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Aaron Judge’s 2018 excellence and the plunking that cast a shadow

Aaron Judge’s sophomore season was a tour de force, until it wasn’t — all thanks to Jakob Junis.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees

Aaron Judge had a 2017 season for the ages. It concluded with the slugger taking home hardware as the American League Rookie of the Year thanks to a then-rookie record 52 homers. Meanwhile, he finished second in American League Most Valuable Player voting to Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros … a result that has only become more contentious and controversial since Houston’s infamous cheating scandal became public.

Flash forward five years and it has become abundantly clear that Judge’s rookie season will go down as, at the absolute best, merely the second-greatest campaign of his career. The 2022 version of Judge is relentless, as he chases down the AL single-season home run record, along with the Triple Crown, while sporting a wRC+ that looks like it will put him in rarified air among baseball’s immortals.

Sandwiched in between his 2017 rookie season and his 2022 masterpiece though, is a “what could have been” season, namely Judge’s 2018 sophomore tour, wherein he looked like he was about to start stacking MVP-worthy seasons atop each other.

2018 Aaron Judge was not quite the relentless, unstoppable, consistent, baseball-murdering superhuman that he has been in 2022, but like in 2017, there were hints that Judge’s ultimate form lurked just under the surface during his sophomore year. He came out of the gates on absolute fire, stacking a 1.037 OPS and 181 wRC+ in March and April.

In May, he dropped off a tiny bit, but a .965 OPS and 162 wRC+ plays well and should not be sneezed at, especially considering Judge was still a neophyte. Words and numbers get boring though, so let’s admire some visual evidence, part of a three hit, three run, three RBI night for Judge against the rival Red Sox.

June was his bugaboo month. His batting average for the month cratered to .234, as did his BB% (11.9 compared to 15.8 and 19.5 in the previous months). Meanwhile, his K% skyrocketed, up 6.8 points compared to May (34.9 to 28.1). To be fair, despite all that, Judge finished the month with a 115 wRC+, so it’s not like he was some bum who couldn’t hit a beach ball.

Importantly, he rapidly bounced back in July. His batting average jumped almost 100 points, he cut his K% down five points, and his wRC+ shot back up to 167. He’d suffered through a down month, adjusted, and was back to his dominant self. He even got to display his preternatural skills at the Midsummer Classic, where he did not disappoint, as he opened the scoring with a monster shot off Max Scherzer.

I’m not saying 2018 Aaron Judge was unstoppable, because June illustrated that he wasn’t. To paraphrase Dan Patrick on SportsCenter back in the day, you could hope to do more than contain him. But he was not far from the mark.

Then, barely a week after the All-Star Game, everything changed. Judge stepped to the plate on July 26, 2018, in the bottom of the first inning, facing Kansas City Royals starter Jakob Junis. With the count 1-1, Junis came inside with a 93-mph fastball. Too far inside. It rode in on Judge, ultimately hitting him on the right wrist. He stayed in the game, even legging out an infield single in his next appearance.

But that was it for Judge that day. And for many days to come. A chip fracture in his right wrist was initially expected to sideline him for three weeks. Alas, Judge missed a lot more time than that, not returning to the field until mid-September. And when he did, the rust, and the injury’s effects, were palpable. Judge’s power plummeted, as he sported only a .122 ISO after his return. And his overall offensive output suffered as well, with Judge managing to scrape together an 88 wRC+ down the stretch in 2018.

But what if? Disregarding all the second- and third-order effects of Judge not suffering that freak injury from the HBP, how much differently would the baseball world have perceived Judge if he’d been able to put together a full 2018 campaign on the heels of his unprecedented rookie season?

It’s a little bit lazy to just pull out the calculator and extrapolate, but for the point I want to make, it works. Heading into July 26th, Judge featured a .283/.396/.547 slash line. Let’s hold those. He had also hit 26 home runs, scored 70 runs, driven in 61, and walked 68 times. All of that in 100 team games, helping Judge to a 5.0 fWAR.

So what do those numbers look like after 162 team games? Something like 42 home runs, 113 runs scored, 99 runs batted in, and 110 walks. Oh, and 8.1 fWAR. And that is assuming a linear performance, which is no guarantee considering how quickly he recovered from his “meh” month of June. If his second half had stuck to the trajectory of the rest of the first half …

So now. The 2018 season is over and the Earth-838 version of Aaron James Judge has played two full seasons, wherein he has smashed a combined 94 dingers, and put together back-to-back 8-win seasons (8.8 fWAR in his rookie campaign). For the sake of comparison, Mike Trout stacked 20.3 combined fWAR in his first two seasons, so while not quite at that level, hypothetical Judge was within shouting distance. His 2018 campaign would almost certainly not have been enough to shoulder aside Mookie Betts for AL MVP, but it also would have likely resulted in Judge starting his career with consecutive, at worst, top-5 finishes in MVP voting.

He of course went on to miss considerable time in 2019, something that alongside his shortened 2018 campaign led to concerns that Judge could not stay healthy. But since then, Judge has gone a long way towards putting those concerns to rest. Unfortunately, his lost second half of the 2018 season can not be reclaimed, though it is worth remembering just how good he was prior to the injury, and thinking about how differently things could have turned out had one pitch in on his hands not derailed his entire season.