Aaron Judge’s new contract is no longer a mystery. Judge agreed to a nine-year, $360 million deal with the Yankees Wednesday morning, according to a source, ending a contract backlog the baseball world had been anticipating for months.
Now the question is whether Judge and his production will live up to the new pact. The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. The history of free agency is a testament to the inability of teams to predict the future.
Every situation is different, and Judge is more different than most. His body is like that of few players in history and that makes it difficult to find players to compare him to. He just completed the greatest year ever for a player entering free agency, which raised the price of him. At the same time, he is going into his 31-year-old campaign and has had his problems with injuries, although since 2021 he has played 305 of 324 possible challenges.
Still, it’s always possible to study baseball’s rich history for clues to what Judge’s future might look like. In that regard, we turned to Baseball-Reference’s Stathead for a list of retired outfielders, since the game was integrated in 1947, who would have reached the following parameters between the ages of 25 and 30 (Judge’s numbers are in parentheses as a point: for comparison, taking into account that they include the brief 2020 season):
After eliminating a handful of players who were coming off bad seasons at age 30 or who were already showing signs of decline at that point (such as Ryan Braun or Albert Belle), 17 potential comparisons were left. Some seem to be a better parameter to measure Judge, although as we already said, there is nothing perfect in this regard. But the point here is not to be precise, but to use the past tense to provide some general parameters.
Below, you’ll see how those 17 players fared before age 30, at age 30, and between ages 31 and 35. We’re going to focus on the next five seasons because, while Judge’s contract is significantly longer than that, it will most likely be this five-year period that will determine how successful the contract is. If it amazes you, what you contribute between the ages of 36 and 39 will simply be the icing on the cake.
It is normal that there is a drop, but that average of the numbers between 31 and 35 years are still solid. But after that? Two of the 17 players we used as a benchmark didn’t play in the majors past age 35, and eight didn’t make it to age 39. The average WAR for the 36-39 age group was 2.7.
Of course, there is a wide range within this group, so here are four possible paths.
The dream scenario: Willie Mays (52.3 WAR between ages 31-35), Hank Aaron (39.0), Barry Bonds (37.5)
Comparing Judge with any of those three players requires putting on a very optimistic lens. We’re talking about three of the greatest players of all time, who also posted numbers higher than Judge’s between the ages of 25 and 30, with each of them passing 50 WAR at that point. Mays and Bonds, in particular, were more athletic than Judge. However, Judge’s super campaign in 2022 put him alongside that elite company.
If you believe Judge deserves to be with these players, then the future looks extremely bright. The incomparable Mays was even better from 31 to 35 than he was from 25 to 30, and Aaron still wasn’t halfway to his 755 home run. It’s also worth noting that Bonds’ single-season home run record, and his streak of four straight MVP Awards – punctuated by intense suspicions of steroid use – did not occur until after he turned 35. His numbers among 36 and 39 were otherworldly, but Mays and Aaron also shone during that period.
The very good scenario: Larry Walker (26.4 WAR between ages 31-35), Frank Robinson (24.7), Manny Ramirez (19.5)
We’re talking 4-to-5 WAR average per season, and while that doesn’t compare to what Judge did in 2022, it’s still excellent. Walker in particular makes for an interesting comparison, as he had been a productive player in the early part of his career before exploding with an MVP campaign and 9.8 WAR at age 30. Like Judge, Walker was a slugger as well as a tremendous athlete who stole 33 bases and defended right field very well. And while he never had another season like 1997 and missed some time with injuries, he was a terrific player in four of the next five seasons, and remained a productive hitter until the age of 38, when he would end up in the Hall of Famers. Fame.
Ramirez, of course, was a more one-dimensional hitter, which affected his WAR. That said, his bat barely slowed down. Ramirez had a 150-plus OPS+ in six of his next seven seasons and hit the 35-homer mark five times in that span.
The varied scenario: Carl Yastrzemski (18.6 WAR from ages 31 to 35), Lance Berkman (17.8), Reggie Jackson (17.2), Jim Wynn (17.1), Mickey Mantle (16.9), Dave Winfield (16.2), Vladimir Guerrero (13.3) , Larry Doby (11.3), George Foster (10.3)
All of these players had productive seasons between the ages of 31 and 35, but at the same time they experienced a noticeable decline. Yastrzemski, Wynn, Mantle, Guerrero, Doby and Foster all saw their OPS+ drop more than 20 points. Age and/or injuries also impacted his playing time, along with value defending and running the bases. Take the case of Jackson, who also signed a big free agent contract with the Yankees before his age-31 season. Between 25 and 30, Jackson contributed plus-10 runs running the bases and plus-32 fielding; from 31 to 35, those marks were minus-7 runs on base and minus-29 with the glove. Although his batting power didn’t suffer, his average WAR went from 6.3 to 3.4. (Of course, he also became Mr. October, leading the Yankees to the World Series at ages 31 and 32, cementing his baseball legacy.)
It’s also worth noting that, of those seven stars, only the great “Yaz” remained productive through his mid-to-late 30s. Wynn last played at 35, Guerrero and Mantle at 36, and Berkman at 37. And, of them, only Mantle was good (although his level dropped significantly) until the end. Jackson and Winfield kept hanging around well into their 40s, but the former racked up a 4.1 WAR after age 34 and the latter a 4.7 after age 36.
The dreaded scenario: Duke Snider (7.8 WAR of 31-35), Ken Griffey Jr. (6.8)
When a team makes a long-term investment in a player — especially one over the age of 30 — this is the risk. Snider and Griffey are two of the greatest center fielders in Major League history, and both were highly productive in their 20s. But while both continued to hit from ages 31 to 35, neither provided much value.
Snider had a 136 OPS+, but knee problems limited him to fewer than 100 games a year, and his defensive numbers took a nosedive. He retired after playing 31 games for the Giants at age 37. Four decades later, Griffey had his last breakout season in 2000, at age 30, in his first season with the Reds. But his body would also betray him. Griffey averaged just 351 plate appearances over the next five seasons, with disappointing defensive numbers offsetting his 130 OPS+. The Hall of Famer played five more seasons, and was named to one more All-Star Game, but only had 0.8 WAR. in that stretch.
A huge and unique star
There’s another factor at play, one that perhaps makes Judge much more difficult to project than any other player. The slugger, who stands at 6-foot-7 and weighs 282 pounds, has few benchmarks in baseball history.
Other than Judge, the only official position players 6-foot-7 or taller with WAR of at least 5 are Frank Howard, Richie Sexson and Tony Clark. Of the three, only Howard produced after his 30th birthday. His seasons from ages 31 to 35 (161 OPS+, 172 home runs, 177 WAR) would fit well among the above examples.
Expanding the sample to include hitters at least 6 feet 5 inches tall did not produce more encouraging examples. Besides Howard, only four others (Mark McGwire, John Olerud, Frank Thomas and Winfield) had WAR of 15 or more after their 30th birthday.
It’s definitely possible that Judge’s huge frame will keep him from producing over time, given his health and a difficult swing to sustain. On the other hand, there is not enough sample here to say that definitively. The fact that Judge is a better sport than other players his size is a point in his favor, too. We’re talking about a player who just stole 16 bases and played slick center field, something McGwire and Thomas didn’t.
Bottom line, time will tell if the Yankees’ investment in Judge turns out to be wise. But what we do know is that if the slugger helps bring a World Series title (or two) to the Bronx, he’ll help his cause a lot, as Jackson did.