Yankees slugger Aaron Judge adds another honor as AP male athlete of year

AP photo by LM Otero / New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge signs autographs during batting practice before an Oct. 3 game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington.

NEW YORK — Aaron Judge has always stood out as a baseball player.

With the imposing size and muscular frame of an NFL tight end or an NBA power forward, the 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger for the New York Yankees towers over teammates and opponents on the diamond.

Never more so than in 2022.

After hitting 62 home runs to break the American League single-season record that lasted six decades, Judge has been voted the AP male athlete of the year by a panel of 40 sports writers and editors from news outlets across the country.

In voting announced Friday, the 30-year-old outfielder edged last year's winner — the Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani, who starred again on the mound and at the plate in his fifth MLB season. Stephen Curry, who led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship for the fourth time in eight years, finished third.

U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky was announced as the AP female athlete of the year earlier this week.

Judge joins an esteemed fraternity of honorees that includes track and field star Jesse Owens, boxing champion Muhammad Ali, hockey great Wayne Gretzky and basketball legend Michael Jordan. Among the former Yankees to win an honor first given in 1931 were Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris — the man who established the previous AL mark of 61 homers in 1961.

"Wow. That's incredible," Judge said of his selection. "All these other great athletes that not only impacted the game and their sport, but also impacted their communities and the culture in the sports world and outside the sports world. So getting a chance to be amongst that list is an incredible honor."

Also honored this year as the AL's MVP, Judge hit 16 more homers than any other player in Major League Baseball this season, the largest gap since 1932, when Jimmie Foxx hit 58 for the Philadelphia Athletics and Babe Ruth had 41 for the Yankees.

And while Barry Bonds holds the MLB single-season record of 73 home runs with the National League's San Francisco Giants in 2001, the achievement by Judge had some fans celebrating what they view as baseball's "clean" benchmark.

The record set by Maris had been surpassed six times in the NL, but all those players were ultimately stained by the scandal of performance-enhancing drugs that came to define an era of baseball. In addition to Bonds, Mark McGwire hit 70 homers for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, while Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 for the Chicago Cubs during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using PEDs. MLB didn't begin testing with penalties for such substances until 2004.

"It's an incredible feat," Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said.

Judge's astounding season was about more than just power, though.

Partly because of injuries to teammates, the rocket-armed right fielder shifted to center field for much of the season and provided his usual strong defense in both spots. With the Yankees missing DJ LeMahieu at the top of the lineup, Judge batted leadoff at the end of the regular season, which also maximized his plate appearances in the record pursuit.

He even stole 16 bases, seven more than his previous career high.

"He's everything," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "An amazing two-way player, one of the great players in our sport. He's an ambassador for the game."

With a bright, toothy smile that he can't hold back at times, Judge led the majors in runs (133), on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686), OPS (1.111), extra-base hits (90) and total bases (391). He tied for the MLB lead with 131 RBIs and finished second in the AL with a .311 batting average, falling a few points short of a Triple Crown.

And not to be overlooked, No. 99 in pinstripes played in 157 of 162 regular-season games, carrying the Yankees to their second AL East Division title in 10 years. They reached the AL Championship Series before being swept by the Houston Astros, who went on to win the World Series.

"That's one of the things I love about Aaron: He's a gentle giant in his interactions with people and kids and whoever, he's kind and gentle, but he is going to rip your heart out between the lines," Boone said. "He plays the game with energy, but with a coolness and a swagger and an intensity."

Judge easily beat out Ohtani, the pitching and hitting phenom, in AL balloting to become the tallest MVP in MLB history.

Without a doubt, it was one of the greatest individual seasons in baseball annals, and all done while playing for a new contract and shouldering the enormous weight of chasing Maris in the second half.

"I don't think there's one person that didn't marvel at that," Steinbrenner said. "It's amazing. Because it wasn't just the pressure of the home run chase. It was the pressure of, you know, what's to come?"

Just before opening day, Judge declined New York's offer of $213.5 million over seven years (2023-29) and bet big on himself. He became a free agent in November and cashed in, getting a $360 million, nine-year contract to re-sign with the Yankees. It's the third-largest deal in baseball history.

Once it was done, he was appointed the team's 16th captain and the first since Derek Jeter retired after the 2014 season.

"Everything about him just screams out leader," Jeter said. "And everyone says the exact same thing."

Judge hit his 62nd home run in the penultimate game of the regular season on Oct. 4 against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. With opponents pitching carefully to him, his only homer in the previous 13 games came when he matched Maris on Sept. 28 against the Toronto Blue Jays, also on the road. That was eight days after No. 60 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As he approached the record, MLB Network cut in for live coverage of Judge's at-bats. Fans stood up when he stepped to the plate, going quiet on each pitch while taking photos and video with their cellphones.

"That was a weird experience," Judge said, chuckling. "Definitely a different scene. But glad I finally got past it. It was definitely a relief."

After the Yankees beat the Cleveland Guardians in an AL Division Series, Judge went 1-for-16 against the Astros in the ALCS. The four-time All-Star has never reached the World Series, and New York hasn't won a pennant since 2009.

"There's a lot of unfinished business here," he said.

Back in 2017, Judge slammed 52 homers to set a rookie record that was soon broken.

Now with the record and big contract, all eyes will be watching his encore in 2023.

"You never know," Judge said of expectations. "Maybe 62 is my floor. Maybe I've got a little bit more in the tank."