Aaron Judge is missed. Certainly by the Yankees. But also by the game.
As MLB struggles to cultivate a next generation of fans, Judge is magnetic. He is talented and distinct. Eyes gravitate to him. His at-bats are must see. He weds massive size and low maintenance, a humble giant.
Like Derek Jeter, Judge is the Yankees’ No. 2 hitter, yet the No. 1 draw — possessing characteristics that are overt in skill, but also intangible. The Yankees have not been the same since Judge went down with a late July wrist fracture. They miss his skill. There is more, though. Aura. Presence. Unflappability.
The Yankees need him to return this September, and so does the game. Because when he swings, possibilities open, eyes widen, imagination expands.
In this case, Judge is batting leadoff in our 10 most interesting players for September and, yes, there is a New York lean on top (pssst, the first name of The Post is New York):
2. Jacob deGrom — In August a pitcher permitted six or more earned runs 76 times. DeGrom gave up six earned runs in August. In six starts. And 43 ²/₃ innings. And with better umpiring and defense around him, it would have been less.
Maybe deGrom will win five or six more times in September and create separation from Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola and Washington’s Max Scherzer. But if the righty doesn’t, NL Cy Young voters might have to ask can you pick a starter who doesn’t reach double-digit wins or has a losing record? A 1.61 ERA through August is amazing. But only made more so by the lack of support that had deGrom 8-8.
3. Shohei Ohtani — The most interesting man in baseball returns to start Sunday for the first time since June 6. Ohtani has been out — as a pitcher — with a sprained elbow ligament. If he continues his pre-injury schedule of starting once a week, Ohtani would pitch five times in September for the Angels. If he does well, would that elevate him by Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres for AL Rookie of the Year?
The perception as the month begins is that Andujar is now the frontrunner. And he is having a terrific rookie season — as a hitter. But he cannot hit and field well together. Ohtani, in 270 plate appearances, has an OPS 42 percent better than the MLB average (factoring in park and league) and in nine starts so far had an ERA 36 percent better. It is a staggering, unique tandem.
4. Chris Sale — The Red Sox ace is on the DL for a second time with an inflamed left shoulder. But Boston officials do not seem overly concerned, and there is a growing sense this is about, yes, healing an ailment, but also about giving a pit stop to Sale before a championship chase.
The Red Sox know to validate what could be a historic regular-season win total, they probably will need Sale excelling — and Sale appeared run down in a Division Series loss last year. Actually, they really could use Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez, who returned Saturday, in top form so they could move Nathan Eovaldi (who has an 8.05 ERA in his past five starts) from the rotation to try to address the one major concern — a wanting bullpen.
Sale was one of just five pitchers to top 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. He is at just 146 now, which might cost him the Cy Young. But the Red Sox have bigger goals.
5. J.D. Martinez — Like pitching wins, the Triple Crown has lost luster as statistics such as batting average and RBIs have diminished in importance to most who construct teams. Still, just 14 times in the game’s modern history (since 1901) has someone led their league in batting average, homers and RBIs, and the past four — Mickey Mantle (1956), Frank Robinson (1966), Carl Yastrzemski (1967) and Miguel Cabrera (2012) — won the AL MVP.
Martinez began September leading the AL in RBIs by 10, tied for the homer lead with Oakland’s Khris Davis and eight points behind Boston teammate Mookie Betts for the batting title. Ramirez and Betts may be the AL MVP frontrunners — with the Indians’ Francisco Lindor, the Angels’ Mike Trout and perhaps the Astros’ Alex Bregman and the A’s Matt Chapman as factors. Do any MVP voters care any longer about the Triple Crown?
6. Kenley Jansen — The Nationals are the majors’ most disappointing team. But if the Dodgers miss the playoffs, they would stand side-by-side with Washington. And as September began they were on the outside looking in.
The Dodgers have been undermined by their bullpen, but thought all would be better when Jansen returned after missing two weeks in August with an irregular heartbeat. But in his first four appearances off the DL, Jansen had a 15.75 ERA and had surrendered 11 hits in four innings, including four homers, before a shutout inning Friday. He had allowed 10 homers in 2018 or one more than 2016-17 combined. The Dodgers will be challenged to outdo the Diamondbacks and Rockies in the NL West or even score a wild card without Jansen reverting to dominant form.
7. Bryce Harper — Yep, those Nationals are out of it, but Harper still intrigues. Perhaps nothing he does can further impact one of the most anticipated free agencies ever. Yet, he still has one more month — possibly his last in Washington — to either encourage or discourage potential suitors that he is worth $300 million? $400 million? More? He does not turn 26 until an October that will be free of playoff baseball for him. September is his playoffs.
8. Andrew Miller — He is on the DL for the third time, on this occasion with a shoulder impingement. That harms his free agency. The Indians hope the lefty returns this month, knowing their chances to end the majors’ longest championship drought (since 1948) all but vanishes if they cannot fix their pen.
It is not just Miller. Closer and fellow free-agent-to-be Cody Allen had a 6.26 ERA in his past 23 appearances and Padres acquisition Adam Cimber has been awful. The bullpen mainstays have been the other part of that trade from San Diego, Brad Hand, and — believe it or not — Oliver Perez.
9. Ronald Acuna — He has a 144 OPS-plus. Among players 20 or younger in the Live Ball Era (since 1920) who accumulated 350 plate appearances, here is who did better than the Braves rookie: Mike Trout, Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx. That is five Hall of Famers, A-Rod (not eligible yet) and Trout (still playing).
Next on the list: Nationals outfielder Juan Soto at 143.
If you think that makes the NL Rookie of the Year competition interesting in September, yes, yes, it does.
10. Justin Verlander — He was obtained by the Astros with one minute left before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline last year and helped pitch Houston to its first title. After his first start of August this year, he had a 2.19 ERA and was in Cy Young conversations. But in his next five starts Verlander had a 6.57 ERA and .948 OPS against. Can Houston repeat without him rediscovering the best of himself?
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