AL Rookie of the Year race might not be closed

Aug 22, 2017 - 5:54 AM BOSTON -- In the wake of a singular first half, the die was cast. New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge would be the 2017 American League Rookie of the Year. No one was even close. No one had a chance to catch up to him. It didn't even merit discussion.

It may be turning into a conversation now, six weeks later.

Judge has stumbled into a protracted slump. His batting average has fallen almost 50 points. His strikeout rate has doubled. He has followed a first half in which he hit to a spectacular 1.139 on-base-plus slugging percentage with a second half of a pedestrian .684. He has the dubious distinction of striking out in a record-tying 37 consecutive games.

And New York manager Joe Girardi now has to consider moving his star out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order to maybe take some weight off Judge's shoulders.

In August, Judge is hitting .169 with three home runs and five RBIs in 18 games as the Yankees have given up five games in the standings to the Boston Red Sox. That includes losing two of three to Boston at Yankee Stadium two weekends ago and two of three at Fenway Park last weekend.

Girardi said Sunday the "the plan" is to leave him where he is, but even Judge had to admit after going 1-for-12 with five strikeouts in the three-game Boston series, "I am not getting the job done. I am a No. 3 hitter ... and I have to be that guy for this team."

In order to turn the AL Rookie of the Year award into a conversation, it takes more than just one guy slumping. And that brings us to the surging Andrew Benintendi of the Red Sox. Benintendi was anointed the favorite for the award at the start of the season. Outlets that track such things called him the No. 1 prospect in baseball.

Before the All-Star break, the Boston left fielder hit .279 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs. Those are pretty good numbers, but were dwarfed by Judge's first-half feats: .329 with 30 homers and 66 RBIs.

Things have changed. In 33 games since the All-Star break, Benintendi is hitting .280 with six home runs and 19 RBIs. Judge since the break: .169 with seven homers and 14 RBIs in 35 games.

Perhaps what is happening is a discourse on how the pressure of expectations can weigh on a young player.

Judge faced no expectation entering the season, having surprisingly made the 25-man roster when the Yankees broke camp after hitting .179 in 27 games the year before. By the end of June, he was the AL's top vote-getter for the All-Star Game. In Miami he not only owned the Home Run Derby -- which frankly turned the game into the undercard -- but commissioner Rob Manfred said Judge is "the kind of player that can become the face of the game."

So what greeted him in the second half? The attention of baseball fans everywhere and a fascination for whether he would continue to dominate. Would he conquer Mark McGwire's rookie homer record of 49? Would he keep pace and become the MVP?

Benintendi had all the expectations in the first half, and when he didn't match Judge, the pressure was off. At the break, he had no chance to even get into a conversation about Rookie of the Year. And yet here we are six weeks later.

In August, Benintendi is batting .375 with six homers and 16 RBIs.

He has 19 home runs and won't catch Judge (37). He is 11 RBIs behind Judge's 80 and could close that gap or pass Judge. If trends continue, he might hit for a higher average; Benintendi is at .279, Judge at .282. Still, there is a long way to go.

Other players now have a shot to make their way into the conversation if one emerges. Baltimore's Trey Mancini is hitting .283 with 21 home runs and 62 RBIs. Houston's Yuli Gurriel is batting .295 with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs.

There is still nearly a quarter of the season remaining. It still is not a debate yet. If the voting were to happen today, Judge would come out with an overwhelming win.

Girardi believes that Judge's issue is mechanical. A shoulder is lower. The swing plane is different.

"I believe in him," the manager said, though whether he moves him in the lineup could say more.

"I am putting in the work and grinding," Judge said. "The results are going to come."

If they don't, a great debate is in the offing.

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