A year after a remarkable MVP campaign that saw him break Roger Maris’ long-standing American League record with 62 home runs, Aaron Judge looks poised for an encore performance.
In his first at-bat of 2023, he swung and connected on a sinker from San Francisco Giants pitcher Logan Webb that veered back into the middle of the strike zone. Judge sent the ball on a high arc toward the center-field wall, just past the outstretched glove of a leaping Mike Yastrzemski.
“He’s done it already,” Yankees announcer John Sterling exclaimed as Judge rounded the bases to a standing ovation, greeting his teammates in the dugout with a big smile.
Judge is off to a solid start with five home runs and a .286 batting average through Sunday. A season ago, he homered just once in his first 13 games. He even had a couple other relatively cold stretches: a nine-game homerless stretch in August and, as he closed in on Maris, one home run over 13 games before he finally hit record-breaking No. 62 in the Yankees’ next-to-last game.
Can he do it again? The assumption: probably not. Judge knows he’s battling history. After all, the last player with even back-to-back 45-homer seasons was Ryan Howard, who did it four straight seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies from 2006 to 2009.
“I know very few followed up with 60. A couple I know hit 50 after that. But we’ll see what happens,” Judge said on Opening Day. “Maybe we can make a new list. We’ll see.”
Judge not only crushed home runs in 2022 but hit for a high average (.311) and drew a ton of walks (111), giving him an overall line of .311/.425/.686. Via the metrics at Baseball-Reference.com, Judge created an estimated 80 runs more than the average batter would have over the same number of plate appearances (adjusting for home park and league run-scoring environment, so a player from low-scoring 1968 can be compared to a player from high-scoring 2001). Since the beginning of the expansion era in 1961, only three players created more runs above average in a season than Judge: Barry Bonds (three times), Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, with Mickey Mantle matching Judge at +80 in 1961.
Let’s break down what Judge may accomplish in 2023 by digging into the past and considering three areas of performance: (1) Career seasons; (2) The consistency of great hitters; (3) What happens in the season immediately following a great season.
For this study, I considered players with at least 6,000 plate appearances since 1961 with an OPS+ of 100 or better, plus all players with at least 5,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 120 or better. This gives us a list of 357 players. I’m using the batting runs above average metric from Baseball-Reference because we’re only focusing on Judge’s offense (unlike WAR, in which defense is part of the equation) and avoided using a rate metric like weighted runs created (wRC+) or OPS+, since we want to factor in playing time. I didn’t just focus on home runs because part of what made Judge’s 2022 season so spectacular was his all-around offensive value — plus, home runs are more plentiful in some seasons and eras than others. I also focused on players with longer careers to avoid comparisons to players who might have had just one or two seasons as full-time players.
Let’s take a look.
Our first question: What does a career season even look like? It’s certainly possible — or even likely — that Judge just had his in 2022. His +80 batting runs above average is 22 more than his second-best total, when he was +58 as a rookie in 2017, the season he slugged 52 home runs. Overall, our 357 players averaged eight more runs created in their best seasons compared to their second best (+40.5 to +32.5). If Judge ends up at +72 runs in 2023, that would still be historically impressive; the only other +70 season since Bonds in 2004 was Bryce Harper’s +71 in 2015.
Judge, however, is coming off such a high level of play that the odds would suggest a decline bigger than eight runs. Let’s look at players with the biggest drop in estimated runs more than average from their career season to second-best season. Judge’s current 22-run differential between 2022 and 2017 just misses the top 10 (13 with ties):
Norm Cash had perhaps the most famous fluke season of all time. He hit .361 with 41 home runs in 1961 and then never hit .300 in another season. (He later admitted to using a corked bat that year.) Mookie Betts’ MVP season in 2018, in which he hit .346, now stands out from the rest of his career. He’s maintained his power numbers, but he had an unusually high .368 BABIP that season and hasn’t hit .300 overall since. McGwire makes the top 10 for his 70-homer season in 1998 and Sosa for his 2001 season, when he hit .328/.437/.737 with 64 home runs, only to see Bonds leave him in the dust with his record-breaking 73-homer season.
For the most part, however, these career years come down to good hitters having outlier seasons.
Rico Petrocelli hit .297 with 40 home runs in his big 1969 season — creating +49 batting runs, still well below Judge’s +80 — but never hit more than 29 or .267 in any other year. You might remember Luis Gonzalez’s 57-homer season — 26 more than he hit in any other season. Ken Caminiti, of course, admitted to his extensive PED use when he won the MVP Award in 1996. Victor Martinez had one of the greatest one-season declines in history, going from +51 runs in 2014 to minus-14 in 2015. Tim Salmon was a consistent run producer who exploded in 1995 with a .330 season and 34 home runs. Matt Kemp’s 2011 stands out compared to the rest of his career.
Matching Judge at +22 runs and just missing the top 10 are Adrian Beltre, Cecil Fielder, Alan Trammell and Howard, who is certainly an interesting comparison as he hit .313 with 58 home runs for the Phillies in 2006, almost identical to Judge’s 2022 numbers. He followed with those three aforementioned seasons of 47, 48 and 45 home runs, but never came close to another .300 season.
Indeed, if Judge comes back down to the level of mere mortals, it is likely because his batting average declines significantly. However, he’s been a better hitter for average than Cash or Howard, hitting above .280 twice in his career and above .270 twice more. His strikeout rate last season was 25.1%, well below the 30% level it was from 2017 to 2020. His .340 BABIP last season is below his career mark of .346, so he didn’t seem to get lucky on balls in play. It’s difficult to hit .300 striking out a quarter of the time, but Judge possesses the ability to do it again.
Consistency of great hitters
Let’s compare Judge only to the best hitters in our study and how they performed over their three best seasons. That’s sort of what we’re asking here: Judge has had one historic season and one great season, but can he have a third season for the ages?
He doesn’t have enough career plate appearances to qualify for our list, but let’s pretend he does. Using 2021 (+37 runs) as his third-best season gives him a three-year total of +175. That would rank 20th, squeezed between Albert Belle and Joey Votto.
Let’s look at the top 25 players — actually, 26, with ties — with the best three-year batting runs above average total.
The average decline from best season to second-best season is 6.7 runs, while the average decline from best season to third-best season is 11.5 runs.
Our group of best hitters don’t really drop off all that much. That’s what makes most of these guys Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers: They’re great year after year and their best seasons are usually just small spikes.
Only six of the 26 hitters dropped by 10 or more runs from their best season to their second-best: Sosa (28-run drop), McGwire (24), Walker (21), Willie McCovey (12), Gary Sheffield (11) and Jim Thome (10). Seventeen declined five runs or fewer. Six of our 26 hitters do have a drop of at least 20 runs to their third-best season: Sosa (30), McGwire (27), Walker (22), McCovey (22), Carl Yastrzemski (22) and Frank Robinson (21). Fifteen had declines of 10 runs or fewer.
Let’s check one more thing: the average age when this group had their best season. That’s an important consideration given that Judge is in his age-31 season, an age when many players start declining. Our 26 hitters averaged 29.1 years in their best season, so a little younger than Judge is in 2023. Although, we can’t avoid the fact that the average age includes several confirmed or alleged PED users who had their best seasons in their 30s, which raises the overall average. Still, there aren’t many young players here; the only players younger than 26 are Mike Trout (21), Albert Pujols (23) and Henry Aaron (25). Among the players who had their best season at 30 or older: Robinson (30), Dick Allen (30), Wade Boggs (30), Miguel Cabrera (30), Jim Thome (31), Joey Votto (31), McCovey (31), Edgar Martinez (32) and Willie Mays (34).
With that in mind, I don’t see Judge’s age as a big negative. He’s learned to take care of himself and has been healthy the past two seasons. Certainly his athleticism — with Harrison Bader injured, he’s spent most of his time so far in center field — bodes well for his ability to keep playing well in his 30s. All in all, if we’re putting Judge in this group of the best hitters of the past 60 years — and I think he deserves to be — this data suggests there’s a pretty good chance he can come close to his 2022 value again.
The encore performance
The caveat with that statement — that Judge can replicate last season’s success again — is that we were analyzing a player’s entire career rather than the consecutive seasons we’re considering for Judge.
Let’s examine the 50 best seasons since 1961 (51 with ties), ranging from Bonds’ 2001 season at +116 runs above average to six players tied at +63 (Jose Bautista, Frank Robinson, Todd Helton, Willie Mays, Mark McGwire, Mike Trout). Several players appear more than once, with Bonds leading the way with six seasons, and many of the same 25 hitters from above are covered, although we get some new names like Reggie Jackson, John Olerud and Bautista. Trout is a good example of a player whose best seasons don’t always appear consecutively. He’s in the top 51 for three different seasons — 2013 (+68), 2016 (+63) and 2018 (+64) — but none of those are back-to-back.
The average decline here is much more severe, from +71.2 runs to +46.1, a 25-run drop. Bonds suffered the biggest decline from 2004 to 2005, when he went from +106 to +4. Obviously, there were mitigating circumstances: He played just 14 games in 2005 due to multiple knee surgeries.
Other players who saw large drops from their best season to the next: Bryce Harper went from +71 in 2015 to +7 in 2016, when he played through a shoulder injury, Carl Yastrzemski went from +66 in 1970 to +10; Jackson from +64 in 1969 to +14 and Olerud went from +64 and a .363 average in 1993 to +15 and .297 (with a strike-shortened season to boot).
Only three players improved the following season: Bonds from 2003 to 2004 (+29), Jason Giambi from 2000 to 2001 (+3) and Pujols from 2008 to 2009 (+2). They called Pujols “The Machine” for a reason. And even if we remove Bonds’ 2004 to 2005 run differential due to his missing nearly the entire season, the average decline is still 23.5 runs.
Where would that leave Judge? If we subtract 23.5 runs from his +80 season, he’d be sitting just behind his 2017 production at +56.5 batting runs above average. Where would that rank among 2022’s best hitters? Still at an MVP level:
1. Judge: +80
2. Paul Goldschmidt: +61
3. Hypothetical Judge: +57
4. Yordan Alvarez: +50
5. Manny Machado: +44
5. Freddie Freeman: +44
Only three other hitters (Trout, Jose Altuve and Juan Soto) were at +40 or higher. So even if Judge is essentially half as dominant as he was in 2022, he is likely to remain one of the game’s top 10 hitters if 2022’s numbers are indicative of what we’ll see in 2023.
I think he’ll be better than that. Will he match 2022? That will be difficult. Last season was a bit of a down season in scoring, and that’s part of what made Judge’s season so historic. He could put up the exact same numbers in 2023 and be slightly less valuable because overall offense has increased across the sport — at least, so far. Early on in 2023, both home runs and runs are up from last season, and especially up April over April.
On the other hand, if the ball is flying a little better this season, that will help Judge chase down 60 again. He seems to believe it’s possible. It’s also worth pointing out that, while I hate comparing Judge to McGwire and Sosa, following their epic home run duel in 1998, both topped 60 again in 1999. Now it’s time to see if Judge can do the same.