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The hidden stakes of Aaron Judge’s free agency

Why retaining Judge’s glove is nearly as important as bringing back his bat.

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Having swatted 216 home runs and driven in nearly 500 runs over the past six seasons — only three of which were even full-time efforts — it’s easy to forget that Aaron Judge is also very good at other aspects of baseball. Fielding, specifically. We know that Judge isn’t your traditional slow-footed, beefy slugger, even at 6’7”, but he’s not just good for his body type.

The consistency with which he’s been one of the league’s top defenders in the outfield has been remarkable. His 25 OAA since 2017 ranks 23rd among 141 qualified outfielders, and that doesn’t even take into account his 93rd percentile (per Statcast) arm strength. By DRS and UZR — both of which do account for it — he’s in the top five for outfield defensive value, both on a cumulative and per-inning basis, trailing only defensive luminaries like Byron Buxton, Kevin Kiermaier, and Harrison Bader.

Defense might not be at (or close to) the top of the list of reasons to drop Judge in the Scrooge McDuck vault and make him a Yankee for the rest of the decade. That being said, the appeal of creating a full-season outfield pairing of Judge and Bader — who himself has racked up an absurd 58 OAA since 2017 — shouldn’t be discounted. No matter who ends up sticking in left field, such an alignment would almost certainly be one of the two or three best in the game, especially with Cody Bellinger no longer supplementing Mookie Betts in Los Angeles.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The best defensive outfield in baseball would be useful to any team, of course, but perhaps the Yankees more so than others. Their situation on the infield isn’t ideal, even with Anthony Rizzo back in the fold. Gleyber Torres and Isiah Kiner-Falefa are simply not very good up the middle, and while Josh Donaldson was excellent last season, defensive metrics have been generally lukewarm on him since 2016 (an exceptional 2019 aside), and playing next year at age-37, his reflexes aren’t liable to get any better this winter. Oswald Peraza is considered a plus defender at shortstop, but Anthony Volpe isn’t, and both remain relatively unknown quantities for the time being.

There’s also the matter of pitching, and what inevitable level of regression they undergo in terms of their batted ball luck. The collective .268 BABIP allowed by the Yankees staff in 2022 tied Houston for the lowest in the AL, a circumstance that probably won’t repeat itself in 2023. Granted, tamping down BABIP via defensive positioning and pitching approach can be done with some consistency by teams that know what they’re doing, and Yankees player development has had plenty of success molding pitchers who thrive on weak contact. Still, there’s enough randomness involved to say with some confidence that it’s not likely they’ll end up at the tip-top of the league again.

The same goes for the seven-point difference between their actual and expected wOBAs, which ranked fourth in the majors and is the largest negative gap they’ve had in the Statcast era. Seven points may not seem like a big deal, but over the course of thousands of batted balls, it’s a pretty significant disparity that’s simply unlikely to repeat itself. Along those lines, it’s also worth noting that many of the team’s high-leverage relievers, including Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loaísiga, Wandy Peralta, and Lou Trivino, thrive on balls in play rather than racking up the gaudy strikeout numbers we typically see from elite relievers in this era. That’s not at all to say that they’re doomed to failure, just that a similar defensive performance in 2023 will likely produce worse results than it did in 2022.

None of that speaks to the incoming shift ban, which is likely virtually certain to raise BABIPs league-wide and lead to a substantial number of extra chances for outfielders, and right fielders in particular. For the most part, these won’t be batted balls that an outfielder has a chance to turn into an out, but it does mean that cutting off grounders and line drives and getting them back to the infield quickly and accurately — a skill that Judge typically excels at — will be more important than in years past. The exceptional range that a Bader-Judge outfield can offer would both go a long way towards mitigating any hard swings in batted ball luck caused by the shift ban or simple regression, while also allowing the front office to prioritize offensive production in their search for a left fielder this offseason.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

To that point, there’s a significant opportunity cost to losing Judge’s defense in right field in that substantively replacing his offensive production without tanking outfield defense is going to a wildly difficult task. After Judge, this is one of the weakest outfield free agent classes in recent memory; Brandon Nimmo is perhaps the only available player to bring above-average offense and defense to the table at the same time. There are always trade options, but with starting pitching looming as an equally significant need this offseason, that route isn’t limitless. Just as re-signing Judge makes the calculus on finding a left fielder significantly easier, losing him makes finding the balance between defensive competence and offensive production infinitely harder, no matter what transaction route they take.

It’s almost certain that Judge won’t put up a 211 OPS+ again anytime soon. The greatest non-Bonds season of the past half-century probably wouldn’t be so if there was a good chance of it immediately happening again. If one were to bank on him reverting back to “just” his typical ~160 OPS+ self, the concept of replacing him would be daunting, but not impossible, given that there would be ample payroll space to find some combination of equal-ish value.

But offense is far from the only thing that Judge brings to the table. Replacing one of the two or three best hitters in baseball is one thing. Doing so while also finding a replacement for one of the five or so best fielders at their position is another. The Yankees bringing back their star is more than a matter of retaining the home run king. It’s also a matter of locking in potentially the best defensive outfield in baseball versus adding yet another set of loose pieces to an already complicated puzzle. The phrase “defense wins championships” may be cliché (and, as the Phillies almost reminded us, patently untrue at times), but it exists for a reason. Whether the Yankees feel like putting it to the test is up to them.