New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is doing something he hasn’t seen in Major League Baseball in nearly two decades. With his 60th homer, Judge put himself in the same company as Barry Bonds, Roger Maris, Mark McGwell, Sammy Sousa and Babe Ruth.
Does Judge’s 2022 season really belong to the same company as those players? Ruth is arguably the greatest player of all time. Bonds deserves to be involved in this conversation, albeit with an important caveat. Maris is a Hall of Famer, and McGill and Sousa might have been Hall of Famers if not for their drug suspicions.
Sure, the judge is excellent, but as good as Ruth? What about Maris? Is there a way of saying that what Judge does is as unique and special as Shohei Ohtani’s two-way brilliance?
Has Aaron Judge reached the heights of Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds?
It’s not hard to put Judge’s offensive contributions into historical context. As it turns out, that’s exactly what wRC+ measures. This statistic summarizes a player’s offensive value by comparing it to the league average for that season. wRC+ is perfect for this exercise as it adapts to the player’s court and the attacking environment he is in. A player who excelled in the dead ball era — when power was almost non-existent and the league batting average hovered around .241, a direct comparison was made to a player who hit 45 home runs in the heyday of the steroid era — a .270 The batting average is close to normal.
This statistic is also very easy to understand. A player with 100 wRC+ had a completely league average offensive performance that season. A player with 150 wRC+ is 50% better on offense than a league average player.
In 2022, Judge received 211 wRC+. He is 111 percent better than the league average on offense. There are 16 other times in MLB history that another player has a wRC+ of 211 or higher. Bonds has done it four times in his career. These seasons were all consecutive (2001-2004), and this was the last time a player in MLB had a wRC+ on 211.
Judge’s 211 wRC+ ranks third in other 60-plus homer seasons. Bonds topped the list with 235 wRC+ in the 2001 MLB season. Ruth’s 212 wRC+ from 1927, when he set a then-record 60 home runs, was second. The only player to hit 60+ home runs with a wRC+ over 200 was McGwire in 1998. He hit 70 home runs that season and posted 205 wRC+.
When Maris broke Ruth’s record in 1961, Maris’ wRC+ score was 162. Why is Maris’ stature significantly lower? Part of the reason may be that Maris’ .269 batting average was just a few points above the league average, which was .258 in 1961. By comparison, Judge averaged a .316 batting average in seasons with a league average of .243. The judge’s figure is an even bigger outlier when you factor in his era.
From a purely offensive standpoint, Judge is having a historic season. According to wRC+, there were only 15 better offensive seasons. Judge hasn’t quite reached Bonds’ level among players with 60+ home runs, but he’s matched Ruth’s record season.
How does Aaron Judge play off the ball?
What if you want to beat the judge’s offensive numbers? Was Judge’s season still special when you factored in his defense and base running?
This is also easy to do, with one important caveat. Judge has a 10.7 fWAR – the WAR version of FanGraphs. That number is tied for 29th in MLB history. So far, it’s on par with Ruth’s 1931 season and Willie Mays’ 1965 season. And if Judge avoids a slump and continues to perform well, he has the potential to climb higher on the roster by the end of the 2022 regular season.
There is a major drawback to using fWAR. Defensive metrics for a single season are not that reliable. According to FanGraphs, the judge’s defense value in 2022 is -0.2. That means his level as an outfielder is slightly below average. Last year, he was even worse with a -4.5 defensive rating. In 2019, however, Judge excelled as an outfielder with a 6.8 defensive rating.
These numbers show the pitfalls of relying too much on defensive metrics for a single season. Is Judge really a formidable outfielder like he showed in 2019? Is he a subpar outfielder like he’s shown in 2021? Or is he roughly average, as the 2022 metrics say? Has the judge’s 2019 been skewed because he’s only hitting the right fields? Is Judge’s defensive value in 2021 and 2022 being punished too much by playing more center?
FanGraphs acknowledges that its version of WAR is not an exact number. It should be used as an estimate of player value.
Evaluating Judge’s full work in 2022 reduces his value somewhat, but there’s still a strong case for him to be ranked in the top 50 of all time, maybe even the top 40.
Shohei Otani problem
Then there’s Daegu. He’s the only player who can do things on a par with Judge in 2022. Ohtani excelled on the plate and pitcher, and posted better numbers than he did last season when he was unanimously winning the AL MVP award.
Ohtani’s bidirectional state complicates the comparison. If you add Ohtani’s fWAR as a position player and fWAR as a pitcher, you get 8.9 fWAR. However, there are significant problems with this approach. On the one hand, Otani is the designated hitter. He was penalized on defensive metrics for not playing. The penalty is determined by making a positional adjustment each season that determines how much a designated hitter should be penalized for not fielding. Calculating the value of a given batter isn’t necessarily a bad way, but it’s complicated.
The bigger issue is Ohtani’s fWAR pitching. FanGraphs uses FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching to calculate pitching WAR. Once the pitch is pitched, the FIP tries to eliminate any factors that affect the pitcher. It believes that once the batter pitches, the pitcher has little control. FIP also measures how players should pitch, not necessarily how they pitch. This is a controversial concept and one of the main reasons why Baseball-Reference has its own version of WAR – bWAR. Baseball-Reference does not use FIP when calculating a pitcher’s WAR. The version of the Baseball-Reference is based on the number of runs and pitches allowed. Both sites detail how these statistics are calculated and why they are used. If you use the WAR version of Baseball-Reference, the situation is slightly closer between Judge 9.9 bWAR and Ohtani 8.9 bWAR.
If you want to argue that Ohtani’s two-way ability saved the Los Angeles Angels a roster, well, even that isn’t as big of an advantage as it seems. The Angels have to make up for it with a six-man rotation, which could hurt the team in the long run.
All of this makes direct comparison very difficult. Both metrics see Judge as the better player in 2022, but the margins of error are so close that Ohtani is still up for debate.
MLB fans are witnessing history with Judge Aaron
Regardless, the Judges are making a historic season. The same goes for Ohtani, but the media attention and the quest for the AL home run record are giving Judge the drumbeat necessary to win the AL MVP award. Ohtani’s numbers are generational, but MLB isn’t cutting his game to see if he can win his 14th game of the season. Judges are getting the treatment and have a chance to win the Triple Crown. The pursuit of those milestones has drawn more attention from Judge, thereby making him more likely to take home the AL MVP.
Meanwhile, Otani’s 2022 is arguably undervalued. The dominant two-way player appears even less often than the 60-plus home run hitters, and the fact that Otani is better in 2022 than last season shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
If the judge wins the award, it’s hard to say it was the wrong choice. He’s delivering the best offensive season MLB has had since Bonds’ incredible run. It may be decades before baseball fans see this level of offense again.