From the start of his first full season in the majors, nothing about Aaron Judge has been ordinary. He’s the biggest position player in baseball history, one of most selective and hardest-hitting batters ever, and a good defensive outfielder despite his 6-foot-7, 280-plus-pound frame. He’s spent the past six years forcing the baseball world to reimagine how to fit this tree-sized peg into a person-sized hole. How do you pitch to someone like Judge? How do you defend a player who could probably hit a hanging curveball clean through a third baseman? How do you keep him in the lineup?
And, most recently, how much should he be paid?
On Friday, Judge and the Yankees—or more accurately, the Yankees’ representatives—will meet for the final arbitration case of the season, determining whether Judge’s 2022 salary will be $17 million or $21 million. Ordinarily, this case would’ve been settled during the winter, but with all transactions frozen during the lockout, the Yankees and Judge are getting around to it only now.
The case itself doesn’t matter that much. Whether Judge wins or loses, he’ll make a boatload of money this year and pave the way for him to make many more boatloads when he hits free agency in the fall. The Yankees, already some $30 million over the competitive balance tax threshold, will have budgeted for the season with Judge’s case in mind. They’re not so hard up for cash that $4 million would matter much, and even if they were, Judge is worth whatever he’ll make.
But more than anything, this case is a signpost in one of the 2022 season’s more interesting persistent narrative threads: Judge’s long-term contract situation.
Until this spring, it seemed unlikely, even incongruous, that Judge would ever leave the Yankees. Not only does his inscrutable Jeterian affability make him the perfect star player for America’s most visible franchise, but he’s also a walking tribute to the brute-force maximalism that has defined the Yankees offense since Harry Frazee needed some quick cash in the fall of 1919.
But after the lockout-truncated offseason, Judge and the Yankees could not agree on a long-term extension. In early April, GM Brian Cashman announced to the press that the Yankees had offered Judge $17 million to avoid arbitration, plus a seven-year, $213.5 million contract to start in 2023 (more on this offer later). Judge, who’d set a deadline of April 7 for any contract extension talks, declined, though on Opening Day he reiterated his desire “to be a Yankee for life and bring a championship back to New York.”
Through the first two and a half months of the season, Judge has done everything he can to prove that he’s worth more than the $30.5 million per year the Yankees offered him. He’s hitting .300/.378/.644 in 66 games, leading MLB in home runs and tied for the lead in runs scored through Tuesday’s schedule. His rate stats haven’t been in this neighborhood since his record-breaking rookie year in 2017, when he hit 52 home runs and finished second in MVP voting, amid proto-Ohtanian hype. And adjusting for the lower run-scoring environment in 2022 compared to 2017, Judge has actually been slightly better this season (184 wRC+ compared to 174 in 2017; he hadn’t broken 150 in any of the four intervening years).
Those numbers don’t establish Judge as clearly the best player in baseball, or even the best hitter. The likes of Yordan Alvarez and José Ramírez are delivering similar power with fewer strikeouts, for instance. Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt have been just as good offensively, and Manny Machado (at least before his sprained ankle) was not far behind with the bat and light-years ahead with the glove. But look at those names. Saying Judge has merely been as good as Trout this season is—to invert the idiom—praising with faint damnation. These perennial MVP candidates and future Hall of Famers are the company Judge can keep at his peak. While the Yankees’ final offer would’ve made Judge one of the richest athletes who ever lived, based on his performance this year, he was right to think he could do better.
But with contract negotiations on hold, the next step for Judge and the Yankees is this belated arbitration case. Many teams and player agents prefer to avoid actual arbitration hearings because of their adversarial nature; a team trying to win an arbitration case must, by definition, prove that the player is worth less than he thinks, and therefore potentially damage their relationship. It’s awkward, to say the least, for a player to hear his team criticize his strikeout rate in arbitration on Friday, then have to fling his body into an outfield wall for said team that evening.
The danger of that making a big difference to Judge is probably not great: He doesn’t have a particularly choleric personality, and even if the Yankees’ case does offend him, he’ll have months to get over it before he actually becomes a free agent. Moreover, Cashman’s decision to air the team’s final offer in April did more to set the tone of negotiations than this hearing—at which Judge’s 2022 performance is inadmissible—ever will.
When contract talks break down, it’s relatively common for either the GM or agent to call up a friendly reporter and leak the terms of the final offer, letting the public know how far apart the two sides were when they hit an impasse. It’s unusual for a GM to go out and say what those terms are on the record.
Whatever Cashman’s motivations, after almost 25 years running the biggest franchise in baseball, it’s fair to assume that he didn’t forget where he was or zone out and blurt out the details by accident. And while doing so was seen as a little gauche, there was an upside to revealing those numbers that made it worth risking a little backlash.
By the terms of the Yankees’ final offer, Judge would be making roughly the same amount of money as Mookie Betts. He’d be making more per year than Machado and Bryce Harper, both of whom hit free agency after their age-25 seasons, not their age-30 season. And as great as Judge was in 2017, at the time of the offer he hadn’t reached those heights since, battling a series of injuries that didn’t exactly paint the picture of a player who’d be on the field 150 times a year in his mid-to-late 30s.
It’s also important to remember that when Cashman revealed the details of the Yankees’ offer, we were mere days removed from the end of a lockout in which MLB’s owners scooped up billions of dollars from the players by painting them as greedy. Nobody ever went broke criticizing athletes for wanting more money.
But Cashman either didn’t anticipate or didn’t appreciate two factors that have become abundantly clear in the months since. First, how overwhelmingly popular Judge is among Yankees fans and the broader baseball-watching public. Compared to other recent big-name free agents—Harper, Machado, Carlos Correa, Gerrit Cole—it’s hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about the resolutely inoffensive Judge. Not only is he the most recognizable man in baseball, but the best aspects of his game are blindingly obvious; anyone who’s ever seen a baseball game can instantly understand that it’s good to hit the ball harder than anyone else.
The second factor is that Judge would go absolutely berserk at the plate this season. And that’s why this story has been so sticky. If Judge had gone out and posted an unremarkable .900 OPS, maybe the speculation over his future would’ve died down (though the fact that he’s capable of posting “an unremarkable .900 OPS” is an argument that he should be paid more). Instead, Judge heard his boss’s boss imply that he wasn’t good enough to command the salary he wanted, and responded by making Cashman eat his words. That’s the baseball equivalent of getting dumped, then having your ex beg you to take them back when you run into them three months later.
Not that the Yankees and Judge are headed for a breakup. It’s never a great sign when a player says he wants to be a one-club man, then goes out and plays better than he ever has in his walk year. But there’s plenty of precedent for players like Judge to run their contracts down, dip their toes in free agency, and stay put. Stephen Strasburg did. J.T. Realmuto did. Clayton Kershaw did. And Adam Wainwright’s done it four years in a row.
After all, contract negotiations are all about signals and posturing. Even Judge’s self-imposed deadline was a signal, and surely there’s a number that Cashman could offer to convince him to sign right now. In fact, there’s nothing to stop Judge and the Yankees from taking these last couple of days to hammer out a settlement for his 2022 salary, or even a long-term extension. But the best argument Judge can make is with his bat, and if the Yankees want to take him up on his offer to stay there for the rest of his career, it’ll be a more expensive proposition now.