When we’re introduced to something unfamiliar, comparing it to something familiar can help us understand it.
What’s AirBNB? “It’s kind of like Uber, but for houses.”
What’s SlamBall? “It’s kind of like basketball, but with trampolines.”
What’s quinoa? “It’s kind of like rice, but worse.”
This is what the baseball world is doing with their newest anomaly, Aaron Judge. It makes sense. It’s something I’ve been guilty of myself. Judge is unlike anything baseball has seen. He’s a position player, but he’s a giant. He’s successful, but he’s humble. And, of course, he exiles baseballs to distant lands in brutal fashion. All of this data is a lot for baseball to process. So, he’s compared to players we have seen and understand to make him more palatable.
In Judge’s short career, he’s been compared to the size of Giancarlo Stanton, the temperament of Derek Jeter, the legendary feats of Mickey Mantle, and now the New York star status of Michael Conforto. With the spotlight on the big man right now, these comparisons will become inescapable. I once heard a friend at a bar call him “a poor man’s Richie Sexson.” Even the jokes come with comparisons.
While the premises behind these arguments have some merit to them—aside from Richie Sexson—what they really serve to do is water down Judge’s uniqueness. Regardless of whether the comparison declares Judge the better of the two, the “we’ve seen this before” aspect lessens the novelty of his character.
He’s built like Giancarlo, but a little bigger.
He’s a great clubhouse guy. He reminds me of Jete.
Did you see Judge smash that TV? Just like Mantle hitting the lights in right.
This doesn’t mean to say that people aren’t still enjoying the show he’s putting on. He’s still the most exciting player in the league. The issue is really that we’re trying to read a book while it’s being written. Similar to the Michael Jordan and LeBron James debate, how can you make comparisons when one of the careers is still ongoing? It’s inconclusive, and that’s the problem with the latest debate around #99.
Who is New York’s true young star: Judge or Conforto?
The reasons to compare the two are clear.
One is an outfielder for the New York Yankees; the other is an outfielder for the New York Mets. They’re separated by only 10 months, with Judge being the elder. They have minimal experience in the MLB, with Conforto coming up only a year earlier. They both mash. Conforto is batting .316/.415/.639 with 13 HR and 2.3 WAR. Judge is batting .327/.428/.690 with 17 HR and 2.8 WAR.
The reasons not to compare the two are also clear.
These stat lines are pretty indistinguishable. Yes, Judge has a slight edge in all of these categories. And yes, he’s been a more marketable player to date—landing a Sports Illustrated cover, his own fan section in Yankee Stadium, and even a skit on Jimmy Fallon—but, their careers are too young to start declaring one the new king of New York.
It’s also worth noting that while Judge is certainly a compelling figure, he also benefits from being on one of the hottest teams in baseball (and having a perfect last name), while Conforto has the bad fortune of being on one of the Mets-iest Mets teams in recent history. If the Mets were to somehow become less Mets-like, Conforto could see a bump in his league-wide popularity. Another reason why this conversation would be more productive in 15-20 years as a retrospective.
The case of Judge v. Conforto is a little different than the others because it’s comparing the output of two active players, which is a valid assessment of worth. Where it still becomes similar to the comparisons to Stanton, Jeter, and Mantle, though, is that it starts with a premise that aims to contextualize Judge. We’re not comparing the two because they are both having prolific offensive seasons, like we would with Judge and Mike Trout. We’re comparing them because it puts Judge in relatable terms—an important cog in crosstown rivalry.
The solution to the case of Judge v. Conforto is the same as the solution to all attempts to contextualize Judge with comparisons: don’t do it. Neither player needs to be labeled the face of New York baseball. They both are and they both aren’t. Let’s just appreciate what they are—young, talented players who can hopefully rejuvenate this dull rivalry.
As for Aaron Judge, we don’t need to make him seem familiar, just appreciate how unfamiliar he is. The honorable right fielder is an anomaly. That’s what makes him the most exciting player in baseball.