Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, November 9, 2022 -- "Aaron Judge"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 112
November 9, 2022

Measuring baseball greatness is both an exact science and a muddled mess, so take a statement like “Aaron Judge just had one of the 25 best seasons ever” with a grain of salt. Which version of WAR you use, how much you adjust for era, whether you just toss seasons prior to can get to a lot of answers. What we can say for sure is that we witnessed history in 2022, Judge hitting .311/.425/.686 with, and this didn’t get a lot of attention, an AL-record 62 home runs. With the Yankees outfield a tragedy, Judge played 78 games in center field and acquitted himself well.

What’s certain is that Judge’s 2022 season (10.6 bWAR) is one of the all-time walk years in history. Only Barry Bonds in 2001 produced more bWAR (11.9) entering free agency, and only Alex Rodriguez in 2000, in addition to Judge and Bonds, was over ten wins just before entering the market. Rodriguez signed a record-setting $252-million contract; Bonds, then 37, settled for five years and $90 million from the Giants. Platform year performance and age are the two biggest determinants of a free agent’s eventual contract. Judge is at the extreme end of one and on the wrong side of the other.

If it were just about 2023, or even perhaps the next three years, signing Aaron Judge would be a no-brainer at almost any number. The best free-agent investments are always, always, at the top and bottom of the market. Sign superstars, or sign lottery tickets. It’s the big money for the middle of the pool that gets everyone in trouble. The best players are more likely to stay great and they have further to fall while still being productive. If Aaron Judge is half the player he was last year, he’s still a star, and that’s an unlikely fall.

Judge being 31 next year, though, is a concern no matter how good he was at 30. Baseball is increasingly a young man’s game, with older hitters at the most risk of no longer keeping up with modern pitching. In the entire league last year, there were 14 hitters 31 or older who were worth three wins. There were 23 in 2021, 12 in 2019, nine in 2018. (I’m guessing that 2021 figure has something to do with the pandemic, maybe with young players’ development being hurt in 2020.) Judge will be 33 in the third year of his next contract. In 2022, there were five players 33 and older who were worth three wins. There were eight last year, ten in 2019, five in 2018.

Your eyes may be blurring at this point, so let me sum up that paragraph for you: It’s very hard to be a good player in your thirties in modern baseball. Mind you, the standard here is just three wins, a good MLB regular. If by 2025 Aaron Judge is posting three-win seasons while making $45 million a year, no one is going to consider that a success.

The biggest free-agent deals are generally signed by the youngest players, the ones who still have some peak left, some upside left. Alex Rodriguez was 24 in his walk year, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were 25. (Jason Heyward, too, whoops.) Corey Seager was 27. Aaron Judge was 21 on the day he signed out of the draft and 25 before he was a major-league regular. He had five five-win seasons for the Yankees. You want to guess at how many he has left? I’ll set the line at 2.5 and want no part of the over.

The Yankees paid Judge, in salary, about $40 million for 37 WAR; he will get more than that in the first year of his next deal, which isn’t the problem. The problem is he will get more than that in the final year of his next deal, at 37 or 38 or 39, and there’s just no case for paying any hitter at those ages. Since 2016, there have been a total of six four-win seasons by players 35 and older. There have been a total of 17 three-win seasons by players 35 and older. Your list of productive older players in the Strikeout Era is basically Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Yuli Gurriel, and Ben Zobrist.

Age is one strike against making a long-term commitment to Aaron Judge. He’s surely had his best years and you will have to pay him current-market value at ages when almost no players are good, much less worth $40 million a season. Judge, though, comes with another strike, one we’ve discussed here before: He’s 6'7", and the track record of aging tall hitters is a disaster.

Falling From Great Heights (bWAR from age 31 on, hitters 6'6" and up)

Dave Winfield       26.2
Frank Howard        17.8
Giancarlo Stanton    3.8
Dave Kingman         2.8
Adam Wainwright      2.2

As I always point out, that’s Adam Wainwright's production as a hitter and defender -- it doesn’t include his pitching. He’s among the top five tall hitters after age 30.

Everyone wants to think the next guy is different, and maybe Aaron Judge is. Dave Winfield did it! Well, Winfield was one of the all-time great baseball athletes, the kind of true three-sport star we don’t let develop any longer. He played until he was 43 but had just one good year after 36. Judge is very athletic for his size; he’s not Dave Winfield. Frank Howard was a beast at the plate who might have hit 500 homers had he not played through Deadball II in the 1960s. Howard was not the athlete Judge is, and he was done at 35. That’s the list.

Oh, that third name on there? Do you think the Yankees really need to be lectured about the downside risk of tall outfielders? Giancarlo Stanton had a three-win year at 31 and was useless at 32. He played barely 500 innings in the outfield in that time and might not play that many over the rest of his career. Stanton is guaranteed $160 million over the next five years. The presence of Stanton complicates any Judge contract for the Yankees because you can’t play two players at DH, and Judge will eventually need to stop playing 1200 innings in the field.

(The Yankees, who have been a very popular topic in my inbox, will get a dedicated Newsletter soon.)

I can’t say for sure why very tall hitters age so poorly. My best guess is the bigger you are, the longer it takes to get all the moving parts of a swing going. Losing just a little bit of the hand-eye coordination it takes to be a great hitter may affect this group more than it does shorter players. If you lower the qualifier to 6'5", it brings in some guys who lasted a bit longer, but with injury-riddled thirties -- Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas. John Olerud is on the list but was basically done at 35. Jayson Werth was a zero at 32 and 33, then had two good years and was done at 36.

If you tell me I can sign Judge for five years and $225 million, I probably take that and just live with the decline in 2025 and 2026. Judge, though, turned down 7/230 already, and with this likely being his only chance to get paid, is probably uninterested in that sort of structure. Judge’s average salary could be anything, but I am pretty sure the contract length won’t be any shorter than seven years, and it could stretch to ten. I’m entirely uninterested in signing him, given all the data above about older players and tall hitters, to anything like that deal.

The one structure I would try to put together is an early opt-out that captures Judge’s short-term value while potentially getting me off the hook for the rest of his career. I would treat him like a pitcher, in other words, front-loading a deal for 2023 and 2024 and offering an opt-out after ’24, in the hopes that Judge plays well enough to test the market in two years, getting me off the hook for his age-33 seasons and beyond. Maybe something like 8/360, where the first two years are $50 million each and the last six average $43 million or so. Even writing it out, though, I am having a hard time crafting a deal that is both attractive to Judge and formatted so it's likely he will opt out.

The combination of one of the best platform seasons ever with a truly terrible free-agent profile makes this a brutal case. This piece makes it seem like I think Aaron Judge is bad, which is obviously not true. He’ll probably be an MVP candidate in 2023, wherever he plays, and at least a decent player for a few years after that. I just can’t see investing $350 million in any player’s thirties, much less one of Judge’s height.

So if not Judge, who is the most attractive free agent on the market? Tune in tomorrow...