Instead of accepting a long-term extension with the Yankees before the season, Aaron Judge made a gigantic bet on himself. A seven-year, $213.5 million deal that starts at age 31 is no small bid for any player, and it was more than the projections — at least ZiPS — predicted at the time. But Judge clearly felt that his chances of doing significantly better outweighed the risks involved in playing out his final year of team control. Well, short of discovering he can throw 102 mph and pair it with a wicked slider, it’s hard to imagine a better season in terms of increasing the value of his next contract than Judge’s 2022. To my mind, he will almost certainly win the American League MVP — not because what Shohei Ohtani has done isn’t magical, but because the Yankees outfielder has put up one of the rare offensive seasons in MLB history that can match such an extreme level of two-way excellence. So just how high might Judge’s contract realistically go this offseason?
First off, let me stress that some appear to be underrating Judge’s season. In some quarters of the tired AL MVP debates on social media, you’ll see it described as just an ordinarily great offensive season rather than one that belongs in the history books besides those of Barry Bonds. By our reckoning, there have only been 55 position players seasons in history that notched double-digit WAR, and not all of those were driven primarily by hitting, but rather fielding (Cal Ripken Jr.), a healthy dose of transcendent baserunning (Rickey Henderson), or an incredibly weak league (Fred Dunlap). The vast majority of years like this are put up by Hall of Famers, so Judge is in rarefied air. There’s no question that he is having a special season.
The problem is that Judge isn’t likely to be paid directly for his special 2022 season, only the increased expectations resulting from such a high-level performance. Even if the Yankees were inclined to give a franchise player a bonus for an MVP season that was played in their uniform but was cost-controlled, no other team is likely to be as generous in rewarding a performance from which they didn’t benefit. When trying to gauge what Judge is likely to get, a few factors work against him, factors over which he has very little control. The biggest is that, again, the first year of his new contract will fall in his age-31 season, which means that no matter how high you think Judge’s baseline expectation is, he’s going to be expected to decline quite significantly throughout the course of the contract and relatively quickly. It’s not a coincidence that, with the nearly sole exception of Joey Votto, the mega-contracts that work out from the perspective of teams are those that start off at a very young age.
Also working against Judge is his position and the much more minor issue of baseball’s ever-larger playoff format. Judge has more defensive value than most sluggers since he has played center field better than anyone his size has any right to, but I can’t imagine that being a serious long-term proposition as he ages. What’s more, the 12-team playoff field reduces the value of a marginal win slightly, and while that likely won’t have a big direct impact on Judge’s deal, anything that alters the willingness of front offices to push in all their chips matters.
Back in June, I looked at how Judge’s bet on himself was working out. I presented a bunch of scenarios involving his performance, with the most optimistic simply assuming that his torrid early-season offensive pace would continue. Even that has turned out to be a bearish prediction; Judge had an OPS of 1.029 at the time but has been at 1.168 since. (Incidentally, for those wondering, ZiPS has his Triple Crown probability up to 29% this morning.) Running Judge’s projection in ZiPS right now gives him his spiciest future:
ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge
ZiPS thinks eight years and somewhere in the $270 million to $290 million range looks appropriate. It’s a much better projection than Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols received when they inked their long-term mega-deals, so Judge has that going for him. But if we project Judge and simply make him five years younger, you can see the effects of age:
ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge (Born in 1997)
That’s a half-billion dollar player! There’s a reason the MLBPA would have had to win an epic death match against the owners to reduce the number of years of service time required to reach free agency. While I don’t know exactly how other teams and their internal systems are evaluating Judge, I’m certain that few, if any, are going to view aging much differently than ZiPS does. No matter how good Judge is, the only thing certain about his performance in five years is that he’ll be 36. Time is the undefeated champion of badassery; it vanquishes all of its opponents. Superstars age just like everyone else, they just start from a higher plateau. Here are the top 50 seasons by WAR for players in their age-29 to age-31 seasons, and how they did over the next eight years:
Top WAR Seasons at Ages 29, 30, and 31
|Season||Player||WAR||Next Five||Next Eight||Next 10|
ZiPS isn’t particularly harsh when it comes to its guess of Judge’s aging, basically placing him in the middle of a pack of inner-circle Hall of Famers. Based on these projections, it’s hard to see Judge getting too much more than $300 million.
Before we go, however, there’s one other factor to consider that does help Judge’s cause, and that is Mets owner Steve Cohen. The parsimonious nature of owners hasn’t yet hindered Cohen and while he hasn’t been explicit, hints have dropped about the team’s payroll reaching anywhere from $300 million to $345 million. That leaves room for the Mets to get into a Judge bidding war, and I doubt the idea of signing the crosstown rival’s MVP winner makes that prospect less enticing.
However things shake out, Judge’s gamble will have paid off handsomely. Rather than fight over who deserves the AL MVP, I implore you to save the squabbling for colder weather and enjoy the final chapter of one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history.
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