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How is Aaron Judge’s center field defense?

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Aaron Judge’s ability to play center field at a competent level is the key to the Yankees’ best lineup configuration.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s very clear that, as of now, the Yankees have their best chance of winning when they play their Death Star lineup. After all, during their recent 13-game winning streak, they employed the outfield of Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton five times, allowing Luke Voit to serve as the designated hitter while Anthony Rizzo manned first base. It is, plain and simply, the best way for the Bombers to put up runs in bunches, and even with the elite performance that the pitching staff has put up this season, scoring runs in bunches is a very reliable way to win ballgames.

Contingent to this strategy working, however, has been Judge’s ability to man center field at a competent level. Although manager Aaron Boone tends to pinch run Brett Gardner for Stanton later in the game when the Yankees have a lead (or if Stanton is on base as the tying or go-ahead runner) and slot him into center field (shifting Judge back to his natural right field), the majority of the game is spent with number ninety-nine manning the middle of the largest outfield in baseball history.

Fortunately for the Yankees, he has been able to do that and much more. Small sample size alert notwithstanding — he has only played 113 innings in center this season, compared to more than 700 in right — Judge has in fact, by some metrics, been better in center field this season than his natural position.

In both positions, Statcast detects that Judge has seen a downgrade from the 2019 season, in which he was worth 8 Outs Above Average in just 212 attempts (that was a higher score than eventual Gold Glove winner Mookie Betts, who logged only 6 OAA in 349 attempts). Despite this, he has been a perfectly serviceable defender whether he plays center or right, as his 151 wRC+ more than makes up for anything but “Hanley Ramírez as a left fielder” defense. Statcast may not have him winning any Gold Glove awards, but he hasn’t been a net negative, either.

Other defensive metrics are slightly less bullish on Judge as a center fielder, but they don’t exactly peg him as a slouch there, either: he is tied with eleven others for 35th among outfielders with at least 100 innings in center field with 0 Defensive Runs Saved, is tied for 40th in that same group with -0.6 UZR/150, and he is tied with Mike Trout, Tim Locastro, and Mauricio Dubón for 45th with 0.1 defensive fWAR. Although two of those three metrics would prefer that the Yankees get a better defender for center field and play Judge exclusively in right (as a right fielder, he’s accumulated 8 DRS and is worth 3.4 UZR/150, but has accrued -1.9 defensive fWAR), they all agree with the Statcast data that he’s not a black hole defensively out there, either.

And at the end of the day, that’s all the Yankees need from Judge to make the Death Star lineup worth it, simple competence. So long as the Yankees don’t lose an extreme amount of value with the defensive trio of Gallo, Judge, and Stanton — and they’re certainly not losing any value with Gallo in left — the offensive prowess of the sheer number of sluggers in the lineup should put the Yankees in the best position to string together a large number of victories during the final month of the season.