Mookie Betts is on his way to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and his departure doesn’t just tilt the balance of power in the AL East—it also blows an Aaron Judge-sized hole in the race for the Gold Glove in right field.
The former Red Sox outfielder has won the award four years running. His graceful defense is a joy to watch, and the numbers agree with the eye test. Betts owns a career 18.1 UZR/150 as a right fielder to go with 102 DRS, achievements that few in the American League can challenge.
Aaron Judge is one of the few. While he plays a different, more physical style, Judge has been nearly as effective as Betts. He was a finalist for the Gold Glove in 2017 and 2018, and though he missed out on that conversation last season due to injury, he was still named the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year in right field. Judge posted a monster 19 DRS in just 775.1 innings in 2019 — which would have tied him for fifth in the bigs if he were eligible — and was good for a 24.2 UZR/150, tops among all major leaguers with at least as many innings played. Since his first full season in 2017, Judge has 21 assists in right, one more than Betts in over 700 fewer innings.
On top of that, Judge appears to be hitting his defensive prime. His DRS and UZR have increased every year since his first full season in 2017, despite his innings played declining each year. Had it not been truncated by a fractured left hand, Judge’s 2019 performance might have put an end to Betts’s reign as a perennial Gold Glover, too.
Now, as Betts packs his bags for Los Angeles, Judge faces his best opportunity to cement himself as the American League’s premier all-around right fielder. In addition to his impressive defensive numbers, his intangibles make him an attractive Gold Glove candidate: he’s a clubhouse leader in the league’s highest-profile market, he has a history as a multiple-time finalist, and he can make highlight reel plays, especially with his arm, that stick in the minds of voters.
The changing landscape of the rest of the AL works to Judge’s benefit, as well. Kole Calhoun — a finalist with the Angels the past three seasons — also moved on to the NL, signing a two-year, $16 million contract this winter with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In Judge’s absence, Josh Reddick was nominated as a finalist in 2019. Reddick hasn’t moved on from Houston, but his defensive numbers as a right fielder were a clear cut below Judge’s last year: 9 DRS with a -0.5 UZR/150.
So what might prevent Judge from seizing this opportunity? It’s plausible another right fielder might rise to the occasion and put together a special defensive season. If Max Kepler (20.6 UZR/150 as a right fielder in 2019) gets enough innings in right for the Twins, he certainly seems capable. Or maybe a guy like Mitch Haniger will ride his recovery from surgery to a storybook year defensively. Anything’s possible.
But the most obvious answer is health. At first look, Judge’s aforementioned physical style would seem to make him susceptible to time on the injured list, but the bumps and bruises he endures out by the short porch haven’t haven’t been the cause of his recent IL troubles. Last season, he strained an oblique with a swing that drove a single to right. The year before, he sustained a chip fracture in his right wrist after being hit by a pitch. If he can avoid another injury at the plate, his body should hold up in the field.
Which means this season offers the ideal stage to showcase his elite defense. Fans know what he can do with the bat. With Mookie Betts leaving the Pesky Pole behind and donning Dodger blue, 2020 is Aaron Judge’s chance to prove his glove is gold.