Aaron Judge started 2022 by turning down a seven-year, $213.5m contract extension from the New York Yankees. That deal would have given the now 30-year-old one of the largest contracts in MLB history. But Judge thought he was worth more, opting to play out this season and see what he could fetch in free-agency. In an era in which the phrase “bet on yourself” has become ubiquitous, perhaps nobody placed a larger bet than Judge. And that bet is paying dividends.
On Monday against the Minnesota Twins, Judge launched his 54th home run of the season, the latest installment in a special campaign from the 6ft 7in, 280lb right fielder. Judge’s effort puts him on track to finish the season with 64 home runs, which would take him past the American League record of 61, set by fellow Yankee Roger Maris in 1961. Beyond that is MLB-record territory, where the murky, steroid-bound legacies of Barry Bonds (73 home runs in 2001), Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa (70 and 66 respectively in 1998) are the subject of endless fan debate.
It isn’t just the use of steroids that has caused controversy when it comes to home run records. Maris was criticized for achieving his record in a longer season than the previous record holder, Babe Ruth, played in. And Ruth’s own mark was achieved in a pre-integration MLB, where the best black players were forced to play in the Negro Leagues.
Judge’s achievements are notable because they’re happening in an otherwise down year for home runs. The next closest player to Judge, Kyle Schwarber, has hit 18 fewer home runs, sitting at an otherwise respectable 36. Nobody can accuse Judge of being lucky either; he is hitting the ball harder than everybody, with the highest average exit velocity in the majors (95.7mph). All this power means that Judge also has the highest number of no doubters according to Statcast, which tracks whether a homer would leave the outfield in every ballpark in the league. Judge’s 33 no doubters stand 13 above his next closest competitor’s total, and close to Schwarber’s total for the entire season so far.
The numbers in hindsight seem inevitable: why wouldn’t one of the largest, strongest batters in history excel? But Judge wasn’t always a sure bet. Despite his great size and power, he bloomed later than most players, having to narrow his batting stance and shorten his swing while working his way up through the minors. He played his full rookie season at the age of 25, and broke out. He set the rookie record for homers with 52 (since broken by Pete Alonso) and finished second in MVP voting.
Judge also took a huge gamble on his health when he turned down the contract extension. While he was carefully managed in 2021, it was the first time he played more than 90% of games since his 2017 rookie season. In between, Judge had a litany of stints on the injured list, for everything from wrist problems to calf strains. His streak of good health from 2021 and 2022 came at the perfect time to get him paid.
When Judge does hit the market at the end of the season, fans will clamor for general manager Brian Cashman to bring the slugger back, no matter the cost. And while that could end up costing the Yankees close to half-a-billion dollars over the course of a long-term deal, Judge is slowly embedding himself in the club’s history.
There’s the obvious appeal of keeping the man who could continue the Yankee tradition of holding the AL home run record. But beyond that Judge is climbing the ladder for most home runs in a Yankees uniform. He has already passed Maris, and is in 12th place, with club legends such as Don Mattingly and Derek Jeter well within reach, should he stay with the team.
Judge is also the first homegrown star to emerge and maintain his place in Yankees fans’ hearts since the core of the Jeter-led teams of the 1990s and 2000s. While big signings like Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole have buoyed the fanbase, nobody rallies Yankees fans like Judge. Judge also fits the Jeter mold: he puts his head down, says the right things, does the work, and leads by example. Were he to re-sign with the club, he could be the first player since Jeter to be named Yankees captain.