Wednesday, June 19, 2024
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Aaron Judge and Juan Soto, MLB’s two best hitters, could pull off rare feat Yankees haven’t seen since 1930s

Bulletin: Aaron Judge and Juan Soto are adept at hitting baseballs, and the 2024 season to date has been no exception. 

Indeed, the two New York Yankees sluggers have done the heavy lifting across the first 63 games of the season – an opening stretch that has seen the Yankees author an MLB-best record of 44-19. That’s exactly as the Yanks hoped. Judge, when healthy last year, put up vintage numbers, but he had precious little help from the surrounding lineup. Aware of this deficiency, general manager Brian Cashman in December landed Soto in a blockbuster seven-player trade with the Padres. As a result, two of the best hitters in baseball were in pinstripes. 

At this juncture, that already lofty claim can be amended to say the two best hitters in baseball. Judge overcame a slow start to 2024 and is now slashing .293/.423/.667 with 21 home runs in 63 games. As for Soto, in his walk year he’s got a present slash line of .319/.422/.605 with 17 home runs and 44 walks, also in 63 games. Obviously, each batsman’s bat is driving his overall value, but Judge and Soto are more than “just” two of the very best hitters in the game so far. Judge is once again the Yankees’ primary in center field, and getting that kind of production from an up-the-middle defender makes it even more valuable. As for Soto, he’s long been a defensive liability, but that hasn’t really been the case thus far in 2024. Depending on your advanced fielding metric of choice, Soto in right field has been at worst average and according to some measures a significant defensive plus. Whether or not that’s sustainable is of course left to question, but the point is that thus far each player’s work in the field has enhanced their value at the plate. 

All of that brings us to the point of this exercise. Judge and Soto as teammates in 2024 have a chance to do something exceedingly rare across the breadth of baseball history. At present, Judge and Soto rank first and (tied with Bobby Witt Jr. for) second, respectively, in MLB in Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR, or fWAR in this instance). That leads us to the tantalizing possibility that these two Yankee label-mates will finish one-two in WAR over the full season. 

As noted by the CBS Sports research team, teammates have occupied the top two spots on the fWAR leaderboard just nine times in modern baseball history. On five of those nine occasions, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were the pairing. Here’s a look at the full list: 

Year Teammates leading league in fWAR

1996

Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners

1988

Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs, Boston Red Sox

1987

Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs, Boston Red Sox

1937

Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees

1931

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees

1930

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees

1928

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees

1927

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees

1926

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, New York Yankees

As you can see, if Judge and Soto are able to keep the fires burning, then they’ll be the first pair of teammates to lead the league in fWAR since Junior and A-Rod three decades ago. Will they pull it off? It wouldn’t be a surprise given their established excellence at the plate. For a hitter, the best indicator of future success is excellence at the level of the batted-ball, and Judge and Soto are each “best in class” when it comes to quality of contact. 

There’s an advanced metric called expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA). xwOBA grows out of wOBA, or weighted on-base average, which assigns proper value to every possible offensive event that happens while a batter is at the plate. Those proper valuations of singles, doubles, homers, walks, etc., distinguish wOBA from more traditional measures like AVG, OBP, and SLG. Also, for simplicity wOBA is scaled to look like OBP, which means that, say, .400 is elite and .290 is pretty poor. All of that brings us back to xwOBA, which is an estimation of what a hitter’s wOBA should be based on things like exit velocity off the bat and launch angle. xwOBA attempts to strip away luck — bad or good — and defensive play from wOBA and identify a hitter’s baseline skill. It’s useful for getting an idea of how a hitter figures to perform in the near-term future. 

In Judge’s case, he right now has a wOBA of .449, which is an absurdly high figure. His xwOBA this season, however, is all the way up to .476. As for Soto, he’s got a current 2024 wOBA of .438 and an xwOBA of .468. Like Judge, Soto has actually been unlucky in 2024 despite sky-scraping levels of production. Those strong fundamental indicators in tandem with Judge’s and Soto’s long histories of excellence mean, yes, they can absolutely maintain their perches atop the fWAR list and join those names above. 

The heart of the matter, though, is value in the service of winning, and indeed the Yankees have benefited greatly from the work of Judge and Soto this season. Right now, the Yanks, coming off a disappointing 82-win campaign in 2023, are tied with the Phillies for the best record in baseball and are on pace for 113 wins and an AL East title. That’s not necessarily shocking, as there’s no better “head start” on success in the standings than having the two best players on the roster. 

Speaking of which, let’s revisit those duos above and see how their teams fared in those respective seasons: 

Team Record Postseason

1996 Mariners

85-76

1988 Red Sox

89-73

Lost ALCS

1987 Red Sox

78-84

1937 Yankees

102-52-3

Won World Series

1931 Yankees

94-59-2

1930 Yankees

86-68

1928 Yankees

101-53

Won World Series

1927 Yankees

110-44-1

Won World Series

1926 Yankees

91-63-1

Lost World Series

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s a mixed bag. These “best teammates possible” squads range in success from the ’27 Yanks, one of the best teams in baseball history, to the ’87 Red Sox, who somehow finished below .500 despite getting 17.7 WAR from Clemens and Boggs. For the most part, though, having the top two players as measured by fWAR correlates with success at the team level, which is what you’d expect. 

As for Judge, Soto, and the rest of the current Yankee model, SportsLine presently gives them a a 69.4% chance of winning the AL East and a 99.9% chance of making the postseason. Those are lofty odds, and they don’t account for the fact that reigning AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole is working his way back. 

The Yankees have greatness at the individual level so far in Judge and Soto, and the season to date suggests that greatness at the team level is very much within reach. It goes without saying that one has much to do with the other. 

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