There’s nothing like an injury to force a re-examination of a player’s long-term prospects, is there? Since Aaron Judge went to the 10-day IL, we’ve seen ruminations on whether the Yankees would be better letting Judge leave and signing a name like Francisco Lindor, and there are the resultant and expected chatter on Twitter and on boards about whether Judge should be a Yankee for his entire career, and what that might cost.
He should be a Yankee for his entire career, or at least, the overwhelming majority of it such that we forget he ever wasn’t a Yankee. The Willie Mays trajectory, if you will. He’s owed a full-season $8.5 million after his first arb season in 2020 — we’ll work exclusively with full-season salaries in this post for simplicity — and the second year of arbitration is often when you see teams begin to negotiate significant extensions to buy out arb years and the first few, most productive, years of free agency.
In Judge’s case, we can expect a whole lot of productivity:
Since breaking out in 2017, Aaron Judge has been the second-best hitter in baseball. Only Mike Trout has been better than him — Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, these guys all trail Judge. In some instances it’s not even really that close, with Betts 17 points worse and last year’s NL MVP, Cody Bellinger, 23 points lower.
Think about how great DJ LeMahieu was in 2019, a year he received downballot MVP votes. Judge was a better hitter by wRC+, and about a half-win less valuable by both fWAR and bWAR despite 208 fewer plate appearances. Outside of Trout, there may not be a player in the game that can match Judge’s raw potential, or productivity when he is on the field.
Now of course, he hasn’t been on the field as much as you’d want. Since 2017, he might be the second-best hitter in the game, but he has the 82nd most plate appearances. A broken wrist in 2018 is a real freak injury, but a long list of muscle strains does, I think, fairly bring into question long-term durability.
There is some published evidence that muscle strains can become chronic in certain patients. It’s often something that’s evaluated after the fact, on a case-by-case basis, rather than saying a patient with x-y-z characteristics is liable to experience chronic strains. Still, it’s a possibility that we will always see Judge miss some time with soft tissue problems.
When a player does have injury concerns though, those concerns are baked into the price of that player’s contract. Judge isn’t going to get 12 years and $426.5 million like Trout did, but his performance is still going to net high arbitration figures. Since 2017, Aaron Judge has hit at 87% the value of Trout, accumulated 74% of the total value of Trout, and 78% of the WAR/650 PAs. The Yankees have paid him 6% of what Trout has made.
Of course, extensions weigh expected future performance more than past performance. To that end, we have ZiPS three-year projections, which show that Judge is expected to be the 15th-most valuable player in baseball through 2022. He’s projected to be better than recent big-signings like Nolan Arenado, who received a huge extension in Colorado, and Anthony Rendon, who worked the richest contract for a position player this past offseason. Also below Judge in these projections? Young stars like Vlad Guerrero Jr., Gavin Lux and Rafael Devers.
Aaron Judge is a unique talent in the game. Nobody can match his power potential, only a handful can replicate his plate discipline, and he’s even grown into an excellent fielder to boot. You price in the injury risk, but his track record and his projections indicate he’s going to remain one of the game’s best players. His extension should still be the first priority for the team among many players who have contract status questions, and if he’s really back from the IL Saturday, that’ll become even more clear.