New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is doing something not seen in MLB for nearly two decades. With his 60th home run, Judge has placed himself in the same company as Barry Bonds, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Babe Ruth.
Does Judge season 2022 really belong to the same company as those players? Ruth is arguably the greatest player of all time. Bonds deserves to be in that conversation, even if that comes with an important caveat. Maris is a Hall of Famer and McGwire and Sosa could be if they weren’t suspected of performance enhancing drugs.
Sure, Judge was excellent, but was he as good as Ruth? And Maris? Is there an argument that what Judge is doing is as unique and special as Shohei Ohtani’s two-way genius?
Has Aaron Judge reached the heights of Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds?
Putting Judge’s offensive contributions into historical context is not difficult. It turns out that’s exactly what wRC + measures. The statistic summarizes a player’s offensive value by comparing him to the league average during that season. wRC + is ideal for this exercise because it adapts to a player’s playing field and the offensive environment in which he has played. Players who excelled in the dead ball era – when power barely existed and the league’s batting average hovered around .241 can be directly compared to players who hit 45 home runs during the steroid era – when a batting average of .270 was closer to normal.
The statistic is also incredibly easy to understand. A player with 100 wRC + scored exactly the league average in attack during that season. A player with 150 wRC + performed 50 percent better on offense than a player with the league average.
In 2022, Judge has a 211 wRC +. In attack he was 111% better than the average player in the league. There have been 16 other cases in MLB history where a player has scored a wRC + of 211 or higher. Bonds has done it four times in his career. Those seasons all came in a row (2001-2004), which was the last time in MLB a player produced a wRC + out of 211.
Among other 60+ home run seasons, Judge’s 211 wRC + is in third place. Bonds’ 235 wRC + from the 2001 MLB season tops the list. Ruth’s 212 wRC + from 1927, when he set the then record with 60 home runs, is in second place. The only other player to score over 60 home runs with a wRC + of 200 is McGwire in 1998. He scored 70 home runs that season and scored 205 wRC +.
When Maris broke Ruth’s record in 1961, Maris had a 162 wRC +. Why is Maris’s figure significantly lower? It may be partly due to the fact that Maris’s batting average of .269 is only a few points above the league average, which was .258 in 1961. By comparison, Judge has a batting average of .316 in a season. where the league average is .243. The judge’s numbers are much more anomalous if one takes into account his era.
From a purely offensive point of view, Judge is experiencing a historic season. There have only been 15 better offensive seasons, according to wRC +. Among players who have scored over 60 home runs, Judge has not reached the level of Bonds, but is on par with Ruth’s record-breaking season.
How good was Aaron Judge when he didn’t hit?
What if I wanted to go beyond Judge’s offensive numbers? Is Judge season still special when you consider his defense and running base?
This is also easy to do, but it comes with one important caveat. Judge has a 10.7 fWAR – FanGraphs version of WAR. The figure is at the 29th position in MLB history. It is on par, so far, with Ruth’s 1931 season and Willie Mays’ 1965 season. And if Judge avoids a slump along the stretch and continues to perform well, there’s a chance he’ll climb higher on the list before the end of the 2022 regular season.
Using fWAR has a significant flaw. One-season defensive metrics aren’t that reliable. The judge’s defense is worth -0.2 in 2022, according to FanGraphs. This means that he was slightly below average as a defender. Last year it was worse, posting a defensive value of -4.5. In 2019, however, Judge ranked well as a defender, posting a defensive value of 6.8.
These figures show the flaws in relying too much on single season defensive metrics. Is Judge really a strong defender like he showed in 2019? Is he a below average defender like he showed in 2021? Or is he more or less average, as the metrics say in 2022? Judge’s 2019 is distorted because he only played on the right pitch? Was the defensive value of Judge penalized too much in 2021 and 2022 because he plays more in the center?
FanGraphs acknowledges that its version of WAR is not an exact figure. It should be used as an estimate of a player’s worth.
Evaluating Judge’s entire work in 2022 does decrease its value somewhat, but there is still a strong argument to be made that he is releasing a top-50, possibly even a top-40 season, of all. times.
Shohei Ohtani’s problem
And then there is Ohtani. He is the only player who is doing anything even with Judge in 2022. Ohtani has been excellent at the pot and on the mountain and is recording better numbers than last season, when he unanimously won the AL MVP award.
Ohtani’s bidirectional state complicates the comparison even more. If you add Ohtani’s fWAR as a position player and his fWAR as a pitcher, you get a fWAR of 8.9. However, there are major problems with this approach. For one, Ohtani is a designated hitter. He is penalized in his defensive metrics for not playing on the pitch. This penalty is determined by making a position adjustment each season which determines how much designated batters should be penalized for not lining up. It’s not necessarily a bad way to calculate the value of a designated hitter, but it’s complicated.
The biggest problem is Ohtani’s launch of fWAR. FanGraphs calculates WAR pitching using FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching. The FIP attempts to eliminate anything that hits a pitcher once the ball is in play. He believes pitchers have little or no control once a batter puts a ball into play. The FIP also measures how well a player should have thrown and not necessarily how well he threw. It’s a controversial concept and one of the main reasons Baseball-Reference has its own version of WAR: bWAR. Baseball-Reference does not use FIP when calculating WAR for pitchers. The Baseball-Reference version is based on allowed runs and innings thrown. Both websites delve into how these statistics are calculated and why they are used. If you use the Baseball-Reference version of WAR, the case between Judge, 9.9 bWAR, and Ohtani, 8.9 bWAR, is slightly closer.
If you want to argue that Ohtani’s two-way skill saves the Los Angeles Angels a spot on the roster, well, that’s not as big of an advantage as it sounds either. The Angels have to compensate by performing a six-man rotation, which probably damages the team in the long run.
All this makes a direct comparison extremely difficult. Both metrics have Judge as the best player in 2022, but the margin of error is close enough that there is still an argument for Ohtani.
MLB fans are witnessing the story with Aaron Judge
Whichever way you break it down, Judge is delivering a historic season. Ohtani is too, but media attention and AL’s pursuit of the home run record are providing Judge with the pace needed to win the AL MVP award. Ohtani’s numbers are generational, but MLB isn’t cutting his games to see if he can win his fourteenth game of the season. The judge is getting that treatment and has a chance to win the Triple Crown. Pursuing those milestones draws more attention to Judge, thus making him more likely to take home the AL MVP.
At the same time, it’s probably fair to say that Ohtani’s 2022 has been underestimated. Dominant two-way players also show up less often than 60+ home runs, and the fact that Ohtani was even better in 2022 than last season shouldn’t be put aside so easily.
If the judge wins the award, it will be difficult to argue that it was the wrong choice. He is delivering the best offensive season MLB has experienced since Bonds’ incredible run. It could take decades for baseball fans to see this level of offensive production again.