It’s mid-June, and despite this weekend’s four-game sweep at the hands of the Oakland A’s, the New York Yankees are still playing some of their best baseball in franchise history. (A history that, as they’re fond of reminding us, includes 27 world championships.) New York’s current +108 run differential has been surpassed at this stage of the season only 12 times in club history, most recently during its 114-win 1998 campaign (and before that, in 1942). What started as an early-season curiosity has turned into a realistic bid for another pinstriped World Series crown.
The Yankees are even fun to watch this time around, thanks in no small part to mammoth right fielder Aaron Judge. Every time he comes up, the 6-foot-7 Judge towers over the plate, threatening to obliterate all stray baseballs tossed in the south Bronx. Just a week ago Sunday, he launched one of the most monstrous home runs on record, this 496-foot tater at Yankee Stadium:
Judge’s stupefying raw power has quickly made him a folk hero in an era of hyper-analyzed ball-physics data. Although a this is hardly the first time a Yankees outfielder has gained fame for hitting the ball hard, it is the first time we’ve been so able to obsessively quantify the impressiveness of those hits. Judge is a superstar defined in large part by pure magnitude: his own unusual height, plus how far and how fast he smashes baseballs.
In that sense, it’s easy to compare Judge to Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, another hitter whose legend has grown with every terabyte of data collected by Statcast, the radar system that tracks every batted ball on every MLB field. And the resemblance isn’t merely a superficial one between hard-hitting righties — the Yankees really do, for all intents and purposes, now have their very own Giancarlo Stanton clone in the middle of the lineup. Among outfielders of a similar age1 since the strike, with at least 400 plate appearances per 162 team games, Stanton’s 2014 campaign was the third-most similar season to Judge’s 2017 so far — as determined by which player has the smallest differences2 between their percentile rankings and Judge’s in each of five key categories (hitting for contact and power; drawing walks; speed; and position-adjusted defense):
Like Stanton, Judge is much more than a one-trick ball-masher. (Or, to shatter another common comparison, a pinstriped Richie Sexson.) In fact, Judge’s value this year will probably end up surpassing even Stanton’s by season’s end. Judge currently leads the major leagues in wins above replacement (WAR),3 with a total that projects to reach 10.4 WAR — the 40th-best season by a batter since 1901 — if he keeps this pace up over the entire season.
Judge is unlikely to continue playing quite so well, of course: His batting average on balls in play is an unsustainably high .431, for instance, and he has hit an astonishing 41 percent of his fly balls out of the yard. Those numbers will probably dip before the season is over. Pitchers are smart; they’ll surely discover new ways to get Judge out. But his underlying stats are so impressive that the drop-off might not be too severe. And besides, Judge could play at an average level from here on out and still produce 5.5 WAR, the best season by a Yankee since Robinson Cano left town in 2013.
The idea that New York would even get that much from Judge seemed farfetched before the year began. Among New York’s young major league talent, catcher Gary Sanchez and first baseman Greg Bird appeared to be the more likely headliners. Little about Judge — who hit .179 and produced -0.4 WAR after his debut last season, which dropped him 14 slots him to No. 90 in Baseball America’s 2017 prospect rankings — screamed “breakout superstar.” But Sanchez missed a month early in the schedule, and Bird has added practically nothing amidst multiple injury setbacks. Judge, meanwhile, is currently the American League’s MVP favorite, particularly now that reigning MVP Mike Trout is injured.
If Judge does end up winning that piece of individual hardware, he’d be its most unheralded winner ever. Not only has no single-season WAR leader ever gone into a season with fewer than zero career WAR before, but no eventual MVP has ever entered the year with fewer WAR to his name than Judge’s -0.4 mark:
The only MVPs who started from a place similarly close to nowhere were Ichiro Suzuki, who won the award in 2001 in his first year in the (American) majors — he played in Japan until 2000, so he had zero career major league WAR before the season — and Vida Blue, who exploded for 8.5 WAR in 1971 after an up-and-down first two years in the big leagues. Both had terrific seasons in their MVP campaigns, but neither led the league in WAR; Judge is trying to do both, and from an even less likely starting point.
The Yankees aren’t used to having this kind of a superstar performance materialize out of thin air. This is a franchise with a proud history of big-name talent, but many of its marquee names were brought in as established commodities in recent years. In Judge, however, New York might just have a rare homegrown MVP on its hands. Given that the franchise was already ahead of schedule in its rebuild, that’s scary news for the rest of baseball.