By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Aaron Judge needs to hit the rookie wall pronto, because the takes are already getting out of control.
The culprit today, surprisingly, is ESPN’s Buster Olney, who wrote a fawning column about the Yankees rookie slugger. Olney is one of the more respected baseball writers in America, but he goes way over the top in his column as he makes direct comparisons to George Herman “Babe” Ruth – who remains perhaps the most legendary baseball player in history, certainly the most legendary Yankee.
“The Babe” is a god among legends in the sport, let alone the Yankees, and comparisons to him should really be off-limits until you see a player legitimately rise to his level of dominance over a long period of time. It’s as bad as comparing a rookie hockey player to Wayne Gretzky or a rookie basketball player to Michael Jordan or a rookie quarterback to Tom Brady.
Olney is comparing Judge to Ruth just 86 games into his major league career.
Olney couches his comparisons by describing them as “assessing the potential of Judge’s marketability,” but he promptly goes to Judge’s stats, attributes, and abilities as a ballplayer. Describing Ruth as “a transformative star who lifted the sport to the status of national pastime in his era,” he wonders whether Judge could similarly elevate baseball’s popularity the way Ruth did in the 1930s.
Some of the comparisons are indisputable. Judge’s size, a Gronk-like 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, certainly dwarfs most of his peers in the same way Ruth did. Much like Ruth in his heyday, Judge’s home runs have become some of sports’ most eye-popping highlights. His longballs often fly higher and farther than anyone else in baseball. He recently hit the longest home run since ESPN began tracking distances in 2009, with this 496-foot moon shot:
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Judge is a monster and may very well turn out to be the next Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera with his bat. But Babe Ruth? That should never roll off the keyboard of any serious writer as an actual comparison, let alone someone as prominent as Olney. Judge could dominate the AL East for 15 years and still not be in Ruth’s stratosphere.
Judge currently leads the American League with a .347 batting average and 22 home runs, and is just one off the league lead in RBIs with 49 to Nelson Cruz’s 50. He’s not just the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year; he could be in the MVP discussion by the end of the season.
The kid has had a phenomenal start to his career, no doubt. The Red Sox are going to have their hands full with him for a long time. But there’s good reason to believe Judge will eventually drop way off his current pace, and not just the obvious like his projected 58 home runs. He has a disgustingly high .437 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which means that the balls that don’t go out of the ballpark are falling at a wholly unsustainable rate (the average BABIP is around .290-.300). His “isolated power” (ISO), a raw power stat that has typically settled around .275-.320 for the major-league leaders in recent years, is .380.
Even looking at Judge’s “marketability” is likely a futile exercise when trying to compare him to Ruth. Olney admits that Judge lacks Ruth’s larger-than-life personality. Judge’s at-bats may be must-see TV, but his postgame interviews are not.
It’s fair to say, however, that Judge has a chance to be baseball’s next great marketing superstar, regardless of his personality. He’s huge, he hits bombs, and he wears No. 99 in pinstripes. Jersey sales and All-Star votes are already through the roof.
But Ruth … the Great Bambino … should not enter the discussion just yet.
Let’s at least see how it goes for Judge for, I don’t know, four or five years before we start rolling out the Ruth comparisons. The problem with comparing anyone ever to Ruth is that he dominated the game in his era unlike any other ballplayer in history, even more so than the likes of Barry Bonds. As Olney noted, Ruth often hit more home runs than entire teams, something that Judge (and anybody else) will never do again.
Maybe we can have the Ruth conversation if Judge just keeps smashing baseballs out of Yankee Stadium. If he’s hitting 70 home runs a year when everyone else is topping out at 40, then the Ruth comparisons could have some legitimacy. But the kid hasn’t played his 100th game yet; it shouldn’t need to be said that invoking the name Babe Ruth is way too early.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.