Three ways Aaron Judge increased his value with an early push and why he could become the Yankees’ highest-paid player

At 29-13, the New York Yankees hold the best record in baseball, even after losing their last three games. The Yankees scored a run in Sunday’s double sweep against the Chicago Sox. It was the first time they failed to score more than a point in a doubleheader since September 2014, and the first time at home since August 1991.

The Yankees scored five runs during the three-game losing streak and all five came on homers from Aaron Judge. He took ChiSox setup man Kendall Graveman deep on Sunday, then got Baltimore Orioles right-hander Jordan Lyles twice on Monday. Judge leads MLB with 17 home runs (no one else has more than 12) and overall he hits .325/.398/.715 while playing plenty of center field (13 starts) in addition to right (21 starts).

“Sometimes I take him for granted, I think. But not at the moment. He really carries us offensively,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. New York Post following Judge’s two home run effort on Monday.

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Before the season deems somewhat surprising rejected a seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension that would have taken him through to 2029, his season at age 37. It certainly wasn’t an unreasonable offer, but Judge deemed it too light, so he’s betting on himself and playing the season. And so far, it couldn’t have gone better for him. He was awesome.

Judge denying the extension put the Yankees in an awkward position where they encourage Judge to perform well, so he helps them win the World Series knowing that the better Judge performs, the more he will cost. In the end, it’s the Yankees and they can pay anything, but nobody likes to see the price go up, and the judge’s price is ascend.

Here are three ways Judge increased his value to the Yankees — and thereby increased his earning potential heading into free agency — early this season.

1. The increased value of power

For several reasons (cushioned baseballs, universal humidifier, etc.), it is more difficult to make circuits than in the past. You wouldn’t know that by looking at Judge, who leads the majors with 17 home runs and has gone deep 16 times in his last 27 games. Overall, however, the league-wide home run rate is down in 2022, as Rob Manfred & Co. predicted.

If home runs are harder to hit, then home runs become much more valuable. The judge’s ability to hit hard in baseball is nearly unmatched in the game today. He’s not a product of the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium — judge’s home runs average 409 feet this year (MLB’s average is 399 feet) — he’s the product of hitting the ever-ball-loving shit.

Here are some contact quality rankings since Opening Day 2021 (min. 400 balls hit):

Notice how multiple Yankees appear on these leaderboards (drop the minimum to 300 batted balls and Joey Gallo would appear there as well)? This is because they rely heavily on output speed and punching ability as an evaluation tool. If Judge was with another team and set to become a free agent this winter, the Yankees would salivate at the thought of signing him.

The judge is not a one trick pony. Since his rookie season, he ranks 17th among all hitters in batting average and fourth in on-base percentage, and third among outfielders in defensive points saved. He is a complete and versatile player. Power, however, is his calling card. Home runs are the best thing a batter can do at bat and hardly anyone in baseball is as good at hitting home runs as Judge is right now.

We have no idea how baseball will play from season to season, and sometimes even month to month. It makes the undeniable power, the power that plays in any park with any type of baseball, that much more valuable, and Judge has it. He’s always had it and he’s shown he can be successful with several different baseballs over the course of his career. This makes him a safe bet for the future. Teams don’t have to worry about a softball sapping their production like they do others.

2. A drop in strikeouts

Judge is a big man with long levers who has always hit and swung and missed a bunch. Strikeouts are the trade-off for power. That said, Judge has reduced his strike and swing strike rates significantly over the past few seasons, so much so that his swing strike rate of 11.1% since Opening Day 2021 is (technically!) lower than the MLB average (11.2%).

Here is the judge’s withdrawal rate over the years. A chart is worth a thousand words:

Aaron Judge has reduced his strikeout rate significantly in recent seasons.

FanGraphs

Never in his career has Judge swung and missed so rarely as he is right now, and when Judge makes contact, good things tend to happen because he hits the ball so incredibly hard. The question was always whether he had made enough contacts for his natural power to allow him to play in matches on a regular basis. He did and he does, now more than ever. There are fewer workable holes in his swing.

Judge’s career story — it dates back to his time at Fresno State and all the way through the minors — is promoted to a new level, goes through a period of adjustment, and then dominates. He struggled a lot on his debut in 2016 before having a historic rookie season in 2017, and now he’s had a long run to continue adapting to the MLB pitch. The result is the lowest strikeout rate of his career.

3. What about injuries?

Judge’s injury history is long and predates his appearance as an MLB star in 2017. It’s easier to list injuries by year:

  • 2016: Missed 24 days with a Triple-A knee sprain and 19 days with an oblique strain after being called up to MLB.
  • 2017: Played through a shoulder problem in the second half and had surgery after the season.
  • 2018: Missed 49 days with a broken wrist after being hit by a pitch.
  • 2019: Missed 61 days with an oblique strain. Also broke a rib while diving for a ball in September, but played it in the playoffs.
  • 2020: Missed 30 days total with calf strains (two stints on disabled list).

It’s a lot of injuries. Judge has played just 242 of a possible 382 regular season games from 2018-2020, or 63%, and he would have missed the start of 2020 with the fractured rib if the season had started on time (Judge doesn’t played in no spring training games before the pandemic shutting down the sport in March).

Two things about this. First, a few of these injuries are from awkward baseball plays. A broken wrist on a one-shot basis? A broken rib diving for a ball? The 2017 shoulder injury was the result of crashing into the wall to get a hold too. It’s the kind of thing that can happen to any player at any time. It happens all the time and not everyone gets hurt, but a lot of players do.

And second, notice how the injury list ends in 2020. Judge stayed healthy and played 148 games in 2021 (he spent 10 days on the COVID list) and he started 39 of the Yankees’ 42 games in 2022. He is in good health and an MVP-caliber performer the last two seasons. These are the most recent and relevant data. A healthy and dominant player.

Additionally, the Yankees have quietly become one of the best in the game at injury prevention. They sent a record 30 different players to the injured list in 2019 (an average of five per month!) and that led to an organizational overhaul in the offseason. Industry guru Eric Cressey was hired to oversee the organization’s health and training staff, and the results are now showing.

The Yankees have placed only two players on the major league disabled list since opening day (not counting the COVID list): fourth outfielder Tim Locastro, who injured his shoulder while sliding second on a stolen base, and setup man Chad Green, who will undergo tommy john surgery. Lower body soft tissue injuries (hamstrings, calves, etc.) that plagued the Yankees prior to 2021 have been significantly reduced.

Judge turned 30 last month and players generally don’t stay healthier in their 30s than in their 20s, but a) training methods are better than they’ve ever been, and b) the Yankees have already told us they’re comfortable signing Judge deep into his 30s with their extension offer. They know Judge’s medicals better than anyone. They’ve weighed the risk and are still willing to pay him big until he’s 37. That says a lot.


So what is Judge worth to the Yankees?

Either way, it’s more than his performance on the pitch. Judge’s value to the Yankees transcends his on-court play as he is their best, most marketable player. He puts cigarette butts in seats, he sells merchandise, he boosts ratings. The Yankees are willing to pay Judge what they are willing to pay him because they expect him to generate oodles of extra revenue. It’s as much a business decision as it is a baseball decision. Lose Judge and that’s a lot of lost revenue.

It’s a two-way street, of course. The Judge makes a lot of money for the Yankees and being a Yankee helps the Judge make a lot of money from endorsements. He has more endorsement deals than any other MLB player. With all due respect to all other teams, being a famous Yankee is better than being famous for anything else. This relationship is mutually beneficial.

There’s also this: Judge has proven he can thrive in New York. Bringing a player into a new environment always comes with some uncertainty, and that uncertainty is amplified in New York because it’s the biggest market in gaming. There’s no mixing in the background and just go about your business. With success and failure in New York comes increased attention, and Judge handled it all as well as anyone. For the Yankees, there is value in that certainty.

The Yankees were willing to pay Judge $30.5 million a year until age 37. They pay Gerrit Cole $36 million until age 38 and it wouldn’t shock me if Judge is looking to become the highest paid player on the team. “Pay me as much and for as long as you pay this guy”, isn’t unreasonable, I don’t think. Especially not given what Judge did last year and what he’s doing this year, and also given his off-court value to the franchise.

There is still a lot – A LOT – of a season left to play and what Judge does in the next five months will play a bigger role in his free agent contract than the past two months. The judge made an absolute bet on himself by refusing this seven-year extension, and so far he is doing everything he can to increase his value. He has done nothing but make more money to date.

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