding the bases.
The inspirational component to the videos is obvious: “I’m probably not going to go 5-for-5 but at least it’s in my mind,” Judge said. Yet inspiration isn’t the main reason he watches them.
Despite standing 6-foot-7, despite averaging a home run every 9 at-bats, despite being named the 16th captain in Yankees history, Judge still battles fear. He still gets terrified he won’t be able to deliver what is expected of him night after night.
“Even days that I don’t want to, days where I just want to get the game started, I still go in there and watch the video,” Judge said. “Because I need something to help me switch.”
“Like, I’m in here right now, and I’m Aaron — I’m hanging out with you, right?” he said.
“But you know, when I step out there, you have to be somebody else,” he continued, pointing at the door to the field. “Because maybe Aaron, in this moment, might be scared. But No. 99? He isn’t afraid at all.”
THE YANKEES ACTUALLY tried to re-sign Judge at the start of last season, before all the home runs, but Judge turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million offer, betting on himself to raise his own free agent market. He won that bet — handily — captivating the sport as he chased down Roger Maris’ 61-year-old American League record.
In the afterglow, Judge got his astronomical contract and the captainship, and was saddled, immediately, with the question that elevates and shatters so many:
“There’s that quote — something like, ‘It’s impossible to step twice into the same spot in a river,’ because the river is always flowing, right?” said Brian Cashman, the team’s longtime general manager. “Last season was a flood. This season, whatever happens, whatever we all do, is going to be different in so many ways.”
Judge knows that, too, but even as he officially assumes the role of captain, his basic leadership style remains the same. At its heart, it’s one of commitment, kindness and appreciation.
Willie Randolph, who was the Yankees’ captain from 1986-88 and still serves as a spring training instructor, said he believes Judge is one of the few players who doesn’t need to change anything at all in his new position. “I think it’ll just make him a little more aware of the things he’s doing,” Randolph said. “I felt like I was a captain for a few years before I was named one, and I think Aaron is the same way.”
Most of the stories Judge’s teammates told about him in Tampa were about small, intimate moments, and focused less on his largesse or generosity — though that was evident too — and more on basic gratitude.
On a recent afternoon, the Yankees finished workouts early and went on a team-building field trip to PopStroke, a nearby miniature golf franchise.
“Hey, you’re carrying us today, right?” Willie Calhoun, a veteran outfielder who joined the Yankees this offseason, asked Judge just before they teed off on the first hole. Judge howled. “I’ve literally never played golf before,” he said.
Judge, to put it kindly, didn’t carry them. “The problem was they barely had a putter that fit!” he griped a day later, but Calhoun said that watching a hunched-over Judge hit 3 straight putts way past the hole only to then leave the next 4 shots short was one of his favorite experiences this spring.
“He’s competitive because we all are, but he really was paying more attention to everyone else,” Calhoun said. “He was all over the place. I haven’t been here that long but you could see how much he loves these guys.”
This past offseason, pitcher Nestor Cortes was in Tampa when Judge mentioned that he was planning to go to the Buccaneers game the next night. Cortes asked if Judge had room for him and his wife (and maybe also his agent), and within minutes, the tickets arrived in his email.
“Here’s the thing, though,” Cortes said. “What I think about with that weekend isn’t that he gave us the tickets, which was amazing, but that when we got to the game and came up to him, before we could even say thank you for these tickets, he grabbed me and was like, ‘Thank you so much for coming — I’m really, really happy that you guys are here.'”
Cortes laughed. “I was like, ‘Shouldn’t we be thanking you?’ But he was thanking us. He just wanted to spend time with us. And he meant it.”
Captain or not, this is who Judge has been. A Yankees clubhouse staffer said Judge is one of the very few players who, ever since joining the team seven years ago, goes into the kitchen every single day to thank the chefs who prepare the postgame spread. And Lawson, the hitting coach, said he has seen a similar dynamic in the batting cages, as Judge will often go hit in Cage No. 4 during spring training, even though “the big boys usually hit in 1 or 2 because those are the nicest ones.” After taking his swings with the fringe roster players, Lawson said, Judge will thank them for hitting with him.
Elijah Dunham, a young player who has yet to make his big league debut but has hit in Cage No. 4 with Judge, said that what he appreciates most about Judge is that “he acts like we are equals.
“He’s the most important player on the team but he never makes me feel like we aren’t the same,” Dunham said.
If that sounds a bit like pro sports pablum, well, fair enough. But 20 minutes after Dunham said it, the Yankees finished their warmups on the main field and, position-group by position-group, clumps of players would run down the right-field line and head toward the indoor batting cages.
In each instance, the player at the front of the group would reach the door to the cages, fling it open and run through with the rest of the group trailing behind him.
Judge was the only one to do it differently. He led the outfielders over, but instead of going through first, he stopped, pulled the door open and stepped to the side, holding it for all the other outfielders to shuffle past.
Once everyone else went through, Judge followed.
A LITTLE BEFORE 11 a.m. on a Sunday late last month, the fans at Steinbrenner Field buzzed as Judge stepped to the plate during batting practice. First pitch in the Yankees’ opening exhibition game was still a ways off, but any opportunity to see Judge hit is an event.
Giancarlo Stanton, who frequently bats behind Judge in the lineup, had mentioned the day before that Judge has “long levers,” and that phrasing is just right. To see Judge steadily unspool his muscles before whipping his bat through the hitting zone is mechanically absorbing, sort of how staring at the pistons of an engine can be mesmerizing.
Discussing how many home runs Judge will hit this season is a recurrent party game among Yankees fans, and so as Judge blistered more than a few batting practice pitches over the fence, the numbers bantered about in the stands crept higher and higher. “I think he should hit a hundred,” a young boy standing near the dugout said matter-of-factly. (His father did not rule it out.)
Judge is not indifferent to those desires. But he also makes no secret of his focus on improving other aspects of his game. As good as his season was a year ago, the Yankees did not win the World Series, and his power largely disappeared during the stretch run and playoffs.
Because of this, and because of his philosophy of incremental growth, Judge has been attentive (if not a bit overzealous) about the less-obvious details in his game. Boone said he constantly sees Judge spending time with Matt Talarico, the team’s baserunning coach, to perfect his first-step speed. Judge said he is also working with Lawson to modify his approach in certain at-bats where he falls behind — a telling focus since he hit a league-best 21 home runs with two strikes on him last year.
At the mention of a book about the value of small changes called “Atomic Habits,” Judge brightened. “Yes — I know it; I’ve seen that on my wife’s bookcase [and] I’ve been meaning to steal it,” he said. Then he added, “You keep looking because no one knows what will make the ultimate difference.”
In conversations with his teammates this spring, Judge has repeatedly made this point. Simply because last season was his best-ever for hitting home runs doesn’t mean that it was his best-ever season for everything (or even anything) else.
And so he pokes and prods. He tinkers. He keeps looking for that edge he hasn’t yet found. At one point, when talking about the videos he watches before games, Judge mentioned Kobe Bryant. Judge said Bryant is a role model for him when he thinks about how to more consistently toggle that switch from Aaron to No. 99.
Bryant famously had his “Black Mamba” alter ego that he cultivated to help him separate his personal life from his work on the court, and Judge said he is in awe of that clear and simple definition.
“Do you have something like that?” he was asked. Judge narrowed his eyes.
“Not yet,” he said. “But give me time.”