Picture an underdog. You might think of someone undersized like Rudy, unknown and unproven like Rocky, or out of their element like the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings. Underdogs come in many forms, but they are all connected by one narrative: they have something they struggle to overcome, but enough heart to overcome it. They’re easy to identify with and even easier to root for. Everyone likes to see the little guy pull through.
What you wouldn’t picture when thinking of an underdog is a six-foot-seven, 282-pound unanimous Rookie of the Year who placed second in American League MVP voting while smashing 52 home runs to bring his team within one game of the World Series. But, with the Yankees acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton, that’s exactly what Aaron Judge has become. He is David in the body of Goliath.
This is not meant to say that anyone is counting out Judge. He is the new face of baseball, anchoring a team many consider to be the title contenders in 2018. But when pitted against Stanton, the critics have almost unanimously sided with the Yankees’ newest behemoth. In their 2018 Player Power Rankings, Sports Illustrated placed Judge at number 14, right behind Stanton at number 13. The MLB Network drew a bigger gap in their rankings, listing Judge at number 15, while placing Stanton much higher at number five.
The player projections follow a similar pattern. ZiPS projects that Judge will homer 43 times while batting .253/.364/.552 with a 139 wRC+ and 4.7 zWAR in 2018. By comparison, they project Stanton will put up 55 dingers while batting .273/.366/.656 with a 161 wRC+ and 6.4 zWAR. Steamer follows suit, projecting Judge will homer 37 times while batting .254/.369/.519 with a 133 wRC+ and 4.0 WAR while Stanton will hit 53 home runs and bat .287/.379/.655 with a 166 wRC+ and 5.8 WAR.
Stanton is the clear favorite entering the season, though last year’s performance wouldn’t lead to that conclusion. Stanton’s home run total was the story of the year, besting Judge by seven to reach a herculean 59, but his .281/.376/.631, 156 wRC+, and 6.9 WAR falls short in comparison to Judge’s .284/.422/.627, 173 wRC+, and 8.2 WAR. Judge putting up numbers superior to the National League MVP’s while also suffering an awful two month slump shows just how dominant he was in the first half of the season and during September.
The projections seem to show an expected drop in offensive output from both players in 2018. It makes sense, to a degree, for Stanton. 2017 was a career year for the slugger and although there’s no reason to think that he’s going to slow down, it’s unlikely that he can continually put up near 60 home run numbers. The interesting wrinkle here is that Stanton’s numbers will certainly shift as he plays more games in the home run friendly Bronx. Left center—where Stanton hit the majority of his home runs last season— is actually a bit deeper in Yankee Stadium than Marlins Park, but that shouldn’t effect his numbers too much when he’s putting the ball 75 feet beyond the fence.
Judge, on the other hand, has no real career basis for comparison. His astronomical strike out numbers in 2016 and his 2017 slump show that he’s not immune to slipping from the spotlight, but his September recovery proves that his maturity and mental toughness allow him to adjust and continue to be successful. His lowered expectations for 2018 simply point to many considering last year’s impressive campaign as an exaggeration of his potential.
Beyond his years of experience, there is nothing that clearly points to Stanton having a much better 2018 than Judge. And despite the projected dip in their numbers, it’s reasonable to assume that pairing these two human oak trees together will help improve their stats over last year. Besides the obvious protection of one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball history to boost offensive output, the oversized right fielders can pick each other’s brains about the struggles of being gigantic and trying to hit a baseball. All of this can aid in strengthening both of their games.
Entering the season as an underdog isn’t too foreign for Judge. He came into the 2017 season shrouded in doubt over his strike out rate and had to fight for a starting spot in the lineup. As you may recall, the rest of the story worked out in his favor. But, he will be put to the test again in 2018.
Although having the best numbers on the team will be the furthest thought from Judge’s mind, the sight of Stanton in pinstripes will undoubtedly make it a conversation point throughout the season. Like a true underdog, the big man will have to show his heart and his ability to overcome the odds to continue the unthinkable story of his career. The most important thing to remember, however, is that no matter the outcome, we all win. Because somehow Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are both New York Yankees.