Aaron Judge put up one of the best seasons by a Yankee of all time in 2022. And New York made sure he wouldn’t be getting away.
The team agreed to re-sign its superstar slugger to a nine-year, $360 million contract on Wednesday, ending any speculation that he might leave the Bronx in one of the most high-profile free agency courtships in recent history.
There is plenty more that will go into the nine-year deal than just Judge’s performance. He is expected to be named captain of the team and has become a fan favorite in New York, with Yankee Stadium having a section called the Judge’s Chambers with fans robed in judge attire.
Still, performance will be at the center of the deal, and New York is taking a risk. Judge is already 30 years old before the contract has even started, and he’ll play the final year of the deal in his age-39 season.
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Plenty of stars have received these types of contracts late in their careers. How have they turned out, and what can the Yankees expect? The Sporting News takes a look.
What to expect from Aaron Judge’s contract
There is no disputing that Judge is one of the most valuable players in baseball right now. A season ago, he posted a slash line of .311/.425/.686 with 62 home runs and 16 stolen bases with 10.6 bWAR (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement) en route to being named AL MVP. According to Stathead, it was the 10th-best season by bWAR in Yankee history.
But Judge was a late bloomer to the majors, which meant his first try at free agency didn’t come until after his age-30 season. That is not entirely uncommon, but players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Corey Seager, some of the biggest names in past offseason free agent markets, were younger when they hit the market, meaning that when they signed their deal, they still had years of their peak ahead of them.
According to a 2020 article from The Hardball Times’ Jeff Zimmerman, hitters tend to hit their peak around age 26 and start to age fast after age 30. He noted, in particular, that strikeout rates have particularly aged poorly in recent years, a notable development for Judge, who has never posted a strikeout rate below 25 percent and has, in the beginning of his career, been closer to 30 percent.
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A 2021 article from Fangraphs’ Chet Gutwein showed that players’ delta wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) tend to take a dip after age 30, and a steep decline after age-35.
Evaluating what’s ahead for Judge is impossible because each player is unique, but there are some past examples to look at for older free agents who signed long-term deals. We’re going to look at five players who signed long-term contracts around the age Judge signed his, and compare both how the player performed before the deal and after. The players are Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez (when he opted out in 2007), Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and Robinson Cano.
First, here’s a look at their OPS+ by season, starting with two years before signing the deal and going nine years into the contract.
The results are a bit mixed. Some players saw an immediate dropoff in production. Others continued to produce for a time before seeing a later dropoff.
Here’s a look into each of the five players, and how their situations compare to Judge.
One of the older free agents listed, Pujols left the Cardinals after the 2011 season and signed a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Angels. Pujols began the first year of his deal at age 32.
The decline of Pujols had already become apparent when he signed with the Angels. His final year in St. Louis, 2011, marked the first time in his career he hit below .300, and while he still hit for plenty of power, it was clear his overall productiveness was on the decline. He also eventually became a full-time designated hitter to avoid having to play every day at first base.
Pujols continued to hit for power with the Angels, mashing as many as 40 home runs in 2015, the fourth year of his contract, but he was certainly not the same player he was when he left St. Louis.
Is Pujols a great comparison for Judge? Not exactly. Of the players on this list, he played the least physically demanding position and certainly didn’t possess Judge’s athleticism prior to going to Anaheim. He also didn’t strike out much, unlike Judge, but declined rapidly in spite of his lack of swings-and-misses.
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Rodriguez controversially opted out of his Yankees contract during the middle of the 2007 World Series, making him a free agent ahead of his age 31-32 season. But Rodriguez was coming off an MVP season where he launched 54 home runs with a .314/.422/.645 slash line, and knew he could get a big deal. He signed a 10-year, $275 million deal to stay in pinstripes.
The life of Rodriguez’s contract was a mixed bag. He was still one of the best hitters in baseball in 2008, but his OPS+ still went down each season until a slight uptick in 2013. He admitted to having used steroids in the past and was suspended for all of the 2014 season for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal involving performance-enhancing drug use.
Like Pujols, as Rodriguez aged, he spent more time at designated hitter, though it wasn’t until 2015 that he nearly cut out playing third base entirely. He dealt with various hip and knee injuries that limited his time on the field, and after 2008, he had only two seasons in which he appeared in more than 130 games.
Rodriguez is a closer to match to Judge in terms of the athleticism and production immediately before signing the long-term extension. But there’s one player who would appear to fit the Judge comparison even better.
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Ken Griffey Jr.
As soon as Griffey was traded to the Reds, he signed a nine-year, $116.5 million deal to stay in Cincinnati for the long haul. There was little reason to expect anything else from Griffey except what he had produced over his past three seasons. In 1999, he slashed .285/.384/.576 with 48 home runs and swiped 24 bases in his final year in Seattle after back-to-back seasons with 56 home runs.
Griffey’s first season in Cincinnati came at age 30, and his production was largely on par with what he did in 1999. Griffey slashed .271/.387/.556 with 40 home runs and six stolen bases.
But injuries quickly became a major issue for the future Hall of Fame outfielder. He averaged just 79 games per season from 2001-04 (age 31-34) and his production dropped with the injuries as he slashed only .266/.360/.512 with 63 home runs during those four years. He improved in 2005 (age 35) and had an All-Star season in 2007 (age 37), but he tailed off in the final three years in the big leagues.
Why does Griffey feel like the best comparison? Both players have dealt with injury issues in the past and both play a more physically demanding position in patrolling the outfield.
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Ramirez was at the center of a free agency battle comparable to Yankees vs. Giants for Judge. Cleveland offered him a record-setting deal after the 2000 season, during which the 28-year-old slashed .351/.457/.697 with 38 home runs. But instead of sticking with his original team, Ramirez signed an eight-year, $160 million deal with the Red Sox that included two options that could push the deal to 10 years and $200 million in value.
The Red Sox outfielder’s production would certainly appear to be the best-case scenario for the Yankees. Ramirez was a focal point of Boston’s offense throughout the contract, earning eight straight All-Star nods, and helping lead the Sox to two World Series rings.
However, in 2009, his age-37 season, Ramirez was suspended for alleged performance-enhancing drug use and he was later suspended a second time. He admitted to having used PEDs.
Ramirez’s contract was most prominent during his early-to-mid-30s, so there’s not much of a comparison for performance by late-30s without comparing the time in which Ramirez used performance-enhancing drugs. But if the Yankees can get the same levels of production from Judge that the Red Sox received in the mid-2000s, they would happily sign on for that.
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When he left New York, Cano was considered the best second baseman in baseball. He had been named to four straight All-Star teams and was coming off an age-30 campaign in which he slashed .314/.383/.516 with 27 home runs. That season, combined with his history of production, led to the Mariners making the splash and signing him for 10 years and $240 million.
Cano’s power immediately dipped leaving Yankee Stadium for Seattle, but his overall production remained at the same level in 2014, his age 31 season, and he had a major resurgent campaign in 2016, at age 33, when he hit 39 home runs and posted a .298/.350/.533 slash line.
But like Ramirez and Rodriguez, part of the end of his career was marred by alleged PED usage. He was suspended for 80 games in 2018, his last year in Seattle, and was traded to the Mets before the 2019 season. While he put together a bounceback 2020 campaign, he was again suspended for PED usage after the season, making him ineligible for all of 2021.