From the moment he burst onto the scene with a then-record 52 home runs as a rookie in 2017, Aaron Judge’s seemingly limitless potential has captured the imaginations of the New York Yankees and their fans. Not only did Judge win American League Rookie of the Year honors that year, but he immediately finished second1 in MVP balloting at the age of 25, while his team came within a win of making the World Series. If that was Judge’s introduction to stardom, he and the Yankees appeared well-positioned to recapture the franchise’s past glories in the years ahead.
But although Judge went on to be one of MLB’s better players over the seasons that followed, he was never quite able to sustain the MVP-level form of his rookie campaign … until now.
So far in 2022, Judge is on pace for career highs in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS+ and wins above replacement,2 where Judge ranks third among all players (including batters and pitchers).3 Not coincidentally, the Yankees are also on a tear, winning 23 of their past 27 games and rising to No. 2 in our World Series odds, with a 17 percent chance of claiming the team’s 28th championship (and its first since 2009). For both player and team, this could finally be a season of fully realized potential in the Bronx.
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It would be extremely unfair to say Judge has disappointed with his play in the past several seasons. According to WAR, he has consistently been a top-25 batter — and top-40 player overall — aside from in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020 (when he played in fewer than half of the Yankees’ 60 games). But when you come out and lead all of MLB in WAR as a rookie, like Judge did in 2017, the standards for subsequent seasons tend to be higher.
That goes double when you play in New York City, wearing Yankee pinstripes in the wake of Derek Jeter’s still-recent retirement. Or when you are one of a select few players expected to help a sport reclaim its former place in the wider culture. With MLB perennially searching (in vain) for a proverbial “face of baseball,” Judge’s sudden emergence provided a tantalizing candidate: an affable 6-foot-7 home run masher who can also make great plays in the field, playing for the game’s highest-profile — if not most-liked — team. Jersey sales and search trends will tell you that Judge has certainly become one of the most popular players in the league today, but he has not yet established himself as the game’s No. 1 star, nor has he achieved Jeter levels of fame.
Reasons for that range from extremely big-picture concerns, like baseball’s shifting place in the sports universe, to Judge’s own inability to stay healthy or power the Yankees to a deep postseason run. When we recently looked at the great players who missed the highest share of team games in their careers, Judge was 13th on the list — playing in fewer than 67 percent of possible contests. After missing only seven games during his rookie season, Judge has racked up numerous stints on the injured list since, keeping him from another season on par with his breakout 2017 performance. Further hurting matters, New York is just .500 (5-5) in the postseason series Judge has played in, with Judge putting up a playoff OPS 105 points lower than his regular-season norm.4 Although the Yankees have made the American League Championship Series twice in Judge’s career, they lost to the scandal-ridden Houston Astros both times — defeats New York isn’t even a little bit ready to let go of yet — and the proud franchise hasn’t made a World Series since Judge was in high school.
But Judge has put together the entire package this season. Through Tuesday’s games, he has an MLB-best 14 home runs — earning them with the league’s best expected slugging percentage, second-best average exit velocity (trailing only teammate and exit-velo god Giancarlo Stanton) and best rate of barrels, or balls hit with a perfect exit velocity and launch angle. By those measures, this is one of the hottest hitting stretches of Judge’s entire career to date. So it makes sense that Judge’s results have never been better on a per-plate appearance basis, either, with a career-high weighted runs created plus of 213 in 2022. And most importantly, Judge has suited up for 35 of the Yankees’ 37 games so far this year, a games-played rate of 94.6 percent that roughly matches his 95.7 percent mark as a rookie.
If he stays healthy, Judge has the talent to maintain his stellar early pace of 10.53 WAR per 162 team games and shatter his previous career high. That would represent not only a victory for players battling against the iron laws of statistics — paradoxically, when a young player has an incredible season at an early age, it has a surprisingly high probability of being the very best season of his career — but also a benchmark in his Yankee superstardom. Only five players overall, and three batters, have had a full season with 10.0 or more WAR per 162 team games in franchise history, and none have done it since Mickey Mantle in 1961. If he adds his name to the list, Judge would basically be joining a who’s who of legends from baseball history:
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Judge hasn’t built out his legend in New York as much as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle yet. But the way he and the Yankees are playing to start this season, Judge has a chance to do something special, cashing in on the immense promise he’s carried ever since his rookie breakout five years ago.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.