Yankees' Aaron Judge Turned 28; What is New York's Slugger on Pace For?
Remember when Aaron Judge made his Major League debut?
At the time, Judge was a top prospect that looked like he belonged on a football field or a basketball court. He homered in his first big-league at-bat, but went on to hit just .179 in 27 games played during his first taste of the Majors. Then, he was just 24-year-old.
On Sunday, the slugger turned 28.
In the last three-plus years since he first donned pinstripes, Judge has ascended to celebrity in the Big Apple both on and off the field. He's the face of a franchise loaded with talent and a leader in the clubhouse drawing comparisons to Derek Jeter. Not only that, when he's able to stay healthy, he's one of the game's best.
And yet, he's already 28. When Jeter turned 28, he had over 1,000 hits, five seasons with MVP votes under his belt and, of course, four rings.
Some might argue Judge's prime is beginning to dwindle. It's a particularly sensitive subject for Yankees fans when factoring in his injury history, tendencies that have kept him off the field for a chunk of each of the last two seasons.
That's before even considering the repercussions of subtracting the entirety of this year, his age-28 campaign, because of the COVID-19 pandemic – a national emergency completely out of his control. Besides, odds are he still would have been on the sidelines at this point of the season with his latest injury, sustained in the Yankees' stretch run a year ago.
All that being said, as this superstar takes another step toward turning 30, what exactly is Aaron Judge on pace for in his career? He may be one year older, but you can count on this superstar still climbing the all-time ranks with more tremendous performances this decade and beyond.
Starting on the later side
It's tough to compare Judge's statistical output thus far in his career to the best in baseball history since most Hall of Famers and all-time greats made their debuts years before Judge did.
Although the 6-foot-7 kid from California was drafted by his hometown Athletics out of high school, Judge elected to play collegiate baseball. Three years later, New York nabbed him in the first round of the 2013 MLB Draft – one of the best first-round selections the Yankees have ever made.
Two-plus seasons in the Bombers' farm system later and the slugger was ready for his big-league debut. Other greats had already won Most Valuable Player Awards and solidified their reputation as one of the game's best by their age-24 season – Judge was merely a Baby Bomber.
Even that aforementioned sluggish start, however, didn't deter the right fielder from a breakout campaign during his first full season in 2017. Yankees fans will never forget his 52-homer barrage, winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award and falling just short of his bid for the league's MVP.
Don't take this as an argument that Judge's seven-year progression – from the first time he was first drafted to his first MLB at-bat – is an early blemish on his legacy. Every player has their own path to the big leagues, this just happens to be how the first few chapters were written for Judge.
Besides, there's plenty of greats – and some of the best home run hitters of all time – that hadn't ascended to stardom to the same extent as Judge before their 28th birthday.
Before turning 28 ...
Entering the 2020 season, Judge has hit 110 home runs, driven in 246 runs and compiled a 19.1 WAR over 396 games. Injuries aside – limiting the right fielder to less than 112 contents in each of the last two seasons – those numbers are spectacular.
Other than his first season – the 27 games played before his rookie year – the slugger has hit 27 homers or more in each season and had a WAR at or above 5.5.
Sure, stack Judge up against Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Mike Trout or any of the other all-time great outfielders entering their age-28 season and his numbers pale in comparison. Again, that's because those four and so many more debuted four-plus years earlier in their lives than Judge did.
Here's something Judge has over practically everyone. His path to 100 home runs, which took just 371 games, is the third-fastest span to reach triple digits in any player's career. Ahead of him are Gary Sanchez and Ryan Howard. Another current teammate Gleyber Torres could be next.
That shows that even if he suited up for the first time at an older age – and marginally, only by a few years – he's soared more efficiently. That bodes well when you consider what kind of numbers he can produce moving forward and it's further proof that he has more years left in the tank.
Before turning 28, Judge's 162-game average has been 45 home runs and 101 runs batted in. That's an MVP-caliber season. Among the top-ten home run hitters of all time – we're talkin' Bonds, Griffey Jr., Rodriguez, Pujols and more – only Babe Ruth had more home runs in his full-season average (46) than Judge's current rate.
That number may go down for the Yankees' right fielder moving forward. Or, maybe not. It's a small sample size, yes, but it's all we know from watching Judge's first three full seasons when he's actually on the field.
Further, even with less years of experience, Judge is right on pace with some of the best to ever swing a bat in baseball history.
Through their 28th birthday, David Ortiz had just 89 homers and Willie Stargell had hit 112. Remember, Judge presently sits at 110. Both made their debuts earlier than Judge – at 21 and 22 years of age respectively – and both finished among the best home run hitters of all time.
Ortiz retired with 541 home runs – 17th all time – averaging 35 long balls each year from his age-28 season through his final campaign at 40. Stargell, a Hall of Famer, finished with 475 – 33rd in baseball history – while hitting an average of 24 for the next 15 seasons.
Can you envision Judge playing at a high level for the next 13 years like Ortiz? Maybe an eventual transition to designated hitter several years down the line could preserve his offensive capabilities in a similar fashion?
Here's one more projection. If Judge can produce another decade of 5.5 WAR seasons – the lowest he's ever compiled in a full season so far in his career – he'll finish his 13th big-league season with a 74.1 career WAR.
That exact figure would put him 81st in baseball history in the WAR department – sandwiched between Reggie Jackson and Lou Whitaker.
Surely he'll have "down years." Everyone does to a certain extent. But remember, these last two seasons of 5.5 and 5.9 WAR were in less than 112 games played. The only time he's played a full season, his WAR was 7.9. That was third-best in baseball, behind the top two in the race for National League MVP (Joey Votto at 8.1 and Giancarlo Stanton at 8.0).
This is all before diving into more advanced metrics, his ability to break Statcast with his ridiculous exit velocity and so much more. From a home run perspective, there's no question he's got the potential to end up among a short list by the end of his career. But what else will this slugger accomplish...
You be the Judge
Those comparisons are purely meant to get you thinking. Obviously this is all speculation. In a decade or so, Judge will either be struggling to remain in the league, he'll still a perennial MVP candidate, or he'll be somewhere in between.
What may end up as the biggest factor of Judge's longevity and potency as he approaches 30 is his ability to stay on the field.
For Ortiz, hitting an average of 35 home runs for the remainder of his career once he turned 28 was easier considering he played an average of 140 games per campaign. Judge hasn't done that since he was a rookie – in 155 games played, he set records. Imagine what he can accomplish if he stays healthy. Based on his track record, stay on the field and the rest will follow.
In the meantime, you can count on the following. The 28-year-old will continue to give back to the community, he'll never shy away from playing catch with a young fan in the right field bleachers before an inning begins and it's a guarantee that once baseball returns, he'll pick up right where he left off in the batter's box.
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