The Loss of Aaron Judge Only Magnifies Slumping, Banged-Up Yankees’ Woes

Aaron Judge
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

The last thing the Yankees needed amid a slump that’s knocked them into last place in the AL East for the first time since April 26, 2021 was in injury to their best player. Yet that’s what they’re facing, because on Monday they placed Aaron Judge on the 10-day injured list due to a strain in his right hip. While the injury isn’t believed to be a severe one — indeed, the reigning AL MVP and the team waited the weekend to see if he felt good enough to return to the lineup — it comes at a time when New York has already been hit hard by injuries, magnifying the roster’s shaky construction.

Judge injured himself last Wednesday, on his 31st birthday. In the second inning, after collecting his second double of the game off the Twins’ Kenta Maeda and helping the Yankees build up a 5–0 lead, he attempted to steal third base. Catcher Christian Vázquez made a perfect peg to third baseman Willi Castro, who tagged Judge on his helmet as he made an awkward headfirst slide into the bag.

The initial concern about Judge was that he’d jammed his right wrist; cameras and tweets from the Target Field press box showed him flexing and shaking his right hand in the dugout afterwards. That he was serving as the team’s designated hitter that day created some suspense as to whether he’d take his next plate appearance. He did, and reached base two more times. But he departed after four innings and two plate appearances on Thursday against the Rangers due to discomfort in his right hip. “It was just a little grab in the hip area — after that headfirst slide… the whole right side has been a little locked up,” he said after that game. “The culmination of having that [slide] and a couple of swings today, I just really couldn’t get it loose.”

An MRI showed what the team described as a small strain near the top of his right hip. Judge didn’t play in any of the remaining three games of the series, forcing an already beaten-up team to play shorthanded. The Yankees lost all three, scoring just four runs and collecting a total of 16 hits.

For as desperate as they are, and for as much as Judge himself downplayed the injury, the Yankees didn’t want to turn a small problem into a bigger one. Said manager Aaron Boone on Monday, “I think we’ve known that it’s a minor thing, but the risk which we’re weighing is we don’t want to put him in a position where he goes out and compromises somewhere else, and the injury becomes something else or worse.”

While it’s sensible to put Judge on the IL, the timing couldn’t be much worse, as the Yankees have squandered a 12–7 start by losing eight of 11, dropping series against the Blue Jays, Twins, and Rangers. While the Guardians, their current opponents, enter Tuesday at 14–15, their next 14 games after their current three-game series include seven against the Rays (23–6) and four against the Blue Jays (18–11) to offset three against the lowly A’s (6–23).

First and foremost, the loss of Judge leaves the Yankees without their best hitter, an irreplaceable lineup centerpiece who set an AL record with 62 homers last year and hit a gargantuan .311/.425/.686 for a 207 wRC+ and 11.5 WAR. Though he homered four times in his first nine games this year, putting him ahead of last year’s pace, Judge had been in something of a slump lately, batting .203/.304/.373 (87 wRC+) since April 10, taking him down to a .261/.352/.511 (136 wRC+) line with a hefty 32.4% strikeout rate. He hadn’t homered since April 19, but the game in which he was injured was his first multi-hit game since April 11, and all three hits came via balls with exit velocities of 96.7 mph or higher. In fact, when Judge has made contact, it’s been outstanding — not quite the equal of last year, but better than in 2021:

Aaron Judge Statcast 2021-23
Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2021 397 95.8 17.6% 57.9% .287 .308 .544 .594 .387 .418
2022 404 95.8 26.2% 60.9% .311 .305 .686 .706 .458 .463
2023 59 95.2 22.0% 64.4% .261 .279 .511 .610 .366 .409

Health aside, Judge’s big problem hasn’t been when he’s made contact; it’s when he hasn’t, and he’s missing within the strike zone. His zone swing rate has jumped from 67.6% to 75.1%, but his zone contact rate has fallen from 85.3% to 74.4%, which would represent a career low; meanwhile, his 16.7% swinging-strike rate is up over five points from last year. His whiff rates are much higher than last year, up 15 points on four-seamers (from 22.3% to 37.3%), nearly 10 points on sliders (40.5% to 50%), and almost five points on curves (from 39.7% to 44.4%). It’s a worrisome pattern, but we’ll see if it carries on once he returns, which could be as soon as May 8 because the team can backdate the start of his 10-day stint to April 28.

In the meantime, things could be grim. Apart from the well-documented losses in the rotation — neither Carlos Rodón nor Luis Severino has appeared in a game yet, and Frankie Montas is likely out until September after undergoing shoulder surgery — the team is already down three other members of its starting lineup. Center fielder Harrison Bader has yet to play a regular-season game due to an oblique strain, though he could be back as soon as Tuesday. Third baseman Josh Donaldson hasn’t played since April 5 due to a right hamstring strain save for a one-game rehab stint for the team’s Double-A Somerset affiliate on April 18, during which he experienced a setback; he could be out at least another week. Designated hitter/right fielder Giancarlo Stanton hasn’t played since April 15 due to a Grade 2 left hamstring strain that is expected to keep him out until mid-to-late May.

Admittedly, Donaldson and Stanton are far removed from the form that helped them win MVP awards. The former was off to a 2-for-16 start when he went down, but the latter had hit .269/.296/.558, lopsided but still good for a 133 wRC+. But even at last year’s levels — a 95 wRC+ for Donaldson, 115 wRC+ for Stanton — both would be welcome upgrades on a team that currently ranks 11th in the AL in scoring (3.93 runs per game), wRC+ (88), and on-base percentage (.297); meanwhile, the Yankees are 10th in batting average (.225) and 12th in slugging percentage (.375).

The team basically stopped hitting and scoring when Stanton went down:

Yankees Offense Through April 15 and Since
Through April 15 9-6 4.80 .237 .308 .440 108 .238 .446 .325 .328
Since April 16 6-9 3.07 .213 .286 .310 69 .240 .391 .268 .311

To be fair, the drop-off has been exacerbated by some batted ball misfortune; where the Yankees’ actual batting average and slugging percentage bore close resemblances to their Statcast expected numbers before Stanton went down, they’re 27 points shy in xBA since then, and 81 shy in xSLG.

Even with that excuse, the makeshift lineup is carrying too much dead weight. Anthony Rizzo (135 wRC+), Gleyber Torres (120 wRC+), and DJ LeMahieu (117 wRC+) have been productive, with the last of those making 15 starts at third base in place of Donaldson plus four at first, two at second, and two at DH. Rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe has stayed afloat thanks to a keen batting eye, walking 14.8% of the time en route to a .219/.330/.333 (93 wRC+) line. But the rest of the position players, youngsters as well as veterans, have been mostly awful. Seven Yankees aside from catcher Jose Trevino (87 wRC+) and the injured Stanton have made between 38 and 94 plate appearances, and none has produced a wRC+ above 65; collectively, they’re 2.1 wins below replacement level:

Yankees Hitless Wonders
Oswald Peraza 38 0 7.9% 15.8% .188 .316 .219 65 0.0
Kyle Higashioka 43 2 4.7% 34.9% .195 .233 .341 57 0.0
Franchy Cordero 55 4 3.6% 36.4% .151 .182 .396 52 -0.3
Willie Calhoun 44 0 4.5% 18.2% .220 .250 .244 37 -0.4
Oswaldo Cabrera 94 1 4.3% 20.2% .193 .226 .273 32 -0.4
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 56 0 5.4% 14.3% .189 .232 .189 19 -0.4
Aaron Hicks 49 0 8.2% 28.6% .156 .224 .156 10 -0.6

Woof. Even with the contributions of Judge and Stanton, who has made all of five starts in the field, collectively the Yankees outfield has hit .199/.249/.335 for a 60 wRC+. Left field has been an ongoing disaster, where general manager Brian Cashman’s failure to upgrade this past offseason — when there were a variety of free-agent options available, even in the $10 million-and-under tier — looms large; Cabrera (65 PA) and Hicks (33 PA), have combined for a 57 wRC+. The former is coming off a productive late-season performance (.247/.312/.429 for a 111 wRC+ in 171 PA) that framed him as a solid super-utilityman, but he was well ahead of his .220 xBA and .361 xSLG, and the Yankees may have overestimated his capabilities. Hicks is now in the fifth year of a seven-year, $70 million contract that has been a waste due to a variety of injuries; he’s netted 2.5 WAR in that span, including 1.4 last year, when he hit a disappointing .216/.330/.313 (90 wRC+).

The Yankees didn’t get far in trying out one improvement, as Jake Bauers, a former Top 100 prospect (no. 43 in 2018), made his team debut on Saturday as the starting left fielder but lasted all of half an inning. He crashed into the left field wall to make a sliding, run-saving catch and suffered a right knee contusion in the process, knocking him out of the game before he could swing a bat.

The 27-year-old lefty-swinging Bauers has hit just .213/.307/.348 (82 wRC+) in 1,126 PA in parts of three major league seasons with the Rays, Guardians, and Mariners, but he earned the call by hitting .304/.448/.797 with nine homers and a 94.1 mph average exit velocity in 87 PA for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre. His MRI came back clean, so he could get another look as part of a platoon once the swelling in his knee subsides.

In Bader’s absence, Boone has mainly used Judge (65 PA) and Kiner-Falefa (40 PA) in center field. Displaced as the starting shortstop by Volpe, the latter is playing the outfield in the majors for the first time, but while he hasn’t shamed himself defensively, he’s the owner of an 80 wRC+ for his career, and there’s nowhere besides shortstop where his light bat isn’t a huge detriment. With Judge once again pressed into center field duty and Stanton down, right field has been a grab bag, where Cordero has the most playing time (43 PA). Collectively, the five players who have spent time there have hit — and here I’ll urge you to cover the eyes and ears of any small children within reach — .152/.179/.304 for a 25 wRC+. Comparatively speaking, recently released staring pitcher Madison Bumgarner would be an upgrade with his career .172/.232/.292 line and 44 wRC+.

Long a lefty-swinging Quad-A type with notable power but major holes in his swing, Cordero owns just an 81 wRC+ for his career and hit .219/.300/.397 (92 WRC+) in 275 PA for the Red Sox last year. Despite swinging a hot bat in spring training with the Orioles, he missed the cut, then caught on with the Yankees and made some waves in the season’s first two weeks, with four homers in his first 27 PA. He promptly turned into a pumpkin, however, going 1-for-28 with 13 strikeouts and zero walks since April 13 before being optioned to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre on Saturday; he returned Monday to fill Judge’s roster spot but figures to go back down once Bauers is able. Calhoun is another lefty-swinging Quad-A type with a career 82 wRC+ that he’s failed to match in his brief time in pinstripes.

Any roster can abide one or two unproductive reserves, but no lineup can withstand so many sharing jobs and underperforming relative even to their replacement-level career lines. Yes, the poor roster construction is on Cashman, particularly when it comes to left field and third base, where Donaldson’s $21 million salary and unpopularity make him untradeable but where he at least provided near-average production last year. Still, Cabrera and Peraza (who lost out to Volpe in the spring shortstop sweepstakes but was recalled when Stanton hit the IL) were supposed to represent appealing in-house alternatives, and neither has hit a lick when given the chance.

A week from now, if everything goes right for Bader, Donaldson, and Judge, the Yankees’ lineup may look much more whole, and within a few weeks, both Rodón and Severino should be in the rotation, barring setbacks in their rehabs. But even if the Yankees are potentially at full strength come June, this team is dependent upon four fragile regulars in their age-33 seasons or older (Donaldson, Rizzo, LeMahieu, and Stanton) who have missed substantial time in the past two seasons due to injuries. They’re going to need several reserves to step up, not only to keep them afloat in the near term but also to allow those players and Judge some breathing room over the course of the season. Right now, that looks like a tall order.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mitchell Mooremember
1 year ago

How/why does Willie Calhoun, he of 82 wRC+ and -2.8 fWAR in 1000 career PAs at age 28, continue to get opportunities to prove he’s not a MLB player?

1 year ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

I’m used to clicking on players from way back when and seeing them still get playing time through negative WAR, but seeing 4 straight years of negative WAR and 6 of the last 7 in 2023 is honestly pretty wild.

Left of Centerfield
1 year ago
Reply to  Mitchell Moore

Didn’t you know that Willie’s the first ever graduate of the Eric Hosmer Dugout Leadership school?

Seriously, though it’s baseball. Look up Michael Martinez who infamously made the last out of the Cleveland – Chicago Cubs World Series a few years ago. His MLB career didn’t begin until age 28 so there was zero hope that he would suddenly get better. Yet, even though he was awful from the very beginning, he played in 7 seasons, compiling -2.7 WAR across 621 PAs (and negative WAR in all 7). I have no idea why teams kept giving him a chance but they did.

1 year ago

It’s a little understandable if they’re a guy who plays a lot of positions, because sometimes those guys get kept around as a “break glass in case of emergency” utility type. I seem to recall that was Martinez’s profile; another guy like that was Enrique Wilson. But Willie Calhoun doesn’t play any position.