Yankees Slugger Aaron Judge Is Peaking in 2022 After Betting on Himself

Zachary D. RymerMay 13, 2022

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 10:  Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates his walk-off, three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 6-5 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on May 10, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Remember when Aaron Judge rejected a $230 million extension from the New York Yankees on April 8, thereby setting off a debate about whether he had just turned down the best contract offer he was ever going to get?

It now looks like at least one person had the right idea in that moment. And that person is Aaron Judge.

There's simply no overstating just how huge of a role Judge has played amid the Yankees' 23-8 start—the franchise's best since it also went 23-8 to begin 2003—to the 2022 season. He's planted himself in the thick of the American League MVP race by batting .296/.359/.635 and, oh yeah, by leading the league with 11 home runs.

The most recent of those came in style against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday:

New York Yankees @Yankees

Pardon me.<br>Are you Aaron Judge, sir? <a href="https://t.co/09dbj7TubW">pic.twitter.com/09dbj7TubW</a>

Granted, Judge had a far better on-base percentage (.422) when he burst onto the scene as the AL Rookie of the Year in 2017. As he finished with more WAR than Houston Astros star Jose Altuve, Judge arguably should also have won the MVP that year.

Yet all that happened in a much more hitter-friendly offensive environment than the one that has engulfed Major League Baseball this season. It's a new dead-ball era in which home runs and runs are way down and the league's batting average has never been lower. Hence why Judge's 193 OPS+ is the best of his career, and by plenty over the 171 mark he had in 2017.

It's easy to presume that the longer the 30-year-old keeps this up, the more likely it is that he'll land a contract to his liking in free agency this winter or, by some miracle, through an extension with the Yankees before then. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that was a deal in the eight-year range at $36 million annually.

If it's a question of whether Judge can keep this up, the short version is that he's not exactly overachieving.

Let's Gawk at the Quality of Judge's Contact

Look, it's Aaron Judge. By now, anyone with even a passing familiarity with baseball knows him as that 6'7", 282-pound guy with the deliciously sweet swing. And by extension, as the sport's foremost authority on hitting the ball really frickin' hard.

Judge is nonetheless outdoing himself in 2022. Specifically, he's tracking toward new career highs in these departments:

  • AVG Exit Velocity: 96.4 mph
  • Hard-Hit%: 65.0 percent
  • Barrel%: 27.5 percent

In the entire Statcast era, Judge's exit velocity and barrel rate rank second behind what teammate Giancarlo Stanton and (arguable) AL MVP front-runner Mike Trout are also doing this year. His hard-hit rate, though, tops the charts.

Granted, perhaps there should be higher standards for what constitutes a "hard-hit" ball than the official threshold of 95 mph. But even if you shift the goalpost to 100 mph, Judge is still atop the Statcast-era charts with 51.2 percent of his batted balls above that mark. 

Clearly, his numbers aren't where they are because he's been taking frequent advantage of what Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward thinks are "little league" dimensions at Yankee Stadium. If anything, the Yankees' home park has taken home runs away from him.

Including this one on April 9:

Would it dong? @would_it_dong

Aaron Judge vs Nick Pivetta<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SquadUp?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SquadUp</a><br><br>Flyout 💢<br><br>Exit velo: 110.2 mph<br>Launch angle: 35 deg<br>Proj. distance: 411 ft<br><br>This would have been a home run in 22/30 MLB ballparks<br><br>BOS (2) @ NYY (0)<br>🔻 4th <a href="https://t.co/g3BkM5i5GW">pic.twitter.com/g3BkM5i5GW</a>

And to a lesser extent, this one on April 12:

Would it dong? @would_it_dong

Aaron Judge vs Yusei Kikuchi<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RepBX?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RepBX</a><br><br>Flyout 💢<br><br>Exit velo: 95.7 mph<br>Launch angle: 29 deg<br>Proj. distance: 363 ft<br><br>This would have been a home run in 10/30 MLB ballparks<br><br>TOR (0) @ NYY (0)<br>🔻 1st <a href="https://t.co/wbkuFchnY4">pic.twitter.com/wbkuFchnY4</a>

Even despite near-misses like these, Judge is still on track to potentially surpass the 52 home runs he hit in 2017. Considering that the leaguewide home run rate is down from 1.26 per game that year to 0.93 per game this year, that this is even a possibility defies belief.

Judge Is Also Making Good Swing Decisions

Though essentially unrivaled power is the obvious upside of Judge's gigantic frame, it also has a downside that's no less obvious.

That would be calls like this one:

Talkin' Yanks @TalkinYanks

Aaron Judge is furious <a href="https://t.co/Qhs8JFWcUY">pic.twitter.com/Qhs8JFWcUY</a>

Judge has to put up with a lot of that. Even though he missed about 40 percent of the Yankees' games with injuries between 2018 and 2020, he's still the only hitter since 2017 to suffer more than 400 called strikes outside the strike zone.

This is all the more reason for Judge not to waste what swings he takes. And to this end, the fact that both his strikeout rate and his out-of-zone swing rate are worse relative to 2021 might suggest that he's gone backward in this particular arena in 2022.

His swinging strikes, however, currently account for a career-low 19.9 percent of all the strikes against him this season. That's instructive, but perhaps not so much as this graph:

Image courtesy of Baseball Savant

Yes, Judge's slugging against off-speed pitches is down. But as he's seen more than twice as many breaking balls (169) than he has off-speed pitches (80), it matters more that his slugging percentage against the former is up so high that it's actually surpassed his slugging against fastballs.

Why is this happening? Basically because Judge is taking more swings like this one:

To put it in statistical terms, the average height of the breaking balls Judge is swinging at is the highest of his career.

And not just because he's doing a good job at swinging at the hangers, but also because he's doing better at laying off breaking balls down below the zone. Between 2017 and 2021, he swung at 24.8 percent of those. This year? 20.6 percent.

All told, it's hard to offer Judge any constructive notes right now. Even in the face of dead balls and bad calls, he's going to keep putting up numbers as long as his approach and swing remain on point.

Is There Still Hope for an Extension?

Meanwhile in the background of all this, Judge's contract situation remains unsettled.

Because the lockout forced MLB and the MLB Players Association to punt the arbitration process into the season, Judge still doesn't have a set salary for 2022. That issue may not be resolved until June 22, which Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported as the date for Judge's hearing. Judge filed at $21 million, with the Yankees countering at $17 million.

If Judge and the Yankees avoid arbitration by agreeing to terms before then, odds are it will be on a one-year deal that will only cover this season. From what Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said on Wednesday, however, the door may not be entirely shut on a long-term extension:

Bryan Hoch @BryanHoch

Brian Cashman on Aaron Judge's contract:<br><br>"We're not going to talk about it now going forward. Whether that means we're not going to talk, I'm not saying that, but we're not going to talk about it (publicly). But he's been great. But that's no surprise, because he is great."

As for whether Judge could also reconsider signing a long-term deal with the Yankees, a reading of the tea leaves suggests that nobody should be holding their breath.

It was Judge who set Opening Day as the deadline for a deal, and for understandable reasons that he outlined to reporters:

“The last thing I want to do is be in the middle of May after a good series and people talking, ‘Oh, you going to sign an extension?’ Or after an 0 for 4, ‘You should have signed that extension.’ We’ll try to get everything out of the way right now while we’re still prepping and getting ready for the season. But once it’s April 7 and a packed house in the Bronx, it’s going to be time to focus on winning ball games and that’s it.”

For two, Judge wasn't too thrilled that Cashman went public with the terms of the offer that the Yankees made him in April. He said, “It’s something I felt like was private between my team and the Yankees."

For three, there just isn't any precedent for the kind of contract that Judge is looking for coming so late in a season. Or even during a season, for that matter. There have been nine contract extensions worth upward of $200 million, and each one of them was agreed to either before or after a given season.

Still, there's always a way to say "never say never."

Though Judge has played in 92 percent of the Yankees' games since the start of last season, any player with his injury history probably shouldn't feel 100 percent confident in his mortality. And as hot as he's been in the batter's box, outs above average and sprint speed paint less rosy pictures of his defense and baserunning.

Such things may be neither here nor there right now, but they're likely to be knocks against Judge in free agency if he does ultimately go through that door. Still another potential knock is the fact that he'll be 31 before next April is over. 

Arguably, these alone are reasons for Judge to also keep the door open to an extension with the Yankees. And while the caveat is that he said as much before his talks with the Yankees fizzled, his love for the organization and New York are on record. In an interview last November, he said there's "no better place to play" and that "if it was up to me, I would be a Yankee for the next 10 years."

Of course, all this is academic until the Yankees force Judge to reconsider by coming to him with a greatly improved extension offer. If not one with more years, then certainly one with more dollars.

With the way he's going, they might as well try their luck.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.