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When Aaron Judge steps to the plate, it's must-see TV

NEW YORK -- If you have any interest in the New York Yankees this season, you've probably asked the question: "When is Aaron Judge up?"

Judge's at-bats have become mini-events inside the game. While his second half hasn't matched his first, the attention hasn't waned. The Yankees' television ratings have gone up overall -- and, at times, have gone down after Judge has finished hitting.

In a mundane win over the Tigers on July 31, the Yankees' TV network, YES, posted its highest single-game rating since Derek Jeter's final home game in 2014. The ratings peaked during the seventh inning, when, probably not coincidentally, Aaron Judge stepped to the plate.

The game averaged 446,000 viewers, according to YES, but spiked to 571,000 in the seventh inning as the Yankees took the lead and Judge batted. It's impossible to definitively draw a straight line between the interest in Judge and the ratings, but on a visceral level it makes sense.

"With what he has been doing this year, with the size and the ability he has, you are just like, 'All right, this ball might go a long ways,'" Yankees All-Star reliever Dellin Betances said. "You anticipate that. That is what the fans do as well. When he comes up, they anticipate like something good is going to happen."

It's the same in the broadcast booth, where there is a concerted effort to make sure there is "no business handled" during Judge's at-bats, according to YES' play-by-play voice, Michael Kay. In other words, there are no promotional reads, no replays, just Judge TV.

"You don't want the possibility that you might miss a pitch," Kay said. "We decided this early on, when he started mashing the ball. All of his at-bats had to be clean. You want that with all the players but for certain with him."

Kay said he ranks the anticipation for Judge's at-bats right up there with Alex Rodriguez's and Don Mattingly's in their prime. And fans are tuning in: Ratings for games on YES are up 57 percent this season.

And even though Judge isn't the only reason to watch the Bronx Bombers this season, there's plenty of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that interest spikes when Judge emerges from the on-deck circle. Ratings for YES' "Batting Practice Today" pregame show -- BP blasts are a Judge specialty -- are up a whopping 135 percent. There's also the nascent Twitter handle, @JudgeAtBat, that alerts fans about when to tune in. The excitement is clear in the atmosphere inside Yankee Stadium and the buzz among fans both in the Big Apple and on social media.

ESPN senior analyst Ben Smith studied the nine plate appearances Judge has made on the network this year. While it was small sample size and there was no definitive link between the slugger and spikes in the ratings on a minute-by-minute basis, there were signs of a decline immediately after Judge's at-bats. In other words, it seems some viewers tuned out after Judge hit. Meanwhile, ratings for Yankees games on ESPN are up 16 percent year to year. And the Home Run Derby, which Judge won, scored the event's highest rating since 2008 -- and its second highest in two decades.

Judge's impact is also apparent in merchandise sales. His All-Star batting practice jersey was the most sold of any ballplayer in the past decade, according to MLB public relations. His Yankees uniform is the league's third most popular, just behind two members of the World Series champion Cubs -- Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

"We see the sales at retail and in our channels, the amount of Judge jerseys being sold are extremely, extremely high," said Noah Garden, MLB's executive vice president of business.

Garden added: "He is resonating, especially with the younger audience."

The level of focus on Judge, so early in his career, has arguably been unmatched by any of his contemporaries.

"For baseball, in the current generation, there has not been a player who has gotten as much attention and as positive a notoriety as Aaron Judge has received his rookie season," said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant and the president of the Chicago-based Sportscorp. "It just hasn't happened. Even if you compare it to Bryce Harper. Bryce Harper, his first year, is a fraction of the attention that Aaron Judge has received. Kris Bryant won Rookie of the Year and is on the Cubs, [and he got] a fraction of the attention that Aaron Judge has received."

Judge's pure immensity -- he's 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, if you haven't noticed -- combined with his warm personality has made him a fan favorite. He does little things fans appreciate, starting with putting his team before his personal accomplishments.

"Everything about him lends to this fascination," Kay said. "In the era of, 'Look at me, look at me,' he is all about, 'Look at us, look at us.' That, ironically enough, makes people look at him."

That personality trait has charmed advertisers, too, though Judge has decided to pass -- for now.

"Thus far, he has been focused on the game, but I think over time you'll see from an endorsement perspective, I know that there are partners who would like to be more involved," Garden said. "Partners who use players who would want him more involved in their promotion. I think over time you will see that start to happen and his popularity will increase even more.

"I think it goes to his maturity. He is playing the long ball here."

Judge has always stood out a little because of his size. But his life has changed since he tore up MLB parks in the first half.

"You just put your blinders up," Judge said. "I got a job to do on the field. I just focus on what the team needs me to do to win. If I do that for 170-180 games, however many games we play this year. You look up and you have a pretty good year. You have an offseason to relax and you come back to do the same thing. It is just having your blinders."

The fans can't seem to take their eyes off of him.