Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Aaron Judge is much more than a home run hitter, and the Yankees cannot afford to lose him

There is a new American League home run king. Tuesday night, New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge swatted his 62nd home run of 2022, a new single-season record in the 122-year-old Junior Circuit. The previous record was, of course, 61 home runs by Roger Maris in 1961.

Here is Judge’s history-making blast:

The 62 home runs are the seventh most in history. Barry Bonds is the all-time leader with 73 in 2001. Mark McGwire (70 in 1998 and 65 in 1999) and Sammy Sosa (66 in 1998, 64 in 2001, and 63 in 1999) are the only others to top Judge’s total. Here is the AL’s new single-season home run leaderboard:

  1. Aaron Judge, 2022 Yankees: 62 and counting
  2. Roger Maris, 1961 Yankees: 61
  3. Babe Ruth, 1927 Yankees: 60
  4. Babe Ruth, 1921 Yankees: 59
  5. Jimmie Foxx, 1932 Athletics and Hank Greenberg, 1938 Tigers: 58

Home run records get all the attention and understandably so, but Judge is so much more than a home run hitter. He’s in the mix for a batting title and the Triple Crown, he has played most of the season in center field (and played it well), and he has an outside chance to steal 20 bases as well. Judge is baseball’s first 11-WAR player since Bonds in 2004.

“I tune it out,” Judge recently told MLB.com about all the attention. “I try to stay off all of that stuff as much as I can. If you have a bad game, they’re going to say something. You have a good game, they’re going to say something. I just focus on what I’ve got to do here, focus on helping this team. The opinions of my teammates and coaches, that’s what matters to me.”

Judge’s historic season could not have come at a better time, both for him and the Yankees. He’ll be a free agent in a few weeks and his next contract figures to top $300 million. As for the Yankees, they’ve had an uneven season and nearly collapsed out of the AL East lead entirely. New York is 38-38 since peaking at 61-23 on July 8. The AL East standings since that date:

  1. Blue Jays: 46-29
  2. Orioles: 41-34
  3. Rays: 42-36
  4. Yankees: 38-38

  5. Red Sox: 31-45

On July 8 the Yankees led the AL East by 15 1/2 games. The lead was whittled down to 3 1/2 games as recently as Sept. 9. The Yankees were able to right the ship somewhat within these last three weeks and they recently clinched the AL East title, as well as a Wild Card Series bye. Still, the fact they had to sweat a little bit is not something they expected a few months ago.

That the Yankees have faded so much these last three months despite Judge’s singular greatness is a damning indictment of the rest of the roster. Judge has hit .345/.494/.769 since our magic date of July 8. The rest of the Yankees have hit .231/.304/.374, which is worse than the .243/.311/.395 league average despite the Yankees playing their home games in home run-happy Yankee Stadium.

Wake-up call isn’t the right word. The Yankees know they need Judge. Their recent play is more like a reminder of exactly how much they need him. Judge is the best player in baseball right now and by definition that makes him irreplaceable. Even if he never repeats 2022, Judge has a track record of MVP-caliber seasons. Losing the 2021 version of Judge would be devastating too.

New York’s outfield picture beyond 2022 includes Harrison Bader and that’s really it. Giancarlo Stanton is a most-of-the-time DH and Andrew Benintendi will join Judge in free agency after the World Series. Aaron Hicks has seemingly played his way out of town too. Oswaldo Cabrera, a natural infielder, has manned the outfield the last few weeks. The outfield picture without Judge is grim.

The upcoming free agent class includes a few quality everyday outfielders (Benintendi, Mitch Haniger, Brandon Nimmo, etc.) but none on Judge’s level. To replace him, the Yankees would have to take the old Moneyball approach. Like the Athletics replacing Jason Giambi, the Yankees would have to upgrade 3-4 positions and replace Judge in the aggregate, and that is very difficult.

There’s also an off-the-field component to consider. Judge is the Yankees’ biggest draw since Derek Jeter — No. 99 jerseys now outnumber No. 2 jerseys at Yankee Stadium — and there is no replacing that star power. Good luck building a similarly effective marketing campaign around Stanton or Gerrit Cole or Anthony Volpe. No offense to them, but it can’t be done.

Judge sells tickets, and when you sell tickets, you also sell concessions and merchandise. Judge also drives television ratings, and when you do that, you boost ad sales. To wit:

When the Yankees offered Judge a $213.5 million extension this spring, they did so because their internal analysis said he would make them multitudes more in revenue. Extending Judge will be a business decision as much as it is a baseball decision.

“We’re all disappointed right now that we can’t be talking about a contract extension today. Not now, but hopefully later,” GM Brian Cashman said after Judge rejected the extension in spring training. “… Both sides would like to be here. I think Aaron Judge doesn’t want to be anywhere but here, and we’d love to make that happen as well.”

Without Judge the Yankees would likely be battling for a wild-card spot rather than celebrating a division title, and seeing how they have the oldest collection of position players in baseball, there’s not much upside on the roster. Add in the off-the-field impact and losing Judge to free agency would be a double whammy. The Yankees would be worse on the field and make less money.

There is always a point where it makes sense to walk away. The bidding war could get out of hand — all it takes is one desperate general manager and/or owner to gum up the works — and reach a point where it makes sense for the Yankees to pivot and use their dollars elsewhere. I suspect that point is far higher with Judge than it is with most players, however.

For now, Judge is the new American League home run king, and his unmatched greatness helped the Yankees stave off the largest division collapse in baseball history (no team has blown more than a 13-game lead). His value to the franchise transcends his on-field production and the Yankees can’t afford to lose him to free agency, for more reason than one.

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