Going big: Aaron Judge’s bet on himself is risky because he stands alone

Before the season, Aaron Judge made a big bet on himself.

With free agency looming after this season, he turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension from the New York Yankees. It was well short of recent record player contracts, but it would still have been the 23rd richest deal of all time, according to the Cot’s Baseball Contracts database.

So far, the judge’s decision seems to be working well.

The 30-year-old Yankees outfielder hit his MLB-leading 26th and 27th homers Wednesday night. The next day, his walk-off single gave the Yankees their 51st win of the season. It has a .299/.374/.648 slash line. He is third in the majors in FanGraphs wins over substitutes and sixth in the Baseball Reference WAR. If the season ended today, Judge would be a strong MVP contender — especially given his team’s success, which some voters appreciate.

MVP debate aside, Judge is playing like a superstar and is on track to surpass his 2017 career bests of 52 homers and 8.8 fWAR in a single season. That’s the kind of year a player would want before going free. But his bet becomes more complicated when you consider a few other factors: his age and the lack of historical comparisons for players like him.

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In recent years, MLB teams have been reluctant to sign players in their 30s for big free-agent deals. The judge will be 31 in April next year. He’s a bit older than other elite free agents because he was a college draftee; He played three seasons at Fresno State before the Yankees picked him 31st overall in the 2013 draft.

Judge made his major debut at 24, an age by which stars like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were already established. Harper and Machado were both 26 years old when they signed their mega deals in 2019.

To maximize free agency time, you must earn your six years of service while you are as young as possible. Consider that Corey Seager and Marcus Semien entered free agency last offseason with identical career fWAR totals of 21.7. each was primarily a shortstop and they had the same agent, Scott Boras. Both signed with the Texas Rangers in the offseason, but Semien turned 31 at the end of last season and Seager wouldn’t turn 28 until the start of this season. Seager signed for $325 million over 10 years, while Semien received $175 million over 8 years despite finishing third in AL MVP voting last season.

Richter is the kind of player the union tried to better compensate for in the most recent collective bargaining agreement through pre-work performance bonuses, incentives to reduce tenure manipulation and minimum wage increases. The judge and the Yankees avoided arbitration shortly before his Friday hearing and reportedly settled on a salary of $19 million plus incentives. He originally asked for $21 million while the Yankees bid $17 million.

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Judge hopes to join the $300 million club, but all nine players who landed contracts of that value or more were in their 20s when they signed those contracts. Some people think Judge can attract a deal worth more than $300 million, but trends suggest otherwise.

The most significant contract for a position player aged 30 and older was Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million extension with the Yankees in 2008, following a 9.6 WAR season. Over the past decade, position players Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano have missed nearly $250 million deals in their 30s.

JD Martinez, another top slugger, had to “settle” at the start of his season at the age of 30 on a five-year, $110 million contract, and he didn’t sign until mid-February when training camps opened. Stepping into free agency last November, Martinez revealed he was seeking a $200 million deal after producing a stellar campaign with the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017.

In the last offseason, which featured record spending before the Dec. 1 lockout, first baseman Freddie Freeman was seeking a $200 million deal for his 32-year campaign.

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Freeman has “settled” on a six-year, $162 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers (although nearly a third of the money is deferred, reducing the deal’s real dollar value when adjusted for future inflation).

Yes, they were a bit older than Judge and didn’t play midfield like Judge is doing this season. But they had a better track record when it came to health. Judge has an extensive injury history, having only played 112 games twice in his first six full seasons in the major leagues.

Can Judge do better than the Yankees’ offer? He’s certainly upped his projected contract value this season, but Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs’ ZiPS Forecast predicts Judge’s value in the open market will be under $250 million based on a dollar-per-WA performance forecast for one seven-year contract.

Martinez and Freeman are imperfect comps, and that’s the other problem: There’s just nobody in baseball history like Judge in terms of body type, which poses a huge challenge in predicting his future performance.

There aren’t any other positional players listed at 6ft-7 and 280lbs, let alone those who can play midfield.

According to Baseball Reference data, there have been seven positional players in major league history who were at least 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. Four of them were in their thirties: Adam Dunn, Frank Howard, Brad Eldred and Val Pascucci.

Frank Howard in his prime with the second coming of Washington Senators. Louis Requena/MLB/Getty Images

Pascucci only recorded 85 recording appearances in his career while Eldred had 299. That leaves Dunn and Howard as the only real comps.

Dunn hit 462 homers in his career, but 354 came from his debut season at age 30.

He had a career OPS+ of 133 up to that point and only 98 thereafter, and his final year was his season at age 34. He was mostly an outfielder in his 20’s and mostly a DH and first baseman in his 30’s.

However, Howard had his prime between the ages of 31 and 33. He hit 44 or more home runs each season, making it the only time he hit 40 home runs in his career. He also finished in the top 8 of each season’s MVP poll. In his 35 or 36 years, the last two years of his career, he didn’t manage to reach 400 record appearances.

Whichever team Judge signs, he’d be thrilled with Howard’s performance in his early 30s, but no player of that size played past his 36-year season.

One agent believes Judge’s performance this season will pressure the Yankees to significantly increase their bid and spark a potential bidding war, making him a good bet to reach $300 million.

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And if Judge were to deliver those kinds of seasons somewhere other than the Bronx, it could shift the balance of power in AL East.

The Yankees have a lineup of top-flight positional players approaching major-league readiness, and they have the trading chips and financial resources to replace Judge with a star-level slugger if necessary. But the Yankees could do as well or stay as healthy again next year, and the loss of their premier superstar could mean they lose ground in the division. The AL East remains an impressive neighborhood.

Will the judge’s bet on himself pay off?

On the one hand, it only takes a single front office to outperform the market like the Colorado Rockies did with Kris Bryant in the offseason.

On the other hand, reaching free agency at 31 rather than 28, 27, or 26 generally means a tens of millions in loss. Judge-aged players don’t often get elite deals, regardless of how well they did last year. And the risk of injury always lurks for any player, perhaps even more so for oversized ones.

The only thing that is certain is that the market for Judge will attract a lot of attention this winter and his demands will increase with every home run.

Travis Sawchik is the Senior Baseball Writer at theScore.

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