Can Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton Stay Healthy in 2021?

Yankees need their middle-of-the-order presence to be present

I was sitting in the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Opening Day 2018 when Giancarlo Stanton launched an opposite-field home run in his first Yankees at-bat. Later in the game, I watched Stanton hit a second home run, a majestic shot to straightaway center that seemed like it might carry forever. The Yankees had come within one win of the 2017 World Series and had traded for the 2017 National League MVP and he looked like he would continue building on his 59-home run season from the year before. I couldn’t help but spend the entire first two days of the 2018 season in Toronto thinking the Yankees were going to get back to the World Series.

It didn’t work out that way and still hasn’t. The Yankees were humiliated in the 2018 ALDS, lost four of the last five games in the 2019 ALCS and then were embarrassed as an organization in the 2020 ALDS. The team that came within one win of the 2017 World Series hasn’t gotten back to that point. They haven’t gotten timely hitting or consistent starting pitching in the postseason the last three years, but they also haven’t been in the best possible position to win in October by achieving home-field advantage. That’s partially Aaron Boone’s fault, but it’s mainly been due to injuries.

After setting the all-time single-season-record for players placed on the injured list in 2019, the Yankees rebuilt their medical and training staff and hired Eric Cressy as their director of player health and performance. (Cressy also works with non-Yankees and had been working with recently-signed Yankee Corey Kluber, which is part of the reason the Yankees committed $11 million to the former Cy Young winner despite having thrown only 36 2/3 innings over the last two seasons.)

Cressy went on YES on Thursday and discussed keeping the Yankees healthy in 2021, especially their two middle-of-the-order bats in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who have spent most of the last two seasons on the injured list.

“In both cases, they’ve lifted less than they have in the past,” Cressy said of Judge and Stanton this offseason. “Aaron, in particular, has really taken a heavy interest in a lot of yoga. We have to be mindful of the stresses on guys who are 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, big dudes who are standing around for long periods of time in cleats. Those are things that normal people don’t encounter.”

Cressy’s comments implying Judge and Stanton can’t stay healthy because they “stand around for long periods of time in cleats” is quite the stretch. Judge’s three most significant injuries (not including the freak hit-by-pitch fractured wrist) in his five years with the Yankees have been two oblique injuries (2016 and 2019) and the fractured rib/collapsed lung (suffered in 2019, but affected 2020). None of the three had anything to do with standing around in cleats.

Stanton, played 158 games in 2018 and played in 73 of those games as an outfielder. In 2019, he played in only 18 games and missed two-and-a-half months after the third game of the season and then another two months after returning in late June, so it’s hard to pin any of his long list of injuries from 2019 on “standing around.” In 2020, Stanton played in only 23 games and was the designated hitter in all 23 games. There was no “standing around” for him except for standing on the bases, which has become difficult for the Stanton.

“Anytime you see an athlete who has some chronic stuff, there is a perception that they’re not working hard,” Cressy said. “It couldn’t be further from the truth. Those guys are rock stars in every aspect of their preparation, from how they come into the training room to the work they put in in the weight room.”

I don’t think anyone thinks Judge and Stanton aren’t working hard. They’re just injury-prone players. Cressy said so himself by saying that they are “rock stars in every aspect of their preparation.” If they are preparing exactly how they should and still suffering injuries, which keep them out for extended periods of time, then they’re injury-prone.

It was mysterious when Judge’s fractured rib/collapsed lung was misdiagnosed as a shoulder issue in February 2020 and when he suffered a calf injury in 2020 on Aug. 11, came back on Aug. 26, and re-injured it in his first game back. (Boone also blatantly lied about the calf injury and the team greatly mishandled it.) But in neither of those instances or any injury Judge has sustained as a Yankee has there ever been any doubt he wasn’t working hard. He just happens to get hurt. He happens to get hurt a lot.

It’s not that Stanton isn’t working hard either, it’s just that his injuries haven’t been as easy to understand. In 2019, he endured a biceps strain in the third game of the season and went on the IL. While he was on the IL, the biceps strain turned into a shoulder strain, and while still on the IL, the biceps strain and shoulder strain also became a calf strain. He went on the IL after the third game of the season, came off it in late June, played in six games and went back on the IL until mid-September. He played in 18 regular-season games, returned for the playoffs and benched himself for health reasons in the ALCS.

In late February 2020, Stanton was shut down with another calf injury in spring training. He was healthy by the time the season started in late July, but in the second week of August, he was back home on the IL with a hamstring injury, which kept him out for more than half of the shortened season. Stanton’s injuries are always related to a muscle strain or pull. He takes an exorbitant amount of time to recover from his injuries and they mostly happen doing something which shouldn’t be an issue for baseball players: running the bases.

“Prior to Game 5 [of the ALDS], he was out doing some sprint work and it was as athletic as I had ever seen him,” Cressy said. “I was confident that he could have gone out to play the outfield for us that night. It was super encouraging.”

In the postseason, Stanton was the player I thought the Yankees were trading for prior to the 2018 season, as he hit .308/.387/1.038 with six home runs in 71 plate appearances in the Yankees’ seven playoff games. So it’s no surprise he looked the best he had ever looked health-wise to Cressy since he was playing better than he had at any point in his three seasons with the Yankees.

Cressy makes it sound like it would take a miracle for Stanton to play the outfield once again and it would have been a miracle had he played the outfield in the postseason. Brian Cashman made it clear in his end-of-the-season press conference that Stanton is no longer an outfield option for the Yankees. Stanton is a 31-year-old who is owed $208 million over the next seven seasons and then another $10 million as a buyout in 2028 (yes, the Marlins are paying a portion of his contract, so it’s not all on the Yankees), and he’s a full-time DH.

Cashman worked tirelessly for years to free up the DH role to use as a way to give players a “half day” of rest and not have spot tied up in a one-dimensional player. After moving on from a 41-year-old Alex Rodriguez during the 2016 season, he gave the spot to a 37-year-old Matt Holliday for 2017. Stanton played more than half of his games as the DH in 2018 and then the spot was somewhat freed up in 2019 and 2020 because of Stanton’s injuries, but as long as Stanton is healthy, he will be the DH. The only way to give players non named Stanton somewhat of a day off for the next seven years is to give them the entire day off.

“2020 was a little bit of a dumpster fire in terms of Major League Baseball injuries,” Cressy said. “What baseball really learned last year above all else is you can’t do spring training in three weeks. There’s a very skill-specific sport aspect of preparation that takes time for that adaptation to kick in.”

The entire league might have been a dumpster fire for injuries last year, but the Yankees have been a dumpster fire for injuries the last two years. The Yankees can’t afford to have 2021 go the same way. They can’t afford to keep losing Judge and Stanton.

Subscribe to the Keefe To The City Podcast. New episodes every Monday and Thursday during the offseason.

My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!