Beware, Yankees: The Obvious Pitfalls of Extending Aaron Judge for Long HaulApril 6, 2022
There's a decent chance that between now and their 2022 season opener against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Friday, the New York Yankees will beat Aaron Judge's self-imposed deadline and sign him to a contract extension.
It's not necessarily the wrong thing to do, but it's telling that it's not exactly hard to see how such a thing could go wrong.
If nothing else, it would be a risky contract by default. If Judge, who's 29 years old and due for free agency after this season, has his way, it'll be long enough to make him a "Yankee for life." It would also be quite a lucrative deal, as SNY's Andy Martino has reported that the Yankees' latest offer was for upward of $30 million per year:
It's worth iterating that there's likewise a chance that Judge and the Yankees—who must otherwise reach a one-year deal via the arbitration process—won't get an extension done before Gerrit Cole throws the first pitch of the season at 1:05 p.m. ET on Friday.
As Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported, the two sides weren't close to an agreement as of Saturday. And despite what anyone may have heard from YES Network commentator Carlos Beltran, that remained the case on Monday.
Certainly, the key reasons the Yankees should make Judge only their third nine-figure extendee after Derek Jeter and CC Sabathia are obvious.
Above all, he's a great player. On the 6'7", 282-pound slugger's resume are a 52-homer season from 2017 and a 39-homer campaign from last year, and as many rWAR as all but two other position players over the last five seasons. He's thrice been an All-Star and top-12 finisher in MVP voting.
On top of that, Judge is also popular. A hard thing to quantify, to be sure, but there's never any shortage of "All Rise" paraphernalia around Yankee Stadium on game days. More broadly, Judge's jersey was an even better seller in 2021 than that of Shohei Ohtani, who broke baseball with his two-way stardom.
And yet even relative to other long-term mega-extensions, one for Judge would have major bust potential by way of at least two pitfalls that the Yankees are surely aware of, but which are nonetheless worth discussing.
The Injuries Might Not Go Away
No matter what kind of contract Judge and the Yankees might agree to, what's inevitable either way is that he'd remain in his 20s for approximately two weeks of it. The right fielder is due to turn 30 on April 26.
Once he does, he'll be on the wrong side of an aging curve that has always been unkind and yet has somehow gotten even less kind to hitters in their 30s in recent years. Judge will only break from the curve if he stays healthy and productive as he ages, and his history to the former isn't what you would call encouraging:
- 2017: a shoulder injury that requires offseason surgery
- 2018: a fractured wrist that requires 50 days on the IL
- 2019: an oblique strain that requires 62 days on the IL
- 2020: calf strains that require 34 total days on the IL
This is a lot, yet it's not even the whole story. Judge was also plagued by rib and neck issues in the spring and summer of 2020, which aren't listed here only because they didn't cost him any games during the shortened season.
Save for a brief stint on the COVID-19 injured list, the good news is that Judge otherwise put a dent in the notion that he's "injury prone" by playing in 148 games in 2021. Rather than a stroke of good luck, his good health may have been the result of a crucial change in his offseason workouts: less weightlifting, more yoga.
But while Judge will always have a say as to the shape he keeps himself in, he's powerless to do anything about the sheer size of his body. There's simply a lot of him that can get hurt. Bigger muscles to strain. Bigger bones to break. More surface area to get hit by pitches and collide with other players, walls and the ground.
The list of comparable players isn't a long one, but what's there doesn't bode well. Frank Howard (6'7", 255 lbs) and Adam Dunn (6'6", 285 lbs) are really the only other players in Judge's size bracket, and both were basically done at 34. Dunn played his last season at that age in 2014, while Howard put up replacement-level production in his age-35 and age-36 seasons in 1972 and 1973.
In other words: Even setting aside his injury history, the back half of any deal longer than six years would be uncharted territory for a player Judge's size.
The Strikeouts Might Not Go Away Either
Discussing a guy's injury track record is never comfortable, so what's say we lighten the mood by watching Judge do what he does best.
Namely, hit the ever-loving crud out of a baseball:
Statcast tracked those home runs home run at 111.7 and 114.5 mph off the bat.
This is just what Judge does. Only teammate Giancarlo Stanton has a higher rate of 110-plus mph batted balls over the last five seasons, yet even he couldn't match Judge in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate in 2021.
Yet this is merely what happens when Judge makes contact, and it's no great secret that this does not come easily to him. He ranks sixth among all hitters in strikeouts since 2017. And even in getting his strikeout rate down to a career-low 25.0 percent in 2021, that and his swing-and-miss rate were in the 25th and 23rd percentiles, respectively.
For Judge's strikeout habit, there is some hope on the horizon in the form of robot umpires.
With the automated strike zone experiment making its way to the Triple-A level in 2022, it seems just a matter of time before it's also in the majors. Once it arrives, Judge hypothetically won't have to worry about being baseball's biggest victim of strike calls—h/t to Foolish Bailey for breaking this phenomenon down more thoroughly—outside the zone.
Once again, though, the one disadvantage that Judge is stuck with has to do with his size. He's always going to be doomed to have a bigger strike zone than everyone else. And while he's gotten better at covering his zone, his potential in that arena may already be maxed out.
Indeed, it was more so because of his contact rate outside the zone (39.0 to 56.7) than his contact rate inside the zone (84.0 to 84.2) that Judge was able to improve his overall contact rate from 2020 to 2021. Looking even closer, the gains he made in the zone were in spite of an uptick in his whiff rate against fastballs:
It's premature to call this a problem, but we may well look back on it one day as a prelude to a problem. If age refuses to spare Judge's bat speed, that red line is likely to keep going up. Presumably, his strikeout rate would follow suit.
The Yankees Should Do It Anyway
Even with all this said, our advice to the Yankees is to spend a couple hundred million dollars on an extension for Judge anyway.
Call it a down payment on a better reputation. There's only so much that chairman Hal Steinbrenner can do to actually make wins happen on the field, but throwing caution to the wind on Judge's extension would at least signal that they're not wholly committed to the at times baffling risk aversion that's come to define their decision-making.
Particularly in context of how the club had failed to land star free agents Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman, Steinbrenner didn't exactly smooth things over with a frustrated fanbase when he said this to reporters in March:
“That’s my job every year, to make sure that we’re financially responsible. I’ve got a lot of partners and banks and bondholders and things like that that I answer to. But at the same time, it’s always the goal to win a championship.”
Earth to Hal: Nobody's going to buy any shirseys that say "Financial Responsibility" on them, and especially not if those shirseys are pinstriped.
With a valuation by Forbes at $6 billion, the Yankees are by far the most valuable franchise in MLB. Yet they've had the highest payroll in baseball just once since 2014, whereas they occupied that position annually between 2000 and 2013. It's true that spending and winning are not mutually inclusive, but...well, the Yankees won two World Series and two other American League pennants between 2000 and 2013. They've captured neither since 2014.
Besides, there's also the matter of the less-than-inspiring future that awaits the Yankees if they fail to extend Judge's stay in The Bronx after 2022.
Assuming he stands by his preference not to negotiate during the season, the odds of him leaving New York would become that much greater. Granted, it's doubtful that the Yankees would trade him before the year is out. Yet once he reaches free agency, they'd be but one of 30 teams vying for his services. For him, it might mean something that none of the other 29 spurned his desire for an extension.
Sans Judge, there wouldn't be much for the Yankees to build around post-2022. Stanton, Gerrit Cole, DJ LeMahieu, Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rizzo will still be there, but they'll all be 32 or older. Top shortstop prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza figure to only just be breaking in next year, with outfield prospect Jasson Dominguez still at least a year away.
The idea of building around a 31-year-old Judge, then, doesn't sound so bad. And if the Yankees are going to make it happen, it's now or never.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.