Since Brett Gardner is struggling to get anything going at the plate this season — his .211/.299/.301 line this season is evidence of that — and Miguel Andújar is surging, there is no doubt that the Yankees’ best outfield alignment for offensive purposes would be Clint Frazier in right field, Aaron Judge in center, and Andújar in left.
Well, theoretically, the absolute best would have Giancarlo Stanton playing left field regularly, but that’s not realistic at this point. However, Judge playing frequently in center field? That one is realistic.
Is it the path the Yankees should follow? There are certainly pros and cons to the alignment that are worth reviewing.
The argument in favor of Judge playing center field regularly
Not only is Judge having his best offensive season since 2017 (.293/.396/.548 with 15 homers and a .944 OPS) but Frazier, while not particularly hot, has a very useful .377 OBP in his last 15 games and Andujar may be, along with Gary Sánchez, the Yankees’ hottest hitter. In his last seven games, Andújar is slashing .296/.310/.741 with four home runs and lots of batted balls of more than 95 mph. He certainly deserves to play more at the moment, even if his defense is subpar.
Putting Judge in center would allow the Yankees to flank him with Frazier and Andújar and that way, the struggling Gardner wouldn’t play as much. And while it’s clearly not his best position, Judge’s athleticism is very underrated and he could potentially be a passable solution in center field. It’s certainly an idea worth exploring if it means having the best bats available in the lineup.
The argument against Judge playing center field regularly
The first and most important counter-argument to the idea of Judge occupying the center field position is that the aforementioned defensive alignment would be suboptimal, to say the least, in a league in which fly balls abound.
Frazier has regressed considerably since being considered a Gold Glove finalist last year. He has been quite awful this season, in the first percentile in both Outs Above Average and Outfield Jump. Meanwhile, Andújar is, quite simply, not an outfielder. He will always give his best no matter the position, but despite the good arm he showed off last night, he doesn’t run good routes, he has no wall awareness, and he isn’t particularly fast or quick.
Judge hasn’t played center field regularly in a while. The last time he did it was in college at Fresno State, when he was younger and more athletic. He played 11 games and 74 innings in three minor league seasons before making the jump full-time to the Yankees in 2017, and with the Bombers, he has logged 21 frames at the position. That’s nothing.
There is also the fact that Judge hasn’t been particularly good in the field in 2021. He is in the 35th percentile in Outs Above Average and in the 21st percentile in Outfielder Jump.
To be a good defensive center fielder, the package is a bit different than the corners. The player should be fast, quick (it’s not the same) and, above all things, make great reads and run excellent routes. The best of the best are masters at hearing the sound of the batted ball and starting the route using that information.
Judge could potentially be a passable short-term center fielder, but we can’t know if that’s true, at least not with empirical and recent evidence because the sample size is insignificant. And the fact that he has been bad this season is, well, not particularly promising.
There is also the added injury risk of playing a rather unfamiliar position regularly, one that requires more running and has more field to cover. If there is a player on the Yankees who doesn’t need more risk, it’s Aaron Judge — someone who has suffered his fair share of leg injuries over time.
Additionally, Gardner may be onto something on the batter’s box, since he is hitting .400/.474/.800 with a homer and three walks in his last seven games. It’s a tiny sample, but given his superior glove, perhaps the Yankees can forget about any ideas of playing Judge in center at the moment and let Gardner, who recently said he felt he was ‘close’ to getting out of his funk, work things out.
While it would be a good idea to have Judge play center fielder on occasion, making it a regular occurrence may not be worth it because the most likely scenario is that the Yankees don’t have even an average defender in the outfield when he is in the middle.
The lineup would look better with an Andújar – Judge – Frazier outfield, but the defensive tradeoff and the added injury risk for Judge are not worth it.