Mookie Betts - great player, right? 2018 AL MVP, World Series champion, great bowler, and one heck of a smile. Of course, he’s also among the very best defenders in baseball, whether you gauge by more traditional methods like his three straight Gold Gloves, or something like DRS, where he was second among MLB outfielders with 20 last year.
What if I told you there’s a player with a credible claim to be as good as Mookie defensively, but differently?
Based on the lead image and title of this post, you can probably guess it’s Aaron Judge. The two right fielders are remarkably similar in cumulative production all across the board, and should rank high in MVP voting this year. They’re even similar in age, Judge being just six months older than Betts.
It really is a fun little rivalry the two have developed, being at the top of their game while playing for their team’s most hated rival. Mookie does it with great contact at the plate and speed on the basepaths, while Judge puts up his offensive value by clubbing baseballs into Queens.
I believe this is a sufficient metaphor for their divergent playing styles:
While patrolling right field, they put up similar total run prevention, but like their hitting style, they do it differently:
Betts is nearly off the chart in terms of suppressing offense, but Judge is the next best in the game. This goes even further when you adjust for the fact that Judge played 250 fewer innings than Betts in 2018. Betts was in right for 1001 innings, and if you adjust Judge’s performance to 1000 innings as well, the gap narrows further:
Betts is still better, to be sure, but our full season Judge is well and clear of the rest of the position group. He is so freakin’ good.
As I said above, the two players are similar in terms of total suppression, but get there in different ways. This is really highlighted by Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, which is a measure of a player’s range and the scale of difficult plays made. OOA credits Betts with 11 Outs Above Average, top ten in all of baseball. Judge, meanwhile, ranks 39th, with one. Even if you adjust for playing time, Judge lags well behind Betts in terms of total range.
This isn’t a function of speed - Statcast tracks both men’s sprint speed at 28.1 ft/s for Mookie and 28 for Judge - but ballpark. Back in 2015 Andrew Fox calculated the square footage of every outfield in MLB. Fenway Park’s right field measures 29,600 square feet, second most in baseball, while Yankee Stadium’s come in at 24,200 square feet, the smallest in the league. Betts playing most of his time in a much larger outfield is naturally going to boost his range stats.
So Judge does get dinged for his ballpark advantages, which is legitimate. Where he really picks up value is the Flak-88 he has for a right arm:
That throw home was clocked at 100.5 mph, and despite missing so much time last year, Judge led all outfielders in rARM, a metric tracking runs saved by an outfielder’s throws. He was top 15 in total assists, playing more than 100 innings less than the next-lowest total.
And of course, that was on display on Opening Day:
That’s a double off the wall. Right field at YSIII might be small, but hitting the ball like that means you should be standing on second base. Instead, Dwight Smith doesn’t even think about it, staying put at first while Judge rifles to Troy Tulowitzki. Word is getting out about that arm, and I don’t think it’s that far out of the realm of possibility that you’ll see Judge’s assists drop.
Jose Bautista and Ichiro Suzuki have two of the best arms I’ve ever seen. Bautista hit double digits in assists four times between 2010 and 2014, and then only once in a season after that. Ichiro’s assist numbers, meanwhile, decline almost from his debut on. Obviously some decline is age related, but at a certain point, players just stop running on you. If you don’t have the opportunity to throw a runner out, you’re not going to pile up assists.
Interestingly enough, even though Mookie does hold a slight edge in range and degree of difficulty, it wouldn’t be surprising if Judge’s reign near the top of the defensive leaderboards lasts longer. Range declines faster than arm strength, and so a player whose value is driven primarily by range is likely to see a quicker drop off in ability.
Whether he is ever on par with Betts or not, Aaron Judge is an unbelievably talented defender, and when you bake that into his hitting ability, he’s become so much more than the taller Ryan Howard a lot of people thought he would be.