2021: A Make or Break Year for Aaron Judge?
By Chris O’Connor
December 8, 2020
Aaron Judge is, in my opinion, underrated in the MLB community. Since his first full big league season in 2017, he ranks eighth among all players in Fangraphs WAR. That might even be underselling it because he has not been on the field as much as those players around him. As an example, during this time, he ranks third (behind Mike Trout and Mookie Betts) among all players with 7.75 WAR/162 games. That is MVP-level production. Everyone knows he shines with the bat, but where he really stands out is his defense. With a 13.9 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating)/150 games trailing only Mookie Betts among right fielders since 2017, Aaron Judge has established himself as not only one of the best hitters in baseball, but also a Top-2 defensive right fielder.
Aaron Judge’s talent and production on the field is obviously top-tier, but the only question with Judge is whether he can stay on the field. He has played in a little less than 73% of games since 2017, and that would have been even lower had the 2020 season started in March because of his offseason rib and lung injuries. Because he got his first full big league season under the belt as a 25 year-old rookie in 2017, it may seem like Judge is younger than he is. 2021 will be Judge’s age 29 season, past the age of typical performance peak that most major league players have. Because of this will be more of a make or break season for Judge than many think.
The first reason for this is his contract. Aaron Judge is under contract for 2021 at $10 million and then he will have his final arbitration season in 2022, after which he will be a free agent. Moving forward, the Yankees are not in as great of a place, financially, as they have been in recent years. They famously went under the luxury tax threshold in 2018 by fielding an Opening Day payroll of a little over $180 million that ranked just sixth among all clubs. This allowed them to reset their luxury tax penalties, in turn allowing them to increase their payroll rankings to second in 2019 and first in 2020. A combination of young guys getting more expensive and increased free agency and trade expenditure (think Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton) has swelled the payroll. In normal times, it would be easy to argue that because the Yankees routinely lead the league in revenue, they should always blow the field away in payroll. In 2019 alone, Statistical estimates that the Yankees took in $683 million in revenue. This easily led the league, well outpacing the Dodgers estimated $556 million. The 2020 season, however, may have hit the Yankees harder than any other team. The Associated Press estimates that the Yankees lost about $312 million in 2020 due to a lack of gate revenue from fans, and again this was well ahead of the second place Dodgers at $232 million. Nobody knows what 2021 is going to look like, either. I am not saying the Yankees are not swimming in money in normal times, but I think they are going to be even more frugal with spending than they have been in recent years (which has already frustrated many fans). The financial hit from the pandemic has really hurt the Yankees and their large payroll moving forward will force them to make some tough decisions.
The second reason is the Yankees future finances. With no injury concerns, I would say a 30 year old, free agent Aaron Judge could receive over $30 million per year in a long term contract. The Yankees, however, already have Giancarlo Stanton under contract until 2027 (with a club option for 2028) at about $30 million per year. They also have Gerrit Cole under contract until 2028 at $36 million per year. If the Yankees had known the pandemic would hit in 2020, would they have traded for Stanton and signed Cole? Maybe Cole, but probably not Stanton. The Yankees have witnessed firsthand what it is like to have an injury-prone slugger under an enormous contract over the last two years. Stanton’s contract, if it isn’t already, will probably become an albatross on the Yankees books for all the future years it covers. Would the Yankees feel comfortable paying him and Judge, very similar style players with extensive injury histories, close to $60 million per year when they will both be in their mid-thirties? I do not see a scenario where another team agrees to take on Stanton’s contract in a trade, especially after teams are already looking to cut back on payroll after 2020. The Yankees are stuck with Stanton, and that might not bode well for Judge.
The third and final reason is Judge’s injury history. The only season that Judge has not missed significant time was 2017, and even in that season it was revealed that a shoulder injury hampered him in the second half that caused a decline in his numbers. In 2018, it was a fluky injury – a hit by pitch caused a wrist injury that forced him to miss a month. Ailments to his oblique, ribs, lungs, and calf have forced him to the IL through much of 2019 and 2020. Judge is the largest position player in major league history, so the variety of injuries is certainly concerning, particularly as he ages into his thirties. The Yankees will certainly tender him a contract for 2022, but if Judge does not prove that he can stay healthy for a full season before hitting free agency, the Yankees will have a difficult decision to make.
I think Judge is an unbelievable leader for the team and a future captain. It is not just about how he produces on the field but also how his presence affects others. With Judge in the lineup, the Yankees just have a different feel. One of the things I am looking forward to the most in 2021 is a potential MVP season from Aaron Judge. He certainly has the ability on the field and the popularity to do it.
I hope Judge is a Yankee for the rest of his career and a great season in 2021 would go a long way toward making that a reality.