SAN DIEGO — The New York Yankees are baseball’s flagship franchise and have been since the 1920s. You don’t have to be a fan to believe that. Just look at the championships, the nameplates in Cooperstown, merchandise sales and much more.
That’s not to say the Yankees are the only team that matters, but it’s important to keep their stature in mind when thinking about how to evaluate the news that Aaron Judge has agreed to a nine-year, $360 million contract to see him through his 30th year. wearing pinstripes in the Bronx.
Judge certainly had reasons to jump ship, perhaps with the San Francisco Giants, whom he watched growing up in California, and who made an aggressive run to sign him. Those reasons would have been personal and entirely a matter for the judge and his prerogatives. But from an outside perspective, the Yankees made more sense to him all along.
Why? Because they are the Yankees. In other words, if this franchise, the only one Judge has ever played for, were willing to know the market in order to retain him, it would have been surprising, even shocking, that he would have ended up elsewhere. If the biggest team has the biggest star in the game and wants to keep it, then all things being equal, that’s exactly what we’d expect to happen.
This matter of the Yankees’ status in the MLB hierarchy affects how we evaluate the deal. Simply put, signing Judge for so many years and so much money creates a different rating for the Yankees than most other teams in the majors would have, even high-income teams like the Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers.
Make no mistake, losing Judge would have been a loss in stature for the Yankees as a franchise. The loss wouldn’t have been irretrievable, but it would have cast a shadow over the team’s quest to break a 13-year World Series title drought, and not just because Judge may well be the best player in the game right now. The shadow would also be cast by sudden doubts about the organizational culture and the franchise’s appeal to free agents. The sacred mystique of the Yankees could have been relegated to the history books.
Even if Judge isn’t the best player in the game (a good debate for another day), he’s probably the biggest star in the game right now, coming off a historic 62-homer campaign that overall was one of the most impressive performances ever. any player in the history of this sport.
Just to point to one example of Judge’s impact, when Commissioner Rob Manfred was making his opening remarks at the winter meetings, he cited the trajectory of MLB’s 2022 journey from a season-threatening labor dispute to a fully fledged and memorable campaign. . The only specific case he mentioned was Judge’s performance. He was the avatar of everything that has gone right for baseball since the near calamity of the lockout.
All of this extra context is now window dressing meant to highlight just how bad it would have been for the Yankees to lose Judge. But they didn’t lose Judge, and now it seems very likely that he will join the list of Yankees stars who will never put on another uniform, another local legend that Bronx fans have all to themselves. The list is long and unmatched… Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra, Jeter… and one day, Aaron Judge might feel at home in it.
Still, even for the Yankees, this is a great investment. It won’t ruin them if it doesn’t work. The vastness of the Yankees’ resources is one of the main reasons they get different marks for making this kind of commitment to a player who just turned 30 in the season. If things go wrong, it won’t sink the franchise for the next decade.
The question now is: How likely is it that things will go wrong?
This is a difficult question to answer, because there haven’t been many players like Judge. If ballplayers could be divided into subgroups of players with nearly identical traits, Judge might have a group just for himself.
Still, the mega-contracts delivered over the years have been mixed for the most part. Almost by definition, a long-term deal worth a total of, say, $200 million is awarded when a player is at his peak. Cot’s Contracts listed 26 $200 million deals in its database ahead of this winter’s generous free agent season. Of those, only six were awarded to position players whose platform campaign came in the Age-30 season or later.
In the two seasons leading up to the mega deal, these post-30 players averaged 6.4 bWAR and 148 games played per season. In the first two seasons after the deals were signed, those averages dropped to 3.9 and 128.
When you sign a player to a deal like this, you’re betting that he’ll at least hold his value early in the contract. But in this small sample of post-30 mega-earners, the dip was immediate, with Judge turning 31 in April of his first season under the new contract.
However, Judge has a lot going for him in terms of fending off some of the forces that worry you about players over 30, one of which is that teams seem increasingly unconcerned this winter about paying a lot for older players. 30 years old.
Judge is athletic, and plus athletes generally do better on the aging curve, though that’s more of a general principle than absolute certainty. But his 13+ net stolen bases in 2022 were the best of his career; during his first six seasons that number was plus-12. And, of course, he moved well enough to play solid center field, although when he’s in right, he’s elite.
Then there’s the very obvious fact that Judge is really… good. He posted a bWAR of 10.6 last season and that’s thin air. There have been 24 player seasons in MLB history in which a player has reached 10 bWAR in their age-30-plus season. Thirteen different players comprise those player seasons.
We are talking about some players with historically strong brands, to put it in the language of the 21st century: Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Nap Lajoie, Lou Boudreau , Sammy Sosa and Willie Mays.
Rarely does a player, even at that relatively old age, reach that level and just hit a wall. Ripken fell off after his 10+ bWAR season, as did Boudreau. But at the other end of the spectrum were Wagner and Ruth, who both had eight more seasons of 5.0 or higher bWAR, an All-Star performance. Mays and Cobb had seven. When you consider the group as a whole, they averaged 4.1 additional All-Star seasons.
So maybe the Yankees will pay a premium price for a more average player later in the deal but, again, it’s the Yankees and if they get a few more seasons than they’ve gotten from Judge so far, they’ll be in great shape, and looking at another future plaque in Monument Park.
Judge is more than just his 10.6 bWAR season. He has amassed 7.9 bWAR per 650 plate appearances (roughly a full season) since he became a full-time major leaguer. The only source of real consternation about the contract is his injury history, which has involved a range of illnesses from COVID to a calf strain, two oblique strains, and an unlucky wrist injury sustained on a pitching hit. . But Judge has averaged more than 152 games over the past two seasons and gets high marks for his work ethic and penchant for self-improvement.
You can’t talk about all the risk in a contract of this scale. You just can’t do it. But if there’s a franchise better placed to take that risk than the Yankees, I haven’t seen it. What seems even riskier to me is being the Yankees, going all-in for a burgeoning franchise legend, and then watching him walk away.
That would not have been very Yankee.