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The rivalry that wasn’t: Aaron Judge and Michael Conforto

Back in 2017, the stage was set for a Battle of New York with two up-and-coming outfielders. It didn’t pan out.

Dan Brink

With the news over the weekend that former Mets outfielder Michael Conforto underwent major shoulder surgery and will miss the entire 2022 season, I got to thinking about 2017 and the year that Aaron Judge had. It was historic, record-setting, and perhaps ultimately defined by the MVP race, where Jose Altuve beat out Judge for the award despite Judge being better in almost every major statistic.

But there was a stretch — especially in the first half of the season — when the conversation wasn’t Judge vs. Altuve, or Judge vs. Mark McGwire’s rookie home run record, but rather whether he or Conforto was the corner outfielder worth building around. Don’t believe me, or don’t remember? Just read Baumann, Sherman, Harper, and others, all of whom spent May and June 2017 opining on whether Conforto’s more mature approach and quicker swing was going to be more dependable than Aaron Judge’s freakish displays of raw power.

I think you need some combination of four things for a truly great individual rivalry in a team sport. First, the players have to enter the league at around the same time. Sidney Crosby doesn’t really have a rivalry with Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, but he does with Alex Ovechkin, given that they entered the NHL a year apart, so we’ve seen them play against each other for their entire careers.

Second, they need to be roughly equal in terms of skill. Fire doesn’t have a rivalry with wood; things need to be interesting. Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the perfect example, alternating the title of best player in the world seemingly every year for a decade and a half. The Messi/Ronaldo rivalry also serves a good template for the third part of a great rivalry — that the players have to face each other, often, and in big moments. El Clásico is one of the biggest single sporting events in the world, and obviously the two former La Liga stars were major parts of that. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson facing off in the NCAA title game and then in multiple NBA Finals is another example — the rivalry has to have stakes to keep us interested.

And then I think you need a certain longevity. Ovie and Crosby have played for the same teams since 2005, whereas the one-time Peyton Manning/Tom Brady rivalry has been somewhat undercut by the latter’s much longer career.

Even though both the national and local baseball media tried really, really hard to make Judge/Conforto a real rivalry — baseball’s answer to Ovechkin/Crosby, or Messi/Ronaldo — it never quite happened, because it violated three of the above four qualifications. Yes, Conforto and Judge entered the league right around the same time, the former a little earlier, but their free agency being separated by just one season demonstrates just how close their careers have been.

After that though... Conforto has actually been better than I thought before I did the research on this post, but Judge has been all-world. Of the 10 combined seasons the two have played since 2017, Judge has four of the five best seasons. He’s outproduced Conforto both at the plate and in combined value by fWAR every single year save 2020. Michael Conforto is a solid, productive, and even often above-average ballplayer; this has remained true even after his lone All-Star season of 2017. Aaron Judge is a world destroyer.

The stakes have also been nonexistent. In 2017, the Yankees were a game away from the World Series and the Mets won 70 games. Since then, the AL New York squad has won 61 percent of its games, making the playoffs every season, while their NL counterparts have won just 49 percent of the time, sitting at home every October (even the expanded 2020 postseason). Yes, the two sides play a handful of games per year in the Subway Series, but those games just haven’t meant much to the overall season.

And while neither player’s career is over, there are reasonable questions about longevity and geographic consistency. Who knows what Conforto’s post-shoulder surgery performance will be, and with Judge entering free agency as an older-than-average player, its entirely possible that one guy finds himself on a one-year-plus-option “Prove It” deal, and the other on the opposite coast and opposite league.

Baseball has tried to make individual rivalries a thing before. The trio of great shortstops in the early 2000s kind of worked as a three-way dance before Nomar Garciaparra fell off and Alex Rodriguez became a Yankee. In 2012, there was a narrative push to make Bryce Harper and Mike Trout real rivals, before Trout so soundly eclipsed Harper (himself a likely Hall of Famer), that it made comparisons kind of moot.

Similarly, despite the 2017 regional hype, the rivalry between Conforto and Judge has just kind of fizzled away. It’s not because either player is that bad — Conforto’s career 124 wRC+ would be more than respectable for an MLB lifer — its just those certain extra qualities needed for a great rivalry never materialized, no matter how much the Post or Daily News tried to make it so.