Is It Time For An Aaron Judge Extension?

The Yankees have done a fantastic job of amassing elite young talent. Despite experiencing some lean years by Yankees standards, the team did not undergo a full blown rebuild to return to prominence. Brian Cashman and company were wildly successful in collecting a ton of major league ready talent that burst on the scene together. Over the last few years, this core delivered great production at a relatively low cost. The downside is paying the piper when those years of control begin to dwindle.

Prominent players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are now entering their arbitration years. Gleyber Torres is not far behind. All three players are crucial to the long term viability of the team. DJ Lemehieu signed for two years at $12 million and far exceeded that value in one year. Up until last year, the Yankees had a firm policy of not offering contract extensions prior to a player’s free agency. The Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks extensions changed the dynamic a bit. Over the course of the spring, I’ll be exploring if Judge, Gary, Gleyber, and DJLM are appropriate candidates for long term extensions with the Yankees. We begin with Aaron Judge.

One Of The Truly Great Players In The Game

Aaron Judge is a top 10 player. He may be a top 5 player. The only legitimate argument against him is concern over his health. Judge is baseball’s version of Patrick Mahomes, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. He is a true impact player who consistently alters the course of a game on both sides of the field. It feels like we take his greatness for granted. The numbers and data over his short career are insane.

Judge is a career .273/.394/.558/.952 hitter in four seasons (really three and a half). He’s hit 110 home runs. In his only full season in the majors in 2017, he hit .284/.422/.627/1.049 with 52 home runs. He played half of that season with one arm. Here are his statcast rankings over the last three years:

Red is my favorite color. I just love it. I especially love it when statcast graphics are red. Some of these rankings are a beautiful bright red. Judge consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. There is virtually no drop off from year to year.

More Than A Slugger

To further demonstrate how devastating a hitter Judge is, here is a list of statistics and his league rankings in those categories over his career:

  • Barrel Percentage: 20.7% (Top 1%)
  • Exit Velocity: 95.1% (Top 1%)
  • xSLG: .579 (Top 3%)
  • WOBA: .397 (Top 5%)
  • XWOBA: .410 (Top 3%)
  • XWOBACON: .575 (Top 3%)
  • Hard Hit %: 55.4% (Top 1%)
  • Walk %: 16.1% (Top 3%)

The last number may be the most impressive one. Some of this data is the result of an imposing physical specimen with efficient, consistent and simple hitting mechanics. The plate discipline is truly impressive for a power hitter. When looking at contract extensions it is important to identify skills that can hold up over the long term. The ability to control the strike zone is crucial. Yes, there are a lot of strikeouts, but some of those are a result of too much patience and a trash strike zone. The K’s are partly a byproduct of Judge’s elite batting eye.

Fangraphs projects another huge year from Judge. Their ZiPS projection has him at .260/.377/.536/.913 with a 140 OPS+. If Judge stays healthy this season, these numbers feel conservative. We have yet to see a fully healthy Judge play a full season. 2017 offered a glimpse, but Judge is a far better hitter now. We’re easily talking MVP level production if there are no injuries.

Gold Glove Caliber Defense

If it wasn’t for Mookie Betts, Judge may already be a multi-time gold glove award winner. He finished the 2019 season with 8 Outs Above Average. That is an absurd number especially for a man his size. He ranks in the 94th percentile in that category.

We all know about his arm. It is a legitimate defensive weapon that prevents runners from taking the extra base or attempting to score. There were numerous times when runners pumped the brakes on the basepaths as soon as Judge made a clean play on the ball. This won’t show up in the numbers, but the arm is a clear deterrent.

Beyond the throwing ability, Aaron Judge displays above-average range. Fielding range is a nuanced defensive descriptor. It goes beyond how much area a player can cover. The best fielders can make plays in any direction of their position. Good defenders can come in on the ball. They can go back on the ball. They can also make plays to both their glove and off hand sides. Judge can do it all. Here is a chart of his responsible plays in 2019:

It doesn’t get much better than this. One under the radar benefit of Judge’s defensive prowess is his ability to defend the short porch. We all know about the cheap home runs due to the short right field wall. Judge is able to negate that as much as one player can. He made the single biggest defensive play of the 2017 ALDS against Cleveland in Game 3:

Beyond taking the ball away from Zack Hample, this play is a perfect illustration of Judge’s impact as a defender. He makes this play look routine when other fielders have to time their jumps. Judge just calmly reaches up and easily snags the ball. This is incredibly rare.

Health Concerns

Aaron’s lack of full time availability throughout a season is a legitimate concern. He has yet to complete a full campaign without sustaining a serious injury. In 2016, he pulled his oblique. He injured his left shoulder in 2017. That injury required offseason surgery. A hit by pitch cost him a couple of months in 2018. There was another oblique injury last season. The beginning of this spring training camp brings along a sore shoulder. Outside of the hit by pitch, all of these ailments do bring up long term viability concerns for a player of his size.

The trouble in projecting Judge’s long term future is the lack of player comps. The attributes that make him so unique also make it hard to provide a context of how his career could play out. There is a prevailing belief that players of Aaron’s size will ultimately break down. That may be true, but how many players of his size were this athletic? Judge isn’t a hulking brute. He is an elite level athlete with tremendous size. Dave Winfield is a comparable player and he retired at the age of 45.

Judge may have injury stretches every season. This could be his reality as a major league baseball player. As long as the injuries aren’t catastrophic or impact long term health and performance it probably isn’t the end of the world.

Should The Yankees Extend Him Soon?

The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Unless you’re the suddenly cost prudent Red Sox or a small market team crying broke, you don’t let top 10 players walk away. Teams can play the cost controlled arbitration game with most players, but when it comes to the best of the best, franchises are better off locking them up for the long term. There are significant dangers in letting your franchise player inch closer to free agency. The allure of experiencing the free market gets stronger. The cost for that player’s services could increase with highly productive seasons. It also increases the chances of destroying a championship level core. We can look at the Mookie Betts trade as a sobering reminder. There were reports Mookie wanted to enter the free agent market. The Red Sox also could’ve presented Betts an offer he couldn’t refuse.

A contract extension secures the Yankees’ most important player for the entirety of his prime years. Yes, Judge won’t be a free agent until his age 31 season. As mentioned earlier, Judge is an incredibly unique player. It isn’t inconceivable to believe his elite productivity could last into his mid-30’s. There is also the chance that Judge breaks arbitration records if he’s able to produce a year like 2017 again. An extension allows both sides to amicably settle on a number that both reflects his value and addresses future payroll concerns.

What Does A Potential Extension Look Like?

The closest comp in regards to production and service time is Alex Bregman. For the sake of this conversation, we’ll put cheating scandals on the side. Bregman signed a five year, $100 million extension that takes him to his age 31 season. The deal bought out three arbitration years and two free agent years. A Judge extension could be for six years, $150 million, which would buy out the final two years of arbitration and four free agent years.

Judge could enter the market at 34 or revisit another deal with the Yankees. This gives Judge an AAV of $25 million and allows him to avoid a market that looks down upon free agents over the age of 30. The Yankees could structure the deal in a way that gives them some luxury tax relief if they need it in the next few years. An extension is a win for both sides and it should happen sooner than later.

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26 Comments

  1. Mungo

    I’m not sure Bregman is the cleanest example because of his position and better health (but I do see that’s been addressed here already), but Judge also brings other skills to the dance that Bregman doesn’t. He also brings an injury history. I might wait one more year, but if he’s willing to take a discount deal for security, then make it so.

  2. JG (Melky Mesa)

    Hell yes

  3. RetroRob

    I’m in favor of signing both Judge and Sanchez to extensions if they can get them at a reduced rate, or if they can buy out a couple years of free agency. In the end, with the luxury tax cap, part of success of a franchise will be selecting which players to place a bet on, sign to extensions, and try to reduce the overall payroll AAV. Year-to-year deals and free agency means paying peak prices. So they should explore deals with both, and eventually Gleyber too. Takes two to tango, though. If the players plan to go the Mookie Betts route and test free agency (and they’ll know that from attempting to negotiate), then the Yankees will have reassess.

  4. Mr. Bootleg

    We need to see what the next CBA will look like. That aside, I’d save all my bullets for Torres. He plays a far more premium position and so far shows an ability to stay healthy. I just can’t give Judge anything with 9 figures when he has only played one full season.

    I do however find your article compelling. I just didn’t know how good he actually is. Still though, he needs to demonstrate an ability to stay on the field. You can’t have two power hitting injury black holes with him and Stanton.

    • Randy

      He’s still worth a hefty extension. Would you rather not have Stanton and Judge?

    • RetroRob

      He put up an 8 WAR season in 2017, and even missing a 1/3 of the games the last two years, he’s been putting up 5.5 WAR seasons, which calculates out to 8 WAR seasons. I think we all know how *good* he is. What we don’t know is if he can maintain his health. At worst, you have yourself a five win player; at best you have an eight win player. He’s easily worth $25M a year. If they can buy him out of a couple years of free agency at that AAV, I’m all for it.

  5. Wire Fan

    Your last part of the piece isn’t accurate. The LT impact is the AAV, you can’t structure the contract to vary that over the contract and lower the LT hit early in the contract.

    I believe the only thing they can do is wait until after opening day so his one year arbitration contract applies for this year and the extension doesn’t apply until next year’s LT calculation. (They may have closed this loophole in the last CBA?)

    • Randy

      They can choose to follow the Bregman deal. His is 11 million through arb years and then 28.5 mil after. I didn’t want to go down a luxury tax analysis rabbit hole. $25 million was clean for this very brief projection. That is why I added the line about structuring how they need it to work.

  6. Tom Rite

    I don’t think it’s beneficial for Judge to give away a year or two of FA for a contract today.
    Entering FA at 31 vs 34 is another world. At 31 the Yankees or any other team can and will offer him a 7-10 year contract. At 34 he may get a 3-4 year offer at a much lower cost.
    Yes, he would guarantee himself multi-millions, but if he believes in himself he should wait til FA or tell the Yankees to offer him an extension (in years) with that FA time in mind. (i.e. if they were to offer him a 10 year contract).
    Hitting FA at 34 is a bummer, and can get nasty if production or injuries happened the year or two prior. Hitting FA at 31 would get him a contract (unless injured the year before FA) that will take him until his late 30s or into his 40s (less likely lately, but he’s a hometown hero).
    You may think this is a reach, and at 31 he’ll only get a 5-6 year contract. But, if he has another monster year he’d get 8-10 years. {my opinion of course}

    • Randy

      I don’t think he’s getting 8-10 years at 31. Also, get your generational wealth now.

    • chip56

      He would probably do better financially going year-to-year.

  7. I think Judge is undoubtedly a better player than Bregman. But, understand Bregman was passing up hitting FA at 29, Judge will be passing up hitting FA with durability questions at 31. AB also plays a more premium position. Considering, I think the $150 would be more than enough to get it done. Though by the time these guys hit (or would have hit) FA the financials of the game may be markedly different. I think the players realize the bumps that were built into the LT thresholds were not high enough. If they agree to additional playoff games and teams, there is obviously additional revenue to the teams. We could have a situation like the NBA did a few years ago, with the LT threshold going up a bunch over the next few years. Judge at $25m is a bargain, maybe 6 years is a length the Yankees are scared of though – go 5 years + an option.

    • Randy

      My only contention is third base is not a premium position. They’re both elite defenders at the corners and you could make the case outfield defense has become more important with the emphasis on driving the ball in the air.

  8. Alex

    I’d give him that $150 million contract only if he’s able to play 140+ games this season. I’d be super worried about all of his injuries these past few seasons. Let’s hope for good health because he’s a pleasure to watch when healthy.

    • Randy

      I can see that. You can always adjust the number to address the health concerns. You’re getting MVP level production every season.

    • RetroRob

      If he plays 140+ games this year and cranks out 45+ HRs and puts up an 8 WAR season he will cost more. I agree on one level with what you’re saying, but they perhaps can take advantage of the “ifs” and be able to structure a more cost-effective deal because of his injuries. If you’re getting a five win player even missing 1/3 of the games, you’re downside if pretty low. Hard to say, though, without knowing what Judge’s team is thinking. He is the face of the franchise, and one of the most recognized and respected players in the game. If I’m his agent, I advise him to go year-to-year and get full market price.

  9. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    It’s been time for years, Randy. He’s an MVP talent being paid like a pauper boy. I’d lock him up for the next decade and ensure that he ends his career as a True Yankee. The health concerns don’t bother me. Those are more on the incompetent medical/training staff than the players. I’d also extend Gleyber, Sevy, Voit, Gio and Green. If Gary has a good season this year I’d extend him too. What made the late 90’s dynasty so great was that the Core 4 plus Bernie were locked in as Yankees for life. When you start letting go of your core players you’re the Boston Red Sox.

  10. chip56

    “The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Unless you’re the suddenly cost prudent Red Sox or a small market team crying broke, you don’t let top 10 players walk away.”

    Love me some Aaron Judge, but there’s a lot of hyperbole in that above statement.

    1. Not extending him does not equal “letting him walk away”

    2. He will be 31 the first time he would be eligible for free agency and the trend is going against paying guys over 30, so his FA contract may not be all that excessive that you need to buy out Free Agent years now.

    3. He’s already injury prone; at his size that’s probably not going to go away. He hasn’t had a fully healthy, productive season in his career.

    I see no problem going year-to-year with Judge and seeing how his body ages over the next three years.

    • Randy

      Where is the hyperbole? If you don’t extend him at some point he hits the market. It’s a pretty straightforward idea.

      You’re basically trying to suppress his financial value, which is fine, but you’re better off just saying that.

      • chip56

        No, you can let him go year-to-year and re-sign him as a free agent. That’s not the same as extending him. It also doesn’t mean they are “letting him walk”

        I’m not trying to suppress his value. His age is already doing that.

        • Randy

          “You can re-sign him as a free agent” which means he’s in the market and can sign with another team. When your player enters the market you are running the risk of letting him walk.

          It is? What is your evidence that Aaron Judge’s specific performance is being degraded by age?

          • chip56

            I didn’t say performance, I said value. Judge will likely never see a contract anywhere close to what Harper got, despite being the better player, simply because Judge won’t hit the FA market until he’s over 30.

            The guys you extend are the guys who would hit free agency in their mid/late 20s.

          • Randy

            Aaron Hicks got a 7 year extension at 29 from a franchise that doesn’t like to do extensions.

          • chip56

            And look at how swell that is going…

          • Randy

            I’m not comparing deals. Hicks has warts that Judge doesn’t have. I’m simply responding to this idea extensions are strictly for an age range.

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