Aaron Judge appears to be on his way back. It’s been several weeks since the star right fielder took a baseball to the wrist, and he reportedly is still feeling pain, but nonetheless Judge is taking swings and progressing towards facing live pitching. If all goes well, the Yankees should soon have their top hitter back in the lineup.
At no point, however, has it been a certainty that Judge would shake his ailment, and even now, there’s no guarantee that he will complete his comeback and return without issue. Setbacks could occur, and if Judge does make it all the way back, there’s no assurance he will immediately start playing at his prior level.
In all likelihood, Judge will be back, hopefully at or near full strength. He obviously makes the Yankees better, and more exciting to watch. Still, the fact that uncertainty remains begs the question: could the Yankees win the World Series even if Judge doesnt’t return?
There are a few ways to approach this question. The simplest is to just look at how the Yankees have performed without Judge. Since Judge went down, the Yankees have managed a solid 25-19 record. That’s a 92-win pace over the course of a full season. It’s settled then! The Yankees aren’t amazing without Judge, but they’ve posted a winning percentage higher than several recent pennant winners, such as the 2015 Mets, the 2014 Royals, and a couple of Giants teams.
Hold on, though. Just because the Yankees have won a chunk of games without Judge doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve played all that well. Perhaps a better way to answer the question at hand would be to look at the team’s actual performance without Judge.
The Yankees’ Pythagorean winning percentage in the wake of Judge’s injury is just .528, 40 points lower than their actual winning percentage, and equivalent to an 86-win pace. By this measure, the Yankees have looked more like a second Wild Card contender rather than a potential division winner.
We can go even deeper. Since Judge’s injury, the Yankees have posted a triple slash line of .238/.322/.423, good for a .322 wOBA, 13th in baseball. They have held opposing hitters to a .257/.322/.415 line, which equates to a .320 wOBA, 14th-highest in baseball. That two-point wOBA differential is even less impressive than their run differential in Judge’s absence, and indicates that the Yankees have played more like a team that would finish just above .500.
But wait! You might protest that Judge’s injury wasn’t the only thing to go wrong over the past couple months. Luis Severino has been stuck in a slump that isn’t representative of his actual ability. Didi Gregorius and Aroldis Chapman suffered injuries, and Giancarlo Stanton was forced to play the field with a tweaked hamstring. All these factors and more played into the Yankees’ relative malaise over the past several weeks.
Therefore, the best way to try and figure out just what the Yankees’ chances would be in a Judge-less world is to not just to look back at how they’ve done without him, but to look ahead at how they would do going forward. In some ways, the Yankees look quite strong, even without one of the best players on the planet.
If Luke Voit can continue to provide even solid hitting, then the Yankees have above average players basically everywhere. Miguel Andujar, Gregorius, and Gleyber Torres form a great infield. In Brett Gardner, Stanton, Aaron Hicks, and Andrew McCutchen, the Yankees have four qualified outfielders for three spots. Gary Sanchez, when he’s clicking, is the best catcher in the game. Not to mention, the Yankees could enter October with one of the league’s strongest pitching staffs.
Just intuitively, the Yankees have enough good players even without Judge to field a highly competitive team. We can see this in a more concrete fashion using projections. FanGraphs depth chart projections forecast the Yankees to put up an above average wOBA at every position the rest of the way. Not even the historic Red Sox nor the defending champion Astros can say that.
The Yankees also rank second in projected WAR on the pitching side down the stretch. Put it all together, and FanGraphs estimates the Yankees going forward have the talent level of a .612 winning percentage squad. Now, this does take into account a projected 27 plate appearances from Judge, but even if we distributed those handful of appearances to Stanton and McCutchen, the Yankees’ projected winning percentage would likely only drop a few points.
Even if we regressed that projected winning percentage to an even .600 without Judge, that’s still the talent level of a 97-win team. That’s almost scary. The Yankees lost Judge, an MVP-caliber player who was among the league’s very best when he went down, and still project to be an elite team. Based on the quality of the team’s remaining players, I think the answer is yes, the Yankees could win the World Series without their best player.
Yet, it goes without saying that getting Judge back would substantially amplify their odds. The Yankees are loaded with talent even without Judge, but with him? They might be deeper and scarier than any team in the league. The Yankees should pray their best player comes back good as new, as they are world-beaters with him, but even the loss of Judge wouldn’t doom their chances.