What Aaron Judge Means to the New York Yankees

Aaron Judge has become more than just the best player on the Yankees, he's their heart and soul, making him irreplaceable in free agency.

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27: Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates on field after their team defeated the Toronto Blue Jays to clinch first place in the AL East following their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on September 27, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

In the following weeks, Aaron Judge will make the toughest decision of his professional career. The outfielder could stay in New York and make another run at a championship with the team that drafted him, or he could look towards greener pastures elsewhere.

Judge has cemented his legacy as a Yankee in a multitude of ways. The fate of the Yankees near future is held in the hands of the 6’7″ mammoth of a human. It’s time we truly discuss how important Judge is to this franchise, and what it would mean if this was his last season in pinstripes.

The Early Days

Aaron Judge was drafted by the New York Yankees on June 7th, 2013. The slugger went ballistic in the minor leagues, mashing 57 home runs, driving in 217 runs, and accumulating an .842 OPS in his four seasons across all three levels. Judge made his debut for the Yankees on August 13th, 2016. His first 27 games in the bigs showed a glimpse of what the player could once become, but there were truly some humble beginnings.

Judge finished the 2016 season with four home runs and ten RBI’s. His 44% strikeout rate was scary, but it was still early days. It’s rare to see a player of his stature playing a sport like baseball, nonetheless, roaming the outfield area in right.

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Besides, the best was still yet to come. Judge led a new group of top prospects heralded as the “Baby Bombers”, seeking inspiration from the late 90’s title teams. The future seemed promising. What did Judge have in store for this team? Could he become a leader? This franchise needed one. And the year of 2017 was the year that Aaron Judge put the New York Yankees back on the map.

Rise of the Baby Bombers

Following the 2009 World Series title, the franchise as a whole didn’t experience much postseason success. The team was unable to reach the peak of the league and experienced a three-year playoff drought. Their next playoff appearance was in 2015, as they lost to the Houston Astros. And in 2016, Judge’s debut season, they failed to reach the postseason yet again.

The organization watched so many of their legends step away from the game including Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texiera, and of course, Derek Jeter, the captain. It was time for a new era.

Aaron Judge, and much of the 2017 Yankees roster, were relatively unknowns. Besides, this is the New York Yankees. The fans are used to seeing big-money superstars join in the offseason, not wait for the kids. It seemed like the franchise was taking a different direction with all these prospects. And wouldn’t you know it, it worked.

The 2017 Yankees were a special team. Led by Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, and Brett Gardner, the team was incredible. Winning 91 games and reaching the ALCS for the first time since 2010, this team ushered in a new era of Yankees baseball. The heartbreak at the hands of the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros was tough, but there were still some great moments along the way. And Aaron Judge, had plenty of these special moments.

Outside of his 2022 season, Judge’s rookie campaign was the best season of his career. The right fielder slashed .284/.422/.627 with a staggering 1.049 OPS, while mashing 52 home runs. Judge’s 52 bombs were a rookie record at the time, and only flashed a small amount of the player he would become. He became an All-Star, won the Rookie of the Year award by a landslide, and finished second in the AL MVP race.

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Not to mention, he played stellar defense in right field. For such a big guy, he moved incredibly well in the outfield, and had an absolute cannon of an arm. His level of skill was so impressive for a player in their rookie season. Aaron Judge had become the new face of the New York Yankees, and it was only his debut campaign. Surprisingly enough, the Yankees 2017 team was the closest they would ever get to a World Series title with Judge at the helm.

Injury after injury…

2018 and 2019 were injury-riddled seasons for the budding superstar, as he only participated in 214 of a possible 324 games. Both seasons saw the Yankees head back to the playoffs, including a rematch of the 2017 ALCS in 2019 against the Houston Astros. The team’s playoff run that season was heartbreaking, watching their demise unfold from a Jose Altuve walk off home run that eliminated the team. For Judge, these years were still productive when he was on the field. The outfielder mashed a combined 54 home runs, while posting a wRC+ total of 140 each season.

The production on the field didn’t inherit a single complaint. But the injuries did. The fans knew that in order for this team to be successful, Aaron Judge needed to be on the field. He was the team’s best player and grew to become their leader over those two seasons. The thought was that if he could stay consistently healthy, the sky was the limit. Back-to-back postseason eliminations left the fanbase in shambles. This team was built for success, but never got over the hump.

A long-term extension for Judge didn’t seem like it was in the cards. When he was on the field, he was incredible. But there was a huge emphasis on “when”. The organization wasn’t confident in Judge’s ability to consistently stay on the field after 2019. We didn’t know it at the time, but that could’ve been the organization’s biggest mistake in a long time.

The COVID shortened season in 2020 was a wash for everyone. Judge still played well, posting a 140 wRC+ with nine homers in 28 games. Again, he struggled with injuries. The clock was ticking. The Yankees yet again, flamed out in the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays. They still just couldn’t get to the finish line.

Back to his roots

2021 seemed like do-or-die for Aaron Judge. There was a single season remaining of his arbitration eligibility, and he needed a big two years to earn his pay day. For the first time in a long time, Aaron Judge was healthy, and notched 148 contests under his belt in 2021. Judge posted a 149 wRC+, his highest total since 2018, and mashed 39 bombs while slugging .544 on the year.

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Judge led the team late in the season to a playoff berth, after a disappointing first half. His walk-off single in game 162 against the Tampa Bay Rays secured a 92-win season, and the second Wild Card spot in the AL. Things began to get on track for Judge. His confidence was back. He had a swagger to him again. And most of all, he was producing at an elite level.

The season didn’t end how the Yankees wanted it to, fluking out of the Wild Card game against the Red Sox. But for Judge, he had his eyes set on 2022. It was his final chance to prove to the world how special he truly is.

One of the top priorities in the fans eyes for the organization was to reward the slugger with a multi-year extension that would keep him in New York. Offers came, but none were accepted.

Judge rejected a seven-year, $213 million extension just before the 2022 campaign began. He was betting on himself. He felt that he deserved more after what he’s provided to this franchise over the past few years, and the fans were in agreement. Judge set out to get himself paid. And as of late October, he’s earned every single penny coming his way, as he’s just finished with one of the most impressive offensive campaigns we’ve ever seen.

The Greatest Yankee Season Ever?

61 home runs. That was a record set by the late Roger Maris back in 1961, an American League single season record for the stat. This record has been tainted over the past few decades, with numerous known steroid users breaking it. So really, it still stood in the eyes of many baseball fans. As of October 5th, 2022, that record no longer stands.

Aaron Judge hit 62 home runs this season, breaking the record. He finished with a 207 wRC+. Reminder, wRC+ is on a scale with the league median at 100, and the number above or below is how you fare compared to the rest of the league. In 2022, Aaron Judge was better than 107% of major league hitters. Absolutely mind-blowing.

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The average league OPS in 2022 was .704. Aaron Judge slugged .686. To add to Judge’s home run total, he drove in 131 runs, and tallied up a staggering 11.5 fWAR. For context, the second-highest fWAR total in MLB this season was Manny Machado… all the way at 7.4. He ran this league in 2022 and there’s no question about it.

There were points in times during this 2022 season where Judge straight up carried this team on his back. The Yankees soared to a record of 52-18 at the beginning of the season. Following this, the team fell apart. They made it to the ALCS yes but were completely embarrassed by the Houston Astros in a sweep. This squad had so much promise but failed to come up in the big moments yet again.

The one consistent throughout the Yankees 2022 season was Aaron Judge. He is the franchise. If this team didn’t have the MVP on their team, there’s a high chance that this squad doesn’t even reach the playoffs. So, what’s next?

Judge’s Importance to the Yankees

Aaron Judge has cemented himself as the face of MLB after this 2022 season. The most illustrious franchise in the entire sport always has a recognizable star, and Judge is that guy. The Yankees haven’t had a player like this since Derek Jeter retired. Cool, calm, and collected at all times. Great with the media. No scandals our outside distractions, just baseball. That’s what’s important to Judge. He lives a quiet life, drama-free. The parallels to him and the previous Yankees’ captain are uncanny. And as a fan who grew up during Jeter’s incredible career, it’s hard to not compare the two.

If you walk into any Yankee game, the stands will be flooded with the number “99”. He represents everything the franchise wants in a player. Like I previously mentioned, this team would be nowhere near the level of success they’ve had over the past few seasons without him. He’s an inspiration to many, as well as a respected role model which any parent would want their sons to follow in his footsteps.

The immense love this fanbase has for Judge is unmatched. His leadership qualities and unreal playing ability contribute to that. Losing Judge to free agency would break the hearts of Yankees fans everywhere, and would effectively end an era of Yankees baseball.

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The top priority of the 2022 offseason for the New York Yankees has to be signing Aaron Judge to a long-term extension. New York without Judge is… nothing. Besides, he’s earned every single penny coming his way. Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman, as a fan, I pray that you make the right decision here. If you don’t it would be one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history.