One cannot overstate how valuable Aaron Judge is to the Yankees. He is the face of the franchise, a national superstar with near-unlimited marketing potential, and a clubhouse leader. We can add one more item to that impressive list of accolades: 2021 team MVP.
Judge played in 148 games, slashing .287/.373/.544 with 39 home runs, 98 RBI, and a 148 wRC+ — leading the team in every one of those offensive categories. He accrued a team-high 5.5 fWAR — good for seventh-most in the AL — while his wRC+ placed him third. He will likely wind up in the top-five in AL MVP voting and proved once again why he’s one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the game.
Speaking of those 148 games played, it is his largest total since his 155-game Rookie of the Year campaign in 2017. The biggest knock on Judge over the past few seasons has been an inability to stay on the field due to injury. He played 242 out of a possible 384 team games —roughly 63 percent — between 2018 and 2020. This year he managed to avoid any lengthy absences outside of a weeklong stint on the COVID-19 IL. Some might argue that one’s greatest ability is availability, and Judge certainly provided that this season.
Judge was also a steady presence in a lineup that at times looked anything but reliable. In a season marked by offensive underachievement pretty much across the board, Aaron Judge was one of the few players to produce with unwavering consistency. He was the only regular starter to log above-average production in every month of the season — his 115 wRC+ in July the worst month of his campaign.
The most impressive aspect of Judge’s season for me, however, was the sacrifices he made for team. Namely, I am referring to him volunteering to play centerfield. He realized that the strongest offensive lineup included Luke Voit at DH — a move that necessitated Giancarlo Stanton moving to right field. The only way the Yankees could accommodate this was to have Judge play center, and he did not hesitate to do so. Not only that, he was a fine defender in center! Along with his normally stellar play in right (11 DRS, 3.4 UZR, one OAA), Judge was roughly-league in center (-2 DRS, -0.8 UZR, zero OAA) in a small sample, and looked passable out there by the eye test.
It was admittedly difficult deciding between Judge and Gerrit Cole for team MVP. Ultimately, Cole’s late-season drop off and Wild Card Game meltdown vs. Judge’s aforementioned consistency pushed the latter into the lead.
This winter will be a critical inflection point for Judge’s and the Yankees’ future. Ownership has to decide whether they will extend their homegrown superstar and make him a Yankee for life — a desire he has repeatedly voiced, allow him to play out his final year of team control and test free agency next winter, or even entertain the idea of trading him à la Mookie Betts. The latter two options seem inconceivable, but stranger things have happened. One thing is for sure, Judge is the club’s most valuable player and they would be a much worse team without him.
Honorable Mention: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge another close candidate for team MVP — Run scored on a wild pitch/passed ball. It felt like the Yankees scored a disproportionate number of late, go-ahead runs via the wild pitch/passed ball, and their 17 runs scored is second only to the Minnesota Twins.