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Who Ya Got: Michael Conforto or Aaron Judge?

The Mets and the Yankees have two of the best young corner outfielders in baseball. At this point, the “young” qualifier might not even be necessary. So which one is going to rule New York?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Since New York is more than twice the size of most American cities, there’s room for two outstanding young corner outfielders: the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who is also more than twice the size of most American cities, and Michael Conforto of the Mets.

Judge became one of the biggest stories of the 2017 season after hitting 10 home runs in April. He’s cooled off a little since that hot start, but he’s still slugging over .600 in May, is tied for the big league lead in home runs (15), has the second-highest average exit velocity in baseball (94.4 mph, trailing only Miguel Sanó), and is responsible for the hardest-hit ball of the season, a home run to center field off Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman that left the bat at 119.4 mph. Judge has been a huge factor in the Yankees’ surprising run to first place in the AL East, but the team’s success has also given Judge an added spotlight.

Conforto hasn’t exactly flown under the radar, but his team’s been dysfunctional even by the Mets’ usual “late-1980s crumbling Soviet bloc government” standards. Conforto didn’t even start back-to-back games until April 20 and 21, because the Mets built the entire team out of corner outfielders and getting manager Terry Collins not to just play the three oldest healthy guys on the roster is like getting a dog to swallow a pill. But since April 21, Conforto is hitting .346/.449/.738. He’s now tied for third in the National League with 13 home runs, and might finally have made himself unbenchable.

There’s room for both Conforto and Judge in the New York sports landscape — after all, there was a time when the city supported Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider all at the same time — but peaceful coexistence is boring. We’ve got to pick one, so the question is, for the rest of their careers, WHO YA GOT: Conforto or Judge?

Tools

Judge and Conforto came into pro ball under similar circumstances: The 25-year-old Judge was the no. 32 overall pick in 2013 out of Fresno State, where he hit .345/.451/.529, and the 24-year-old Conforto was the no. 10 overall pick in 2014 out of Oregon State, where he hit .340/.463/.557, but against tougher competition in the Pac-12. Both were viewed — accurately, as it turns out — as surefire corner outfielders whose careers depended on their ability to hit.

The 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge is, simply put, the biggest everyday outfielder in MLB history. Only three players listed at 6-foot-7 — Judge, Billy Ashley, and Frank Howard — have played at least 60 games in the majors, at least half of them in the outfield. Judge is the heaviest of those three by almost 30 pounds. Adam Dunn was listed at 285 pounds in his later days, but didn’t play his 1,113 games in the outfield at that weight. (“Play the outfield” was always a relative term with Dunn, anyway.)

Playing in the outfield involves a lot of running, which big guys tend not to be able to do that well. Plus, at 6-foot-7, it takes a long time to swing a bat through the zone, though Judge does a better job than most guys his size at keeping his swing short.

This affects Judge at the plate in predictable ways. He’s got a lot of strike zone to protect, and anyone as big as he is will have a longish swing, but he is also freakishly strong. Judge never really accessed his power at Fresno State. In three years and 169 games, he hit only 18 home runs. Boston’s Andrew Benintendi, himself a hot young corner outfielder, albeit at the size of one of Judge’s thighs, hit 20 in just 65 games his sophomore year at Arkansas. But for Judge, the big difference in 2017 is that the power is finally translating into games. There’s a sort of Andre the Giant–in–The Princess Bride quality to Judge’s game: long stretches of slow-moving calmness punctuated by sudden, surprising acts of unfathomable strength.

Even so, Judge wears his bulk well. He’s tall and broad-shouldered like an NFL offensive tackle. While many ballplayers his size look kind of awkward (cf. Chris Young or Richie Sexson), Judge has that Joel Embiid–like quality of moving more or less like a normal guy.

The big question with Judge’s body is how well it ages. Can he still play the outfield when he’s 30 years old and 310 pounds? The combination of Judge’s size and relative youth takes us into uncharted territory when it comes to projecting his future.

At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Conforto has a classic stocky, kind of stubby-limbed ballplayer’s body. Conforto’s dad was a college linebacker and his mother won three Olympic medals in synchronized swimming. That might not speak to anything more than a pedigree of general athleticism, but it’s the law that whenever a ballplayer’s parents have an interesting sports or sports-adjacent background (see: Max Kepler and his ballet dancer parents), we have to mention it.

Conforto isn’t going to sell business-casual menswear like Kris Bryant does, but his body type is well represented among great ballplayers of all sizes, from Kirby Puckett to Albert Pujols. Conforto isn’t a burner or a defensive savant — at Oregon State he played a little third base, an experiment whose success can be judged by how quickly it ended — but he’s a perfectly competent corner outfielder.

The big selling point with Conforto has always been his bat. He’s never had Judge’s power — and even now I’d be shocked if he finished the season one home run behind Bryce Harper — and he’s never had José Altuve’s bat-to-ball skills (or, in scouting parlance, hit tool). But Conforto has a relatively quick, compact swing and as an amateur and minor leaguer always knew what he was doing at the plate. Conforto was one of those college hitters (Alex Bregman and Kyle Schwarber are other recent examples) who set foot on campus with very little physical projection left, but he hit .350/.450/.550 without breaking a sweat from day one.

Peak Performance

Both Conforto and Judge struggled in 2016 — Conforto hit .220/.310/.414 in 348 plate appearances, Judge hit .179/.263/.345 in 95 plate appearances. But in 2017, here’s how they’ve stacked up:

  • Conforto: 158 PA, .341/.437/.712, 193 wRC+, 2.2 bWAR
  • Judge: 176 PA, .315/.420/.678, 194 wRC+, 2.8 bWAR

Judge’s half win or so of WAR edge can be chalked up to an extra week and change of at-bats, as well as the fact that DRS, Baseball-Reference’s defensive ratings system, loves him, crediting the Yankee with seven runs saved above average in just 40 games. The other metrics — UZR (FanGraphs) and FRAA (Baseball Prospectus) — have been up and down, and at any rate, 569 career innings in the outfield aren’t nearly enough to draw an accurate statistical picture. Conforto, in 1,323.1 career defensive innings, most of them in left field, rates as slightly above average across all metrics. Just based on the eye test — an eye test I’ll admit could be biased by my discomfort with seeing someone as big as Judge play the outfield — I’d rather have Conforto, but it’s close, and either way, you want these guys for their bats, not their gloves.

The one area where Conforto makes up ground on Judge is strikeout rate. This season, Conforto has walked 13.9 percent of the time and struck out 24.1 percent of the time. Judge has walked 14.2 percent of the time and struck out 29 percent of the time, which isn’t the end of the world, but it’s the 15th-highest rate among 180 qualified hitters this year. Conforto’s strikeout rate is the 40th-highest in the league. This differential speaks to the biggest difference between the two: Judge has more power, but Conforto has the better hit tool.

The Verdict

Given the choice, I’d take Conforto for three reasons.

First, Conforto and Judge are close enough in terms of performance and skill that it comes down to personal preference, and personally, I take a very conservative approach to evaluating position players. When I’m watching prospects — particularly amateurs — players with one big tool, like power, scare me. I want to see the approach or the hit tool first, because if you can’t get the bat on the ball in a game, you can’t access the power. That leads me to generally fall in love with players like Conforto, guys for whom the approach and hit tool have always been there, rather than players with big power but a questionable hit tool.

There’s nothing wrong with betting big on the best tool between the two players — which is unquestionably Judge’s power — but there’s a lot about his game that scares me. What happens when Judge starts to lose bat speed? Will the power still play when he’s striking out 35 or 40 percent of the time, rather than 29? How long can he stay in the outfield? We know how players like Conforto will age, because we’ve seen players like him before. I can’t begin to tell you what will happen to Judge as a 30-year-old because there’s just no precedent for a player that big, let alone a player that big who moves that well.

Second, Conforto has more major league experience, which means that he’ll hit arbitration and free agency a year earlier than Judge, and it also means we’ve got about three times as much big league data on Conforto as we have on Judge. Over the past eight weeks, Judge has been one of the five best hitters in baseball, but so has Conforto. We’ve also seen Conforto take a second trip around the league, after pitchers have had a chance to probe his weaknesses, and we’ve seen him in the playoffs and World Series. Plus he’s still a year younger than Judge.

Finally, Conforto’s performance in 2015 helped raise expectations for 2016, so when he struggled, it looked like the sky was falling. But Conforto wasn’t really terrible in 2016 — he still posted a 94 OPS+, which isn’t great, particularly for a left fielder, but it’s Xanadu compared to Judge’s 61 OPS+ and 44.2 percent strikeout rate last year. If that’s where rock bottom is for both players, rock bottom for Conforto isn’t that bad. Neither Conforto nor Judge is going to keep hitting as well as he is now, but the peaks and valleys of Conforto’s career shake out to a 127 OPS+, with a worst-case scenario of slightly below league average. Judge spent 2016 looking like he was facing Andrew Miller in every at-bat, and his renaissance, though recent, hadn’t started when The Boss Baby was released in theaters.

Even in 2017, when days feel like years, we still don’t have enough data on Judge for me to feel comfortable picking him, higher ceiling or no, over a player who’s been just as good this year and has a much higher floor. Judge is really good — we just don’t know how good he’ll be in the future.

Stats are current through Wednesday’s games.