It’s fun to look back at where the Yankees and Aaron Judge were two years ago. The Yankees were, in their own words, a team in “transition,” which was their code word for rebuilding. It wasn’t a full blown teardown, but taking a step back and integrating young players into the roster is the essence of rebuilding. That’s what the Yankees were doing at the time. Introducing young players with a willingness to live through the growing pains.
Aaron Judge was not at the centerpiece of the transition — I’d say it was Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez in March 2017 — which was understandable following his .179/.263/.345 (62 wRC+) batting line with a 44.2% strikeout rate during his big league debut in late 2016. Judge had to compete for an Opening Day roster spot with Aaron Hicks, who himself had not yet established himself as a useful big leaguer.
Seven months later, Judge was the unanimous Rookie of the Year and the MVP runner-up following a truly historic rookie season. Going into last Spring Training, the question was: Can he do it again? It’s difficult to expect a player to do that again, but Judge came awfully close. His .278/.392/.528 (149 wRC+) batting line last year is both excellent and deceptively low because of his post-wrist injury skid.
On the day he suffered his wrist injury, Judge was hitting .285/.396/.548 (156 wRC+) and was one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Here are his offensive ranks among the 214 players with at least 400 plate appearances on the day he broke his wrist:
- AVG: .285 (23rd)
- OBP: .398 (6th)
- SLG: .548 (8th)
- wRC+: 156 (4th)
- HR: 26 (5th)
Judge was again one of the game’s elite hitters before that errant Jake Junis fastball broke his wrist on July 26th. When he returned, he was obviously still compromised, as his .220/.333/.341 (87 wRC+) September batting line shows. Fortunately, Judge regained his strength and clocked some dingers in the postseason. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for the Yankees to advance beyond the ALDS.
This spring Judge reported to camp as an established superstar. There are no “will he make the roster?” or “can he do it again?” questions. Judge has done it two years in a row now, he’s shown he’s much better pure hitter than his size and brute strength would lead you to believe, and he’s shown he can make adjustments. Add in strong right field defense and good baserunning, and you have a complete all-around player.
Also, Judge came to camp healthy this season. The wrist is good. He had shoulder surgery last offseason, remember, and the Yankees eased him into Grapefruit League games the same way they eased Sanchez into Grapefruit League games this spring. “Going into the season trying to stay healthy, (that) was a grind. But this year, I got a chance to work on things with my swing and my approach. That’s when it gets fun,” Judge said to James Wagner last month.
Even with a recent MVP like Giancarlo Stanton on roster, plus two Rookie of the Year candidates like Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres and prized offseason pickups like, uh, Troy Tulowitzki and DJ LeMahieu, Judge remains at the center of the Yankees universe. He’s their best hitter and best player, and one of the best hitters and best players in the sport. His 2017 season was no fluke. Now let’s preview his 2019 season.
How can he get better?
“See, that’s kind of the thing that drives me, to be honest. Nobody really knows. I don’t even know,” said Judge to Coley Harvey when asked how good he can be. “People can speculate and say, ‘He’s like this guy, he’s like that guy.’ But that unknown is kind of what drives me. Like, how good can you be? How good could somebody be? Just having that constant motivation of the unknown is kind of what pushes me.”
As good as he is — and he is great — there is one obvious aspect of Judge’s game that can improve:. His strikeout rate. He struck out in 30.5% of his plate appearances (30.6% before the wrist injury) last year, the seventh highest rate in baseball, after striking out in 30.7% of his plate appearances as a rookie. We have nearly 1,200 big league plate appearances worth of evidence the last two years telling us Judge is a true talent 30% strikeout rate hitter.
Obviously the strikeouts have not prevented Judge from being an elite hitter. That’s because, when he does make contact, it is very loud contact. His career 54.9% hard contact rate and 94.8 mph average exit velocity put him in the 99th percentile in MLB. (The league averages are 34.1% and 87.4 mph, respectively.) His .368 BABIP the last two seasons is no fluke. Hit the ball as hard as Judge and you’re going to put up big numbers, strikeouts be damned.
But still, Judge cutting down on his strikeouts would be welcome, because more contact equals much more damage. As Reggie Jackson pointed out and Derek wrote last week, Judge is working on a no-stride two-strike approach this spring an effort to cut down on his strikeouts. It’s only Grapefruit League play, I know, but this home run was incredible. Judge hit the ball out to dead center with that no-stride swing (though not in a two-strike count).
My hope is, thanks to the no-stride approach or general experience or both, Judge can cut his strikeout rate down to 25% or so. I know a five percentage point drop doesn’t sound like much, but we’re talking 30 or so extra balls in play during the course of the 162-game season. Those 30 extra balls in play equal what, four or five more homers? Ten or eleven more hits? Maybe even more than that. It adds up.
Beyond the strikeouts, there isn’t a whole lot Judge can improve. I mean, there’s always room for improvement, but he’s already an elite hitter, he’s 20th among all players (and 12th among outfielders) with +23 Defensive Runs Saved the last two years, and he rates as an above-average baserunner as well. He’s only barely above-average on the bases (+1.4 BsR and +0.9 BRR), so I guess that’s something he can improve.
With Judge, cutting down on the strikeouts is the obvious top priority. Getting down into the 25% strikeout rate range could take him from elite hitter to generational hitter. The defense and baserunning are good as well. It’s silly to think there are things Judge can’t improve though. It’s just that those things are less obvious because he’s already so close to a total package. Fewer strikeouts, better baserunning, maybe more overall consistency. Things like that.
“I’ll still be trying to improve until I’m 40 years old and I’m still talking to you, you know?” Judge said to Harvey. “I’m still learning a lot of things about myself, things about my swing, things about my approach, things that will work, things that don’t. I still have a long way to go.”
What about an extension?
The Yankees started locking up their core players in recent weeks. Severino received a four-year extension and Hicks received a seven-year extension. I imagine impending free agents Dellin Betances and Didi Gregorius are next on the extension priority list. I have to think Judge is not too far behind Didi and Dellin, even though he is still four years away from free agency and will make six figures in 2019.
There are few contract comparables for Judge at his service time level. Mike Trout’s six-year, $144M extension seems more appropriate than Matt Carpenter’s six-year, $52M extension, you know? Derek looked at a possible Judge extension two weeks ago and came up with seven years and $170M. To be honest, that seems high to me. I was thinking six years and $100M or so, with this structure:
- 2019: $1M plus $2M signing bonus (pre-arbitration year)
- 2020: $10M (arbitration year)
- 2021: $15M (arbitration year)
- 2022: $20M (arbitration year)
- 2023: $25M (free agent year)
- 2024: $25M (free agent year)
- 2025: $30M club option with $2M buyout (free agent year)
That takes Judge through his age 32 season with an option for his age 33 season. The Yankees signed Hicks through his age 35 season, so maybe they’re willing to go that long with Judge, but Hicks is two years older than Judge and he was only a year away from free agency when he signed his deal. Judge doesn’t have the same leverage as Hicks. The Yankees could simply go year-to-year with Judge through his age 30 season. There’s less urgency on their part.
Maybe the six-year, $100M idea is dumb. Probably is. The larger point here is, now that the Yankees are in the business of locking up core players long-term, you can be sure Judge is among their top priorities. The thing is, signing him now raises his luxury tax number considerably. He’s going to make $700,000 or so this year as a pre-arbitration player. Give him six years and $100M and suddenly his luxury tax hit is $16.67M. That would cost the Yankees an extra $4.9M or so in luxury tax alone in 2019.
The Yankees could, however, sign Judge to an extension that begins next season without changing his 2019 luxury tax number. They did not do that with Hicks. They ate the extra luxury tax hit this year, though that was only an extra $4M. In Judge’s case, we’re talking an extra $15M or (likely) more against luxury tax payroll. If the two sides agree to an extension before Opening Day, I would bet the farm on it kicking in next year, not this year.
At this point, a Judge extension feels inevitable. The only question is whether they get it done before Opening Day or wait until next offseason, when the price is likely to increase. The sooner you sign the player, the larger the discount. That’s how these deals work. Either way, the Yankees will enjoy Judge’s last dirt cheap pre-arbitration year. Either they wait on the extension, or they sign him to an extension that begins next year.
What about the captaincy?
Fun fact: Derek Jeter was not named captain until 2003. That was four World Series championships, six full seasons, and one ten-year contract into his career. I get why the captain thing is mentioned with Judge. He’s a great player and he represents the Yankees well on and off the field, plus he’s already seen as a leader in the clubhouse, but I think we are a very long way from the Yankees naming a new captain. This is a topic for another time. Not 2019.
“He’s handled it well,” CC Sabathia said to Harvey. “Just the whole thing — the scope of being in New York, being a younger guy, being recognizable, easy access for everything. And he does a good job of being prepared to play every day. That’s hard to do in New York. (He’s) a prime candidate to be the next captain.”
* * *
At this point two years ago Judge was an extremely strikeout prone prospect who didn’t look all that ready to handle Major League pitching. Now, going into 2019, he is on the short list of the best players in baseball, and he’s the best player the Yankees have had since peak Robinson Cano. Maybe even since peak Alex Rodriguez. A mammoth extension is coming at some point, maybe even the captaincy as well.
For now, the goal for Judge this season is stay healthy, cut down on the strikeouts, and gain overall consistency with his game. Judge will tell you the goal is winning the World Series, and it is, but he is only one man. Winning the World Series is a team accomplishment and Judge has more than pulled his weight the last two seasons. He’s established himself as a true franchise player and he’s on the path to becoming an all-time great Yankee.
“His competition, for me, is in the monuments. His competition, for me, is the history of the Yankees,” Reggie Jackson said to Harvey. “If you look at some of the things he has done, he compares to (Babe) Ruth and (Lou) Gehrig. He’s put up crazy numbers.”