In some ways, Aaron Judge can’t win in 2023. Coming off one of the great seasons we’re ever going to see, even a “conventional” MVP level season will be a step down. Leaving aside the matter of award races, since so much of that depends on what Shohei Ohtani does anyway, what can we expect from Aaron Judge’s own output now that he’s recognized as the best hitter in the game?
There are so few seasons to compare Judge to — every year MLB might see one or two eight-win players, but only an 11-win every decade or so. Perhaps the only guys we can reasonably compare Judge to are the other members of the exclusive 60 home run club, the other five players who have had the power surge that Judge posted.
Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Maris are the only people who know what it’s like to club at least 60 home runs and then have to come back the next year with those expectations. For this exercise, let’s look at the season immediately following their career high in HR — THE Year, then The Year After:
Not surprisingly, everyone gets a little bit worse (except for Barry Bonds, of course). Judge is projected, depending on your preferred system, to be about 30-40 points of wRC+ worse in 2023 than his 207 mark last year, which would be on the high end of this club of players.
I think we all acknowledge that Judge will hit fewer home runs and be somewhat worse than he was last year, but the question of how worse likely rests on those plate discipline numbers. When I first started thinking about this post, my initial thought was that everyone would see a bump in walk rate and a drop in strikeout rate, as pitchers attempted to work around a guy who just made mincemeat of his opponents a year ago.
For what it’s worth, FanGraphs projections have Judge striking out at slightly higher rates this year, which I might actually push back on. I don’t think Judge, even after 2022, gets enough credit for being as complete a hitter as he is — for example, he’s cut down on his strikeout rate in three straight seasons before holding steady in his record-setting campaign last year — while also riding a three-year streak of walking more each season.
This class also, on average, hit 17.4 fewer home runs than in their best season, and Judge is actually projected to hit that rate per Depth Charts, with 45 long balls. There are caveats to all these metrics, of course, but so much of that number depends on what baseball is actually used during Yankee games, as well as how much if at all Judge can take advantage of the new Rogers Centre dimensions during reduced divisional play.
Judge’s projected 171 wRC+ would have made him the fourth-best hitter in baseball last year and trail just Ruth and Bonds in the 60 homer club’s follow-up campaigns. If he has that exact year in 2023 for the Yankees he will almost certainly end up an MVP finalist and be worth the big deal he signed over the winter. Still, he will almost certainly be worse than he was in 2022, as the whole point of a career-best is ... you don’t get better after it.