How Judge's new contract could play out

December 7th, 2022

's next contract is no longer a mystery. Judge agreed to a nine-year, $360 million deal with the Yankees early on Wednesday, per a source, bringing an end to a pursuit the baseball world had been anticipating for months.

Now the question is how well Judge’s performance will match it. The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. The history of free agency is testament to teams’ inability to predict the future.

Every situation is different, and Judge is more different than most. He is built like few, if any, other baseball players, and his unique size makes him a tough player to find comps for (which we’ll dive into later in this story). He just authored arguably the greatest walk year we’ve ever seen, driving up his price. At the same time, he is already heading into his age-31 season and has a somewhat checkered injury history despite playing 305 of a possible 324 games since 2021.

Still, we can study baseball’s rich history for clues as to what Judge’s future might hold. To that end, we turned to Baseball-Reference’s Stathead for a list of retired outfielders, going back to integration (1947), who reached each of the following thresholds from ages 25-30 (Judge’s numbers in parentheses for comparison -- keep in mind they include his pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign):

• 2,500 plate appearances (3,066)
• 150 home runs (216)
• 140 OPS+ (166)
• 25 wins above replacement (37.2)

After eliminating a handful of players who were coming off bad seasons at age 30 or were showing signs of significant decline by this juncture (such as Ryan Braun and Albert Belle), 17 potential comps remained. Some would appear to be better Judge stand-ins than others, though as mentioned, none is perfect in that regard. But the point here is not precision so much as to use the past to provide some rough parameters.

Here is how these 17 players fared on a per-season basis, leading up to and then after this point in their careers, looking at the group's median value in each case. We’re focusing on the next five seasons, because while Judge’s new deal will be significantly longer than that, it’s likely the next five seasons will go a long way toward determining the success of the contract. If he excels, then whatever he contributes from ages 36-39 will be icing on the cake.

Ages 25-30: 627 PA, 34 HR, 155 OPS+, 6.3 WAR
Age 30 only: 631 PA, 33 HR, 155 OPS+, 6.0 WAR
Ages 31-35: 586 PA, 26 HR, 142 OPS+, 3.4 WAR

Some amount of decline is to be expected, but those age 31-35 numbers are still strong. (It’s more or less what Silver Slugger Award-winning Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe produced in 2022.) But after that? Two of our 17 comps didn't play in the Majors after age 35, and eight didn't make it all the way to 39. The group's median WAR total from ages 36-39 was 2.7.

Of course, there is a ton of variation within this group, so here is a breakdown of four ways it could go.

The dream scenario: Willie Mays (52.3 WAR from 31-35), Hank Aaron (39.0), Barry Bonds (37.5)

Applying any of these comps to Judge certainly requires some rose-colored glasses. These three are all in the greatest-of-all-time conversation and out-produced Judge by quite a bit from ages 25-30, each topping 50 WAR in that time. Mays and Bonds, in particular, were even more athletic players than Judge. Still, Judge’s otherworldly 2022 puts him in that sort of elite class.

If you believe Judge belongs with these players, then the future looks extremely bright. The peerless Mays was even better from 31-35 than from 25-30, and Aaron was less than halfway to his total of 755 homers. It’s also worth noting that Bonds’ single-season home run record and streak of four straight MVP Awards -- which was marred by intense PED suspicion -- didn’t occur until after that age-35 season. His numbers from 36-39 are cartoonish, but Mays and Aaron also were excellent during that period.

The very good scenario: Larry Walker (26.4 WAR from 31-35), Frank Robinson (24.7), Manny Ramirez (19.5)

We’re talking about a seasonal average of roughly 4-5 WAR here, and while that hardly lives up to Judge’s walk year, it’s still excellent. Walker in particular makes for an interesting comp, in that he had been a productive player earlier in his career before exploding for a 9.8-WAR, MVP Award-winning campaign at age 30. Like Judge, Walker could mash but also was a superb athlete who stole 33 bases and was a strong defender in right field. While he never reached the heights of his 1997 season again and missed some time with injuries, Walker was terrific in four of those next five seasons, remained a productive hitter through his finale at age 38 and wound up in the Hall of Fame.

Ramirez, of course, was more of a one-dimensional masher, something that dragged down his WAR totals. With that said, his bat barely slipped. Ramirez posted over a 150 OPS+ in six of his next seven seasons and reached the 35-homer mark five times in that span.

The mixed-bag scenario: Carl Yastrzemski (18.6 WAR from 31-35), 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 31-35, but each experienced a notable decline as well. Yastrzemski, Wynn, Mantle, Guerrero, Doby and Foster all had their OPS+ drop more than 20 points. Age and/or injuries also cut into playing time, as well as baserunning and defensive value. Take Jackson, who, coincidentally, signed a big free-agent deal with the Yankees before age-31 season. From ages 25-30, Jackson produced plus-10 baserunning runs and plus-32 fielding runs; from 31-35, it was minus-7 runs on the bases and -29 runs with the glove. Despite maintaining most of the thump in his bat, his average WAR fell from 6.3 to 3.4. (Of course, he also became “Mr. October” by leading the Yankees to titles in his age-31 and age-32 seasons, cementing his baseball legacy).

It’s worth noting as well that of these seven stars, only the great Yaz remained consistently productive through his mid- to late-30s. Wynn last played at 35, Guerrero and Mantle at 36 and Berkman at 37, and of those, only Mantle was good (if still significantly diminished) to the end. Jackson and Winfield hung around into their 40s, but the former was worth a total of 4.1 WAR after age 34 and the latter 4.7 WAR after age 36.

The scary scenario: Duke Snider (7.8 WAR from 31-35), Ken Griffey Jr. (6.8)

When a team makes a long-term commitment to a player -- especially one already past 30 -- this is the risk. Snider and Griffey are two of the greatest center fielders to ever play the game and both were extremely productive in their 20s. But while both continued to hit from ages 31-35, neither returned much overall value.

Snider had a 136 OPS+, but knee problems limited him to just under 100 games per year, and his defensive numbers tanked. He retired after playing 91 games for the Giants at age 37. Four decades later, Griffey posted his last peak season at age 30, in his debut with the Reds in 2000. His body would also betray him, though. Griffey averaged just 351 plate appearances over the next five seasons, with unsightly defensive numbers counteracting his 130 OPS+. The Hall of Famer did play another five seasons after that, making one more All-Star team but only accruing another 0.8 WAR.

A uniquely huge star

There is another element in play here, one that perhaps makes Judge even more difficult to project than the typical ballplayer. At a listed size of 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, he has few comps in baseball history, if any.

Other than Judge, the only position players listed at 6-foot-7 or taller to generate even 5 career WAR are Frank Howard, Richie Sexson and Tony Clark. Of those, only Howard was productive after age 30. His ages 31-35 seasons (161 OPS+, 172 homers, 17.7 WAR) would fit comfortably among the examples above.

Even widening the field to hitters at least 6-foot-5 doesn’t add many encouraging examples. Beyond Howard, only four others (Mark McGwire, John Olerud, Frank Thomas and Winfield) piled up 15-plus WAR after age 30. There's also the example of Judge's teammate, Giancarlo Stanton, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds and just produced a combined 3.8 WAR at ages 31-32.

It’s certainly possible that Judge’s massive frame will make it even more challenging for him to age gracefully through his 30s, due to health and a difficult-to-maintain swing. On the other hand, there isn’t really enough of a sample size here to say that definitively. The fact that Judge is a much better athlete than many other large players should help him, as well. This is a player who just stole 16 bases and played a capable center field, which is something that the likes of McGwire and Thomas certainly were not doing.

Ultimately, time will tell if the Yankees' investment in Judge goes down in history as a wise one. But one thing is for sure: Bringing the Yankees a championship (or two) will help the cause considerably, as it did for Jackson.