There has been much discussion in the Yankees Universe over the past year about whether or not Aaron Judge will remain in pinstripes after this upcoming season. A number of different options have been bandied about as options for the Yankees and Judge, including an agreement on a long-term extension, playing the 2022 campaign out and addressing free agency at season’s end, and even a trade to another team.
Although the current MLB lockout has muddied the waters on this issue significantly and indefinitely, Judge’s injury history has complicated the discussion as well. When discussing injuries, there are almost innumerable variables at play – luck being a huge one – but even Judge’s most ardent supporters can’t dismiss the fact that he’s missed 156 games due to various ailments since 2017.
This conundrum raises a couple of questions. First, assuming the Yankees and their fans do want to see Aaron Judge retire as a Yankee (a pretty safe assumption I think), is his health history a red flag when deciding on whether or not to offer him what will have to be a significant investment? Let’s address that first; we’ll come back to the second and more important issue in a minute.
Regardless of how the situation sorts itself out, Aaron Judge is going to be a very rich man (deservedly so). To me, that’s a good place to start: We’ll compare his track record of staying healthy and available for his team to other active MLB players who’ve received notable contracts.
To do this, start with the players with the 60 largest contracts in MLB by total overall value and note often they’ve been healthy and available for their teams compared to Judge, measured by games played. As most would agree, pitchers and position players aren’t an apples-to-apples comparison when it comes to physical demands and therefore injury comparisons, so we’ll take pitchers out of the sample. To keep a standard sample size from player to player, let’s also remove players on the list whose rookie seasons came after Judge’s 2017 rookie campaign – that means we won’t have Wander Franco, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Ronald Acuña Jr in our sample either. That leaves us with 38 position players who have been very well-compensated and who have played over the same five seasons as Judge. (I think we’d also agree, five years is a pretty good sample size.)
Among those 38 players, Judge has played in more games since 2017 than 15 of them. That puts him at the 39th percentile, which isn’t great, but it’s still in the middle third of the group so it’s not awful either. It’s certainly not a reason to justify not signing him to a long-term deal due to his injury risk being excessive.
Those 38 players represent all non-pitchers, however. I think we can agree that first basemen and designated hitters face a significantly lower injury risk than other position players. First basemen never reach top running speed while playing the field and they very rarely have to throw a ball with serious velocity. Due to those factors, let’s take them out of our sample size to see how Judge compares with the remaining group.
Six of the highest total value contracts go to first basemen or DHs, so when we remove them, that leaves us with 32 players. Among those 32, Judge has played in more games since 2017 than 13 of them. That bumps him up only a tick percentile-wise but again is far from a reason to raise red flags when assessing whether or not he’s going to stay healthy long term.
Going a little further in our quest to compare apples to apples, what if we measure how often Judge has played when compared only to other outfielders? With the exception of throwing intensity, other infielders are similar to first basemen in the sense that they won’t reach top running speed while playing the field. This not only makes it less likely they’ll suffer a soft tissue injury like a muscle strain but also makes crashes with the ground when diving (or collisions with teammates on pop flies) far less risky as well.
When we include only the outfielders from our highest value contract group, we’re left with 14 players. Of those 14, Judge has played in more games since 2017 than eight of them — still more or less average, but slightly above if we’re nitpicking. At the very least, it’s fair to state that among the highest-paid outfielders in baseball, Judge hasn’t missed more time than his counterparts, over his career on average. Additionally, while excluded in the above samples, both Tatis and Acuña have averaged fewer games played per 162 than Judge as well.
Of course, you may be saying that players miss games for a variety of reasons besides an injury. That’s true — unless you’re a highly compensated player. In that case, if you’re healthy, you’re playing. Even in the cases from the above group where the player’s performance regressed, he still played regularly as long as he was healthy. The overwhelming majority of games missed by highly-paid players are due to injury and little else. The notable exception from our group is Robinson Canó, who missed significant time due to suspensions. To be fair, dependability off the field is a part of this discussion as well, and Judge certainly hasn’t been a concern in that regard.
Let’s finish up by addressing the second, and to me, more important issue, which I alluded to earlier. Perhaps “How many games did the player play?” isn’t the right question. (Frankly, I only addressed it because these conversations are so often framed in terms of time the player missed.) Maybe we should ask “How much value did he provide, regardless of games played?” The number of games a player played in or missed in and of itself doesn’t mean too much to a team – the issue is how much value he provides. For example, a player who gives the team 3 WAR over a season while playing in only 70 games is more valuable than a player who puts up 2 WAR while playing 155 games.
To that end, Mike Trout and Mookie Betts are the only position players in baseball to produce more WAR than Judge since 2017, injury issues and all — that is the bottom line and that’s why the Yankees shouldn’t be concerned about Judge as a health risk. For some perspective, in Judge’s “injury-prone” years from 2018-20, he put up 4.2 WAR per season – prorated over five years, that rate is better than 29 of the 38 highest-paid position players in baseball referenced above. In other words, even over the worst, snakebitten stretch of his career in terms of injury, he still provided more value than most of the game’s best players.
If you’re wondering if all of the above should affect the extent of the commitment in terms of contract length and/or total value, that’s a discussion for another day. Frankly, even if time permitted, I’d likely pass on such a discussion, as maintaining the health of the Steinbrenner family’s bank account has never been a concern of mine.
None of this is to say that any of us has a crystal ball. For all we know, Judge might be frequently injured over the rest of his career, or his performance may regress; there’s always going to be risk involved to a certain extent when making these decisions. Yet those potential outcomes seem rather unlikely and the odds that Judge produces on an elite level for a long time are far better.