Aaron Judge’s Decision To Bet on Himself Is Paying Off

As you may recall, just as the season was getting underway, Aaron Judge, who is set to become a free agent after the 2022 season, rejected a contract extension proffered by the Yankees; the deal would have been worth $230.5 million over eight years (seven years at $30.5 million per year, plus $17 million for this year), keeping Judge in pinstripes for most of the rest of his career. Instead, Judge decided to play out his final season under team control and then hit the free agent market with as much leverage as he is ever likely to have. Judge gambled on himself, and while two-thirds of the season remains, the early returns are pointing in his direction.

In a year that has seen offense largely disappear — just as a number of power hitters have seen their performance evaporate — Judge has bucked the trend. After his home run in Sunday’s loss to the Rays, he’s already up to 18 on the season, nearly half of his total (39) from his impressive 2021 campaign. That number even outstrips the pace of his 2017 season, during which he hit 52 round-trippers in an offensive environment far more conducive to crushing pitchers’ dreams. Judge might not have the big contract he’s looking for yet, but he’s done about as much to improve his standing as anyone could in two months.

Judge’s season line stands at a spicy .303/.371/.657, numbers that would count as superlative even in Coors Field during the era’s highest-offense seasons. In 1968: The Next Generation, that’s enough for a 192 wRC+ and 2.8 WAR; spicy may actually undersell just how dangerous he’s been.

Unlike a lot of similar extension offers, it’s hard to call the Yankees’ unreasonable. Some might compare Judge’s potential deal to what Mike Trout is set to get through his age-38 season, but even ignoring Trout’s strong argument for being the superior player entering the season, the Angels superstar’s contract also started at age 29. Similarly, the extension Mookie Betts signed started at age 28. How much does that matter? Let’s start with the ZiPS projection for Judge entering the 2022 season:

ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge (Pre-2022)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .273 .366 .531 469 80 128 22 0 33 89 68 144 4 141 9 4.6
2024 .269 .361 .514 453 75 122 21 0 30 83 64 135 4 136 9 4.1
2025 .265 .356 .491 430 67 114 19 0 26 73 59 123 4 128 8 3.5
2026 .257 .343 .461 408 59 105 17 0 22 64 52 110 3 117 7 2.6
2027 .253 .333 .424 384 52 97 15 0 17 54 45 95 3 106 7 1.8
2028 .246 .321 .401 357 44 88 13 0 14 45 37 80 2 96 6 1.2
2029 .239 .306 .366 284 32 68 9 0 9 32 26 57 2 83 4 0.3

Past this season, New York’s offer to Judge was seven years at $213.5 million. Suffice it to say, ZiPS would not have made such a generous offer for his services, with the computer only recommending $147 million. It’s not that Judge isn’t a terrific player, but two major factors seem likely to affect how teams value him: his age and his health. As I mentioned above, hitting free agency at age 31 rather than 29 or 28 does change things quite a bit, as those are going to be the most valuable years in any contract projection. Just to illustrate, let’s make Judge three years younger entering 2022:

ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge (Pre-2022, Born in 1995)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .272 .370 .539 492 86 134 23 0 36 95 75 161 5 144 9 5.1
2024 .270 .371 .530 481 84 130 23 0 34 91 75 157 5 142 9 4.9
2025 .271 .370 .530 468 81 127 22 0 33 88 72 147 4 142 8 4.7
2026 .268 .366 .521 451 76 121 21 0 31 83 68 140 4 139 8 4.3
2027 .263 .360 .501 433 71 114 19 0 28 76 64 130 4 132 8 3.7
2028 .259 .352 .475 413 63 107 17 0 24 68 58 118 4 123 7 3.0
2029 .256 .344 .450 391 56 100 16 0 20 60 51 103 3 115 6 2.3

Knocking three years off his age bumps that valuation all the way from $147 million to $232 million. Similarly, if Judge was scheduled to become a free agent at 26, like a number of other young phenoms have, ZiPS would suggest $273 million over seven years or $334 million over 10, comparable to those other players.

While Judge hasn’t had one major underlying injury causing concern (instead having suffered a bunch of nagging injuries), the fact remains that last season was the first time he managed 120 games in a season since 2017. Attendance counts, and if you’re going to pay someone a quarter of a billion dollars, generally you want them to be on the field. Going back to the original projection once more, if instead of changing his age we tell ZiPS that Judge will play 156 games in 2022, it adds $23 million to the valuation on its own:

ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge (Pre-2022, 156 G in 2022)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .274 .367 .531 573 98 157 27 0 40 108 83 176 5 141 9 5.5
2024 .271 .363 .517 553 91 150 25 0 37 101 78 165 5 137 9 4.9
2025 .264 .355 .490 526 82 139 23 0 32 89 72 151 5 128 8 4.0
2026 .259 .346 .458 498 73 129 21 0 26 78 64 135 4 117 7 3.0
2027 .254 .334 .426 469 63 119 18 0 21 66 55 116 3 106 7 2.1
2028 .248 .320 .399 436 54 108 15 0 17 56 45 98 3 95 6 1.3
2029 .238 .304 .355 344 38 82 10 0 10 38 31 69 2 80 4 0.2

Without any change in his baseline, I wouldn’t have expected ZiPS to be that far off when it came to the ultimate value of Judge’s next deal. Freddie Freeman‘s contract is only six years and $162 million, and while he signed his deal when he was more than a year older than Judge will be when he hits free agency, that value is also reduced by a significant portion of his deal ($57 million) being deferred from 2028 to 2040. Matt Olson, who is two years younger than Judge, isn’t getting $30 million to cover his free agency years either. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that Judge is a bit more valuable, there’s a pretty big gulf between what Freeman and Olson very recently got and a contract offer that’s significantly superior to the Yankees’. Not that it’s impossible (see Kris Bryant’s baffling deal), but as a general rule, teams today aren’t as keen on giving lucrative mega-deals to players over the age of 30, especially those on the easy side of the defensive spectrum, as they were a generation ago. And that’s not without cause.

Now, you can’t actually change your age the way you can demonstrate that you’re healthy, but Judge is doing the next best thing in establishing a new baseline from which to decline:

ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge (New Baseline)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .283 .366 .554 576 100 163 27 0 43 109 75 171 7 153 6 5.9
2024 .281 .364 .542 548 93 154 26 0 39 101 71 160 6 150 5 5.3
2025 .273 .356 .514 523 84 143 24 0 34 90 66 150 5 140 5 4.4
2026 .268 .347 .488 496 75 133 22 0 29 79 59 134 5 131 4 3.5
2027 .263 .336 .451 468 66 123 19 0 23 68 50 119 4 118 3 2.4
2028 .257 .324 .421 435 56 112 17 0 18 57 42 101 4 107 2 1.5
2029 .249 .308 .388 402 47 100 14 0 14 47 34 84 3 94 1 0.6

In just two months, Judge has added nearly $40 million to his ZiPS valuation, an impressive feat for a very well-established player. Naturally, if he continues at his current pace, he’ll do even more than that. And him maintaining a 198 wRC+ isn’t as preposterous as it might sound:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Aaron Judge (Pre-2022)
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .324 .423 .672 485 98 157 29 1 46 117 82 127 11 193 8.4
80% .306 .402 .610 490 93 150 26 0 41 107 77 136 9 172 7.0
70% .297 .391 .591 492 91 146 25 0 40 103 75 142 7 164 6.5
60% .285 .379 .563 494 89 141 23 0 38 99 73 146 6 154 5.7
50% .276 .369 .538 496 85 137 22 0 36 95 71 153 5 144 5.1
40% .269 .360 .516 498 84 134 21 0 34 91 69 158 5 136 4.6
30% .260 .350 .490 500 81 130 19 0 32 86 67 166 4 127 3.9
20% .251 .339 .468 502 78 126 19 0 30 81 65 172 4 118 3.3
10% .233 .318 .433 506 75 118 17 0 28 76 61 187 3 103 2.2

Now it obviously wasn’t his mean projection, but coming into the year, ZiPS gave Judge an 8% chance of an OPS+/wRC+ of at least 198 for the entire 2022 season. That was unlikely, but it’s also better than the odds of any randomly chosen Barry Bonds plate appearance resulting in a home run, and nobody questioned the nature of existence when he hit one out, did they? After managing it for a third of a season — and with a higher baseline and less time needed to maintain it — ZiPS now gives Judge a 22% chance of finishing at least at that level:

ZiPS Projection – Aaron Judge (Based on 2022 Pace)
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR
2023 .295 .366 .595 583 110 172 28 0 49 119 65 169 6 164 6 6.7
2024 .292 .364 .586 555 103 162 28 0 45 111 62 158 5 160 5 6.0
2025 .284 .355 .554 531 94 151 26 0 39 99 57 147 5 150 4 5.0
2026 .280 .347 .525 503 84 141 24 0 33 87 51 133 5 140 4 4.1
2027 .272 .335 .487 474 73 129 21 0 27 75 44 118 4 127 3 2.9
2028 .267 .324 .457 442 63 118 18 0 22 63 37 101 3 116 2 2.0
2029 .257 .309 .419 408 53 105 15 0 17 52 30 84 3 102 1 1.0

While ZiPS still wouldn’t offer him $250 million, it’s a lot closer, and we’re now talking a $70 million single-season jump in valuation. It also puts the Yankees in an interesting negotiating position. If they thought that Judge was worthy of $213.5 million from 2023-29 before the season, it’s going to be quite difficult to say that they shouldn’t offer him significantly more after turning in an MVP-type season that’s every bit as stunning as his 2017 campaign. In this case, Judge may very well get the contract he wants.

By turning down a fair offer entering the season, Aaron Judge made an enormous wager on himself, bigger than any ever seen at the World Series of Poker. So far this season, he’s done as much as he possibly could to ensure that come 2023, he’ll be the one raking in the chips.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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crocb3
1 month ago

For the reworked ZiPS figures, are Judge’s innings in centerfield factored in? The Yankees have been trotting him out there quite a bit this season, but I’m not familiar enough with ZiPS to know if that will change any projections moving forward.

JustinPBGmember
1 month ago
Reply to  crocb3

I’m curious about this too