Gleyber Torres hit a huge two-strike double during Friday night’s ALDS Game 1 to give the Yankees the lead. DJ LeMahieu, the team’s perceived MVP, had a bases-clearing double to blow it open. Edwin Encarnación, who seems like the Yankees’ hottest hitter, put the Yankees on the board in both Games 1 and 2. Didi Gregorius launched a grand slam that closed the door in Game 2. The much-discussed bullpen has done its job and Masahiro Tanaka again delivered a sterling October performance, as is his wont.
There are many ways to tell the tale of the Yankees’ 2-0 lead in the ALDS, and all of the above storylines are not just accurate–they’re important, central happenings. The lead wouldn’t be there without them. But it also leaves out the Yankees’ all-around best player and team leader in Aaron Judge.
Now, to be fair, the great Bradford William Davis of the Daily News highlighted Judge’s contributions in a round-up piece last night; a few hours later, Joel Sherman of the Post had a similar idea. Judge is getting his due, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. So, as the Yankees stand with a commanding lead in the ALDS, I want to just highlight a few of the ways in which Aaron Judge–the best player on baseball’s most-visible franchise–feels under-appreciated, and, dare I say it, underrated.
Judge in Context
I wrote about this a bit after the team’s September 22 win over Toronto, but it bears repeating: I don’t believe Judge gets nearly enough credit for being the truly dominant force that he is. Judge debuted in 2016, but was still a qualifying rookie in 2017. Here is the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard for offensive players since Opening Day 2017, with games played in parentheses:
- Mike Trout: 25.2 (388)
- Mookie Betts: 22.4 (439)
- Christian Yelich: 20.0 (433)
- Anthony Rendon: 19.9 (429)
- Alex Bregman: 19.5 (468)
- Aaron Judge: 18.0 (369)
- Jose Ramirez: 17.9 (438)
- Francisco Lindor: 17.7 (460)
- Nolan Arenado: 17.4 (470)
- Jose Altuve: 16.0 (414)
No surprises as to who is on that list. They are clearly baseball’s elite. But I think it’s worth pointing out the fact that Judge has played 45 fewer games than the next closest non-Trout player in the top 10 (Trout is a different beast altogether) and ranks 6th in all of baseball in value. He’s been about as valuable–more, really, but WAR isn’t for splitting hairs–as Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, and Jose Altuve despite playing in signficantly fewer games than all of them.
Now, as I used to say about Robinson Cano, it is worth repeating again and again: health is a skill. Staying on the field is a skill. A player can’t produce value from the bench. But aside from this year’s oblique injury–something that happened far too often to the Yankees this year–Judge’s other significant injury was a freak HBP that broke his wrist. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Judge is brittle, at least not yet. But it is worth mentioning.
That said, here are Judge’s stats in some key non-WAR categories since his 2017 season, with rank in parentheses:
- Walk Rate: 16.5% (2nd)
- BABIP: .361 (2nd)
- wOBA: .405 (3rd)
- wRC+: 157 (3rd)
- On-Base Percentage: .401 (4th)
- Slugging Percentage: .572 (4th)
- Isolated Power: .293 (4th)
- Home Runs: 106 (8th)
This seems pretty good to me. Judge is a true offensive force. He’s top 5 in every rate stat that matters and top 10 even in home runs despite missing so much time. His extraordinary batting average on balls in play isn’t a fluke; it is a result of the fact that he hits the ball harder than anyone in baseball. This is literally true. He has topped the Statcast leaderboards in average exit velocity in each of the last 3 seasons, averaging (!) over 94 miles per hour when he makes contact.
An offensive force, indeed. But his talents are far beyond simply smashing the ball as he is also a patient, on-base machine. There is no way around it: Judge is a one-man offensive juggernaut, and the Twins are seeing it in real-time.
We’re Seeing This Value In Action
Judge has a .500 batting average and a .700 on-base percentage so far in the ALDS, which has only been two games, of course. These numbers will stabilize. But his patient, ever-in-control approach at the plate is rewarding the Yankees in a serious way: he hasn’t driven in a run, but he has scored 3 of them. He has walked 4 times–remember Judge flailing away at Cleveland’s stuff in the 2017 ALDS?–and is taking what is given to him. Here is his strike zone map from Saturday’s Game 2:
And here is the same from Friday’s Game 1:
Judge takes what is given to him, doesn’t chase out of the zone, and just doesn’t force the action. It’s worth noting that he has scored 3 of the 7 times he has been on base so far this October. This, I think, is the perfect encapsulation of how and why Judge is so under-appreciated: even when he is not hitting the ball 500 feet, he is producing actual value for the Yankees–even when it is relatively understated. There is a reason why he sits near the top of the WAR leaderboard, after all.
Mike Trout is the ultimate explanation for WAR, but Aaron Judge himself is not too far behind. If ever you wonder about what the stat tries to capture, you need look no further than the Yankees right-fielder. The Twins are seeing it in action right now, and it is no small part of the reason why they face a 2-0 deficit.
Hidden Defensive Value
If Judge manages to be underrated offensively, somehow, he is a complete untold story on defense. No more. His two acrobatic catches in Game 1 put his defensive prowess on display for the entire country:
But those of us who watch every pitch of every Yankees game already knew this. Not to mention, Judge already has a flair for the defensive dramatic. Remember the 1-0 Yankees win in Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS? That game is best remembered for Greg Bird’s towering home run off Andrew Miller, but without Judge, the Yankees would have lost that game 2-1 and been swept by Cleveland. To the tape:
But it is not just the dramatic, eye-popping, and game-saving plays that make Judge a defensive wizard. It is also just the routine, day-in and day-out value he provides defensively. Statcast’s “outs above average” statistic is one measure of this consistent value. Here are Judge’s stats and rankings in the last 3 years:
- 2019: 6 OAA (24th out of 92 qualified)
- 2018: 1 (42nd of out 87)
- 2017: 10 (12th of out 90)
- All years (16-19): 18 (22nd out of 565)
It is a time-tested rule to take advanced defensive metrics with a grain of salt, and that doesn’t change here. But I think this is a good indicator of the fact that the quantifiable defensive signifiers out there, at least one of the good ones, tends to rate Judge well defensively. For what it’s worth, here is Judge’s ranking in FanGraphs’ key defensive statistics from 2017-19 and his ranking in parentheses:
- Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR): 27.2 (2nd)
- UZR/150: 13.2 (2nd, next closest is Billy Hamilton at 9.5)
Again, UZR ought to be taken with a grain of salt (UZR/150 rates his UZR over 150 games, therefore making it a rate stat) and is not a figure that I often weigh with much confidence. But, in this case, I thought it was at least worth pointing out. Another advanced defensive metric, another key indicator of Judge’s defensive value. Make of it what you will.
Coupled with the eye-test, which shows Judge making heroic plays but also very rarely, if ever, screwing up–seriously, he never throws to the wrong man, misses a play, or even seems to take a bad read on a fly ball–I think this is overall a fair read. Watch him every day and you know that this feels right based on what our eyes tell us. I mean, we all know he hast the raw defensive tools:
But again, within the small sample of this year’s ALDS, we have seen all of these tools and his impeccable instincts at play, even defensively. There is no doubt about it: Aaron Judge is one-of-a-kind.
If the Yankees finish this series against the Twins, even if Judge goes 0-5 with an error in the clinching game (as unlikely as anything in this crazy game we all love), there can be no doubt: he is a key reason why the Yankees will have advanced. He had a direct impact on Games 1 and 2 without even an extra-base hit, with his command of the strike zone and on-base skills plus above-average defense. Aaron Judge was just being Aaron Judge.
Perhaps the best explanation for why all of the above seems to slip between the cracks is because, like baseball’s very best players, Judge makes it seem boring. He just does everything right, all of the time, so much that you don’t even notice it any more. You just expect it. After all, I cover this team as a hobby and watch more than 150 games a year on average. And yet, I was stunned–and I mean it–to see that Judge put up a line .288/.369/.712 (176 wRC+) line in his final 150 plate appearances of the 2019 season. It was just being Aaron Judge being Aaron Judge–and unless you train yourself to see it, you’ll find yourself looking for another, less expected storyline, all the while missing the fact that the next Yankees legend is hiding right here in plain sight.