Since we last checked in on the Yankees, they have been barely less ass, and their lead in the AL East has dwindled to five games. Almost exactly two months ago they were at their high-water mark of 15.5 games up in the division; the collapse has been thorough, and if they were to complete it, it would be the largest lead lost in MLB history. Imagine, then, if you dare/dream, where they would be without Aaron Judge—and where they might be without him next year.
It’s one thing to look at a stat like WAR, especially a figure as gaudy as Judge’s (8.9 at Fangraphs/8.3 at Baseball Reference). It’s a cold, unromantic, omnibus number that does nothing to stir the spirit or the visual cortex. It reeks of stochasticity. It makes sense that a player playing well helps his team win games, but outside of the rare walk-off, it can be hard to parse what that looks like in practice. Not so with Judge, in large part due to the struggles of the rest of the Yankees offense. In practice, it looks like the last two games:
On Sunday, Judge homered, doubled, singled, and scored two runs. The Yankees won, 2-1.
On Monday, Judge homered, doubled, walked, scored twice and knocked in a pair. The Yankees won, 5-2.
On Saturday, Judge also homered, but the Yankees lost, 2-1. He can’t do everything. But he sure as hell is trying lately:
Judge leads the American League in home runs (with 50 percent more than anyone else in baseball), RBI, runs, total bases, extra-base hits, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. It’s an all-time great season, and it’d be a unanimous MVP season if not for this hitter out in California who also pitches—you might have heard of him. I am not here to litigate the MVP race nor the precise meaning of “valuable,” but I will note that the Angels are in third place with Shohei Ohtani, while the (for now) first-place Yankees would be, per his WAR, in third place and out of the wild-card picture without Judge.
All of which bodes well for Judge this winter, when he will enter the first free agency of his career. New York’s final offer in extension talks was $213.5 million over seven years, and Judge, in turning it down, bet on himself that he could earn more. He’s going to win that bet, and it won’t even necessarily be because of the leverage of the open market so much as the Yankees being more likely to meet his asking price. They can see just as clearly as the rest of us the debilitating flaws of a Judge-less roster, let alone one that’ll only be a year older next season. Hal Steinbrenner may not be as free-spending as his father, and the Yankees are even accepting of missing the playoffs from time to time, but two things they’re not willing to be are boring and anonymous. Judge is their star and, right now, their only saving grace. The Yankees need him more than he needs the Yankees.