Sports

Is the slugger putting up a season on par with Babe Ruth?

New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge is doing something not seen in MLB in nearly two decades. With his 60th home run, Judge put himself in the same company as Barry Bonds, Roger Maris, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Babe Ruth.

Does Judge’s 2022 season really belong in the same company as those players? Ruth is arguably the greatest player of all time. Bonds deserves to be in that conversation, but that comes with one major caveat. Maris is a Hall of Famer, and McGwire and Sosa might be, if not for performance-enhancing drug suspicions.

Sure, Judge has been excellent, but has he been as good as Ruth? And Maris? Is there an argument that what Judge does is as unique and special as Shohei Ohtani’s two-sided genius?

Has Aaron Judge reached the heights of Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds?

Putting Judge’s offensive contributions into historical context is not difficult. It turns out that’s exactly what wRC+ measures. The stat sums a player’s offensive value by comparing it to that season’s league average. wRC+ is ideal for this drill because it adapts to a player’s margin and the attacking environment in which he played. Players who excelled in the dead-ball era—when power barely existed and the league’s batting average hovered around 0.241—can be directly compared to players who hit 45 home runs during the height of the steroid era—then a batting average of . 270 was closer to the norm.

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The stat is also incredibly easy to understand. A player with a 100 wRC+ performed exactly the league average on offense that season. A player with a 150 wRC+ performed 50 percent better on offense than a competition average player.

In 2022 Judge will have a 211 wRC+. On offense, he was 111 percent better than an average player in the league. There have been 16 other instances in MLB history where a player posted a wRC+ of 211 or higher. Bonds did it four times in his career. Those seasons all came together (2001-2004), which was the last time in MLB that a player produced a wRC+ over 211.

In addition to more than 60 home run seasons, Judge’s 211 wRC+ is in third place. Bonds’ 235 wRC+ from the 2001 MLB season tops the list. Ruth’s 212 wRC+ from 1927, when he set the then-record 60 home runs, is in second place. The only other player to hit 60+ home runs with a wRC+ over 200 is McGwire in 1998. He hit 70 home runs that season and posted a 205 wRC+.

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Aaron Judge already has a better offensive season than Roger Maris in the year in which he hit 61 home runs. (AP Photo/File)

When Maris broke Ruth’s record in 1961, Maris had a 162 wRC+. Why is Maris’s grade significantly lower? It may be partly due to Maris’ batting average of .269 being just a few points above the league average, which was .258 in 1961. In comparison, Judge has a batting average of .316 in a season where the league average is .243. Judge’s numbers are a much bigger outlier when you factor in his time.

From a purely offensive standpoint, Judge is experiencing a historic season. According to wRC+, there have been only 15 better offensive seasons. Among the players who have hit more than 60 home runs, Judge has not reached Bonds level, but he is on par with Ruth’s record season.

How good has Aaron Judge been when he’s not hitting?

What if you want to go beyond Judge’s offensive numbers? Is Judge’s season still special when you consider his defense and base run?

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That’s also easy to do, but it comes with an important caveat. Judge has a 10.7 fWAR – FanGraphs’ version of WAR. The figure is tied for 29th in MLB history. It’s comparable to Ruth’s 1931 season and Willie Mays’ 1965 season so far. And if Judge avoids a slump on the trajectory and continues to perform well, there’s a chance he’ll climb higher on the list by the time that the 2022 regular season ends.

The use of fWAR has a major shortcoming. Defense stats for one season are not that reliable. The judge’s defense has a value of -0.2 in 2022, according to FanGraphs. That means that as a field player he is slightly below average. Last year he was worse, with a defensive value of -4.5. However, in 2019 Judge scored well as a fielder, with a defensive value of 6.8.

Those numbers show the flaws of relying too much on defensive stats for one season. Is Judge really a strong outfield player as he showed in 2019? Is he an undersized outfield player as he showed in 2021? Or is he about average, as the statistics say in 2022? Is Judge’s 2019 Skewed Because He Only Played Right Field? Will Judge’s defensive value be penalized too much in 2021 and 2022 for playing more in the middle?

FanGraphs acknowledges that its version of WAR is not an exact figure. It is believed to be used as an estimate of a player’s worth.

Evaluating Judge’s entire body of work in 2022 will lower his value somewhat, but there’s still a strong argument that he’s putting in a top-50, maybe even a top-40 season of all time.

The Shohei Ohtani Problem

And then there’s Ohtani. He is the only player to do something similar to Judge in 2022. Ohtani was outstanding at the plate and on the mound, putting in better numbers than last season when he unanimously won the AL MVP award.

Ohtani’s two-way status complicates the comparison even more. If you add Ohtani’s fWAR as a position player and his fWAR as a thrower, you get an 8.9 fWAR. However, there are major problems with that approach. First, Ohtani is a designated batter. He is penalized in his defensive stats for not playing off the field. That penalty is determined by making a positional adjustment each season that determines how many designated batters should be penalized for not fielding. It’s not necessarily a bad way to calculate a designated batter’s value, but it’s complicated.

Shohei Ohtani with the angels.

Shohei Ohtani is the only player to win the AL MVP award over Aaron Judge. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

The bigger problem is Ohtani’s pitching fWAR. FanGraphs calculates pitching WAR using FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching. FIP tries to remove anything that affects a pitcher once a ball is in play. It is believed that pitchers have little to no control when a batter brings a ball into play. FIP also measures how well a player should have thrown, and not necessarily how he had thrown. It’s a controversial concept and one of the main reasons Baseball-Reference has its own version of WAR: bWAR. Baseball-Reference does not use FIP when calculating WAR for pitchers. Baseball-Reference’s version is based on runs allowed and innings pitched. Both websites take a closer look at how those metrics are calculated and why they are used. Using the WAR version of Baseball-Reference, the case between Judge, 9.9 bWAR, and Ohtani, 8.9 bWAR, is a little closer.

If you’re going to argue that Ohtani’s two-way power saves the Los Angeles Angels a spot on the list, well, even that isn’t quite as much of an advantage as it seems. The Angels have to compensate for this by running out a six-man rotation, which is likely to hurt the team in the long run.

All this makes direct comparison extremely difficult. Both stats have Judge as the better player in 2022, but the margin of error is so close that an argument for Ohtani still exists.

MLB Fans Witness History With Aaron Judge

However you break it down, Judge delivers a historic season. Ohtani too, but the media focus and pursuit of the AL home run record gives Judge the drum beat needed to win the AL MVP award. Ohtani’s numbers are generations, but MLB isn’t cutting his games to see if he can win his 14th game of the season. Judge gets that treatment and has a shot at winning the Triple Crown. Pursuing those milestones draws more attention to Judge, making him more likely to take home the AL MVP.

At the same time, it’s probably fair to say that Ohtani’s 2022 has been underestimated. Dominant two-way players come around even less often than 60+ home run hitters, and the fact that Ohtani was even better in 2022 than last season shouldn’t be brushed aside so easily.

If Judge wins the award, it will be hard to argue that it was the wrong choice. He delivers the best offensive season MLB has had since Bonds’ incredible run. It could be decades before baseball fans see this level of offensive production again.

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