Aaron Judge and 8 MLB Stars Enjoying Career Years in 2022
The hundreds of players who have taken part in the 2022 Major League Baseball season have had a wide array of experiences. Bad for some. Good for others.
And for a select few stars, never better.
We decided to honor this bunch with a list of eight players who can rightfully call the 2022 season the best of their careers. There's room for debate for some of them, but each is nonetheless working on career-best marks in several notable statistical categories.
In order to draw a clear line between a "career year" and a "breakout," we limited ourselves to guys who were already All-Stars and/or major award winners before 2022. This is with apologies to a handful of players, including Max Fried, Austin Riley and Luis Arraez.
We'll begin with a few honorable mentions and then count down the top eight according to just how obvious it is that they're having the best times of their baseball lives.
DH Yordan Álvarez, Houston Astros
Age, Season: 25, 4th
Though Álvarez's OPS+ and rWAR especially suggest otherwise, we still see his American League Rookie of the Year-winning season in 2019—in which he hit .313/.412/.655 with 27 home runs in only 87 games—as the best he's ever been.
3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals
Age, Season: 31, 10th
The second of Arenado's two seasons in St. Louis is the clearest proof yet that his earlier success with the Colorado Rockies wasn't all thanks to Coors Field. And yet, we still gravitate toward a 2019 campaign in which he hit .315 and blasted 41 homers with 7.3 rWAR.
DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Age, Season: 28, 5th
Career Bests in 2022: 25 GS, 148.0 IP, 196 K, 2.44 FIP, 2.43 ERA, 164 ERA+
Ohtani won the AL MVP in 2021 after the best two-way season in major league history, but even he thinks he's having a "better season" in 2022. That's undeniably true on the pitching side of things. Offensively, though, he's well short of last year's .965 OPS and 46 home runs.
As Ohtani, who currently has 8.7 total rWAR to his name, hasn't yet matched the 9.0 rWAR he posted in '21, whether this season is better than last season seems to us to be more a matter of taste than anything else.
RHP Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
Age, Season: 39, 17th
Career Bests in 2022: .850 W-L%, 1.72 ERA, 216 ERA+
To do what Verlander is doing at his age and after two years lost to Tommy John surgery... man, what a legend. But while 2022 may go into the books as Verlander's most impressive season, it's easier to make the case for 2011 or 2019 as his best.
C J.T. Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies
Age, Season: 31, 9th
Career Bests in 2022: 17 SB, 5.3 rWAR
Baltimore Orioles youngster Adley Rutschman may eventually take his place as MLB's best catcher in the near future. But for now, J.T. Realmuto is still there.
Even setting aside what he's doing on the offensive side for a moment, Realmuto's defense is arguably still the most exciting aspect of his game. This especially goes for his catch-and-throw skills, which remain as good as they come.
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A catcher who's this good at controlling the running game on defense ought to have no business also excelling at playing it on the offensive side, yet Realmuto has been successful in all 17 of his stolen base attempts. He's also well above his career norm with a 123 OPS+, and perhaps deserves better on account of the best hard-hit rate he's ever had.
RHP Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Age, Season: 27, 4th
Career Bests in 2022: 61 G, 56.1 IP, 19 GF, 13 SV, 2.2 rWAR
The 0.33 ERA that Devin Williams posted in his National League Rookie of the Year-winning effort during the shortened 2020 season is the lowest ever for a pitcher who appeared in at least 20 games and pitched at least 25 innings, but those are obviously low bars to clear.
After a sometimes rocky and ultimately painful 2021 campaign, Williams has been fully back on his dominance this season. It's still mostly his "Airbender" changeup doing the heavy lifting for him, and it's surely as GIF-able as ever:
Yet the real secret to Williams' success in 2022 is that his fastball has become more than just a change-of-pace pitch in tandem with his Airbender. He's been better at locating it on the edges of the strike zone, where batters are hitting just .056 against it.
With Williams now getting the job done in the ninth inning after the Brewers' trade of Josh Hader elevated him into the closer's role, he's essentially run out of things to prove this year.
RHP Edwin Díaz, New York Mets
Age, Season: 28, 7th
Career Bests in 2022: 49.1 K%, 1.08 FIP, 1.43 ERA, 273 ERA+
Edwin Díaz made a run at MLB's single-season saves record when he recorded 57 for the Seattle Mariners in 2018, so it's not lightly that we take the stance that 2022 is his best season.
But if nothing else, this year is the most purely unhittable that Díaz has ever been.
It shows most in his strikeout rate, of which there are two main components. One, a slider that's more untouchable than ever before. And two, a fastball on which he's expanding even on the huge velocity leap he achieved in 2021:
Though Díaz is technically allowing hits at a higher rate than he did in 2018, whether he should be is another matter. The expected batting average of .154 that he has this season is lower than the .158 mark he had in '18.
RHP Luis Castillo, Seattle Mariners
Age, Season: 29, 6th
Career Bests in 2022: 1.057 WHIP, 3.85 K/BB, 2.68 ERA, 158 ERA+
As he pitched to a 3.40 ERA over a career-high 190.2 innings, one might make the case for Luis Castillo's All-Star effort with the Cincinnati Reds in 2019 as his personal high-water mark.
On inning-by-inning, pitch-to-pitch bases, however, Castillo is certainly dialing up his dominance to previously unexplored heights in 2022. And rather than to his changeup or slider, it's mostly thanks to the ol' No. 1.
As we've previously covered, Castillo has taken to throwing his four-seamer from a lower arm slot while also consistently locating it up in the zone. It's almost literally unhittable when he locates it more than three feet off the ground, where batters are just 3-for-60 against it.
Though he missed the first month of the season with a shoulder injury, Castillo has also been a true workhorse since his return. At 6.1 innings per start, he's going deeper into games than ever before.
LHP Carlos Rodón, San Francisco Giants
Age, Season: 29, 8th
Career Bests in 2022: 29 GS, 167.2 IP, 220 K, 0.6 HR/9, 2.27 FIP, 5.1 rWAR
Carlos Rodón authored some kind of comeback season in 2021, but it definitely started stronger than it ended. He was out of gas by the All-Star break, pitching just 43 innings after it.
History was poised to repeat itself when the left-hander allowed 10 runs over 11 innings in his first two starts after this year's break, but so much for that. He's since gotten back on track by ripping off a 2.09 ERA with 72 strikeouts over his last 51.2 innings.
Per the man himself, the secret to Rodón's success is the emotion with which he throws his fastball:
No kidding. Rodón is averaging a career-high 95.6 mph on his heater and also making like Castillo in pitching higher with it. Also similar to Castillo, opposing batters have been helpless to the tune of a .149 average when he's gotten it three-plus feet off the ground.
RHP Sandy Alcántara, Miami Marlins
Age, Season: 27, 6th
As he's gone from having a 1.81 ERA through his first 20 outings to a more pedestrian 3.94 ERA over his last nine, it's fair to say that Sandy Alcántara has been stumbling a bit of late.
Yet because his name is still plastered all over the National League pitching leaderboard, the two-time All-Star is still pretty much a shoo-in for the NL Cy Young Award.
He owes much of his success to a changeup that he's turned into his primary pitch, and rightfully so. It has the data—i.e., opposing batters are hitting just .152 with zero home runs against it—and it certainly has the aesthetics:
Yet just as impressive is how tireless and yet also efficient Alcántara has been this season. To wit, he has 24.2-inning advantage on reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes even though the two are separated by only 17 pitches.
1B Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals
Age, Season: 35, 12th
Career Bests in 2022: .322 AVG, .599 SLG, 1.009 OPS, 188 OPS+
Even as Paul Goldschmidt was steadily building an arguably Hall of Fame-caliber career through his first 11 years in the majors, what he was didn't really have was that kind of signature season.
This is no longer the case in Year No. 12. Goldschmidt is pushing for career-best marks in a number of categories and his .322 average, 35 home runs and 112 runs batted in give him a shot at the first triple crown season in the NL since Joe Medwick in 1937.
It's debatable as to what, exactly, it looks like when a guy is "locked in," but we think it ought to look like this:
That's right. For the first time in his career, Goldschmidt is hitting over .300 against fastballs, breaking balls and off-speed pitches. Throw in how he's also slugging a career-high 1.228 to his pull side and, well, who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?
CF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Age, Season: 30, 7th
There are career years, and then there's what Aaron Judge is doing in 2022.
With 17 games left in the New York Yankees' season, there's a good chance that he'll break Roger Maris' AL record of 61 home runs. He just needs to keep doing what he's been doing, which was adequately summed up by Minnesota Twins right-hander Chris Archer to Andy McCullough of The Athletic: "He's in that mode, where if you make a mistake, it's gone."
While pitchers can still beat the 6'7", 282-pound Judge down in the zone, this plot of his home runs reveals that he simply hasn't missed when they've strayed high:
That's how you hit home runs in bunches and, in so doing, make a case for a contract much bigger than the $213.5 million low-ball offer that he turned down in April.