Aaron Judge’s injury concerns are blocking his superstardom

Giancarlo Stanton and Clint Frazier played catch Monday afternoon, in short right field at Yankee Stadium, and Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman did the same alongside them. That’s a solid outfield quartet right there.

It naturally becomes a far better unit when Aaron Judge joins them to create a fab five. Yet Judge spent the day inside and out of view, taking some swings in the batting cage and working out in the weight room. The 28-year-old’s stiff neck featured “way more range of motion,” according to his manager, Aaron Boone, who characterized it as “another good step” as he missed the team’s outside action for a third straight day.

And so we pick up where we’ve left off with Judge, monitoring his progress as much in baby steps as in giant hits. Curious if he’ll be ready for Opening Day on July 23 and whether he can avoid the injured list in this pandemic-shortened season that ironically saved him months of watching games from the sidelines.

Wondering if he can conquer the injury bug that has beaten him up pretty good for three years running now.

“I don’t,” Boone said in a Zoom interview, when asked whether he saw any concerning pattern with Judge’s mishaps. “I do think he’s smart about how he takes care of himself. I think a few of the injuries, the cracked rib that he ended up having, that took a long time obviously to diagnose, little fluky on a diving play. … He had the oblique. So there’s no question he’s had some things, but I feel comfortable with first of all the work he does and what he puts into making sure he takes care of himself with the ability to post.

“He understands the importance of it. So time will tell, but I feel like … it will prove out that he’s a durable guy. I do feel that way.”

To be clear, this should be construed as anything but a character indictment of Judge, who typically stays late during spring training, be it 1.0 or 2.0, and whose one full big-league season without inactivity, his American League Rookie of the Year campaign in 2017, occurred as Judge nursed a left shoulder injury — which he suffered as he won the Home Run Derby — that required an arthroscopic cleanup after the year’s completion.

No, this is just a talk about Judge’s tendency to get hurt, whether it’s an accident like when he suffered a chip fracture of his right wrist thanks to a hit by pitch in 2018, or soft-tissue malaise like his left oblique woes last year, or some combination of aggressive play and delayed diagnosis like his fractured right rib (suffered last September on a diving catch and properly identified this past March) which would’ve kept him out of action pretty much until now. It’s a contemplation of how good he could be with a fuller load. Consider that he managed 5.9 and 5.5 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference.com) in 2018 and 2019, respectively — All-Star caliber — despite playing in only 112 and 102 games. He put together 7.9 WAR in ’17 when he punched in for 155 games.

This neck setback might indeed wind up as a blip. At this point, though, we want to see it before assuming it.

I asked Boone if he thought Judge’s 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame factored into his troubles with injuries, just as Judge’s fellow behemoth Giancarlo Stanton (6-6, 245) endured a blizzard of problems last year and again this past spring training 1.0.

“That’s obviously a go-to if somebody is breaking down,” the Yankees manager responded. “We’re going to pick out, ‘He’s too small, he’s too big, he’s too explosive.’ You’re always going to … speculate on why you think somebody might be breaking down. So I don’t think there’s much to it, but the injuries he’s had, and he’s bigger, that’s a talking point.”

We’re going to keep talking about Judge’s injuries, because of who he is and who he can be, until they stop. They’ll have to stop in order for Judge to be the superstar, one of the faces of the entire game, we know he can be.

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