Tuesday night in the Bronx, one of the games of the year unfolded. The surging Yankees played host to the Baltimore Orioles, fresh off a sweep in Toronto and quickly becoming the story of the year in Major League Baseball. The O’s clawed their way to a 5-4 lead and turned to the best 1-2 bullpen punch in the game this season to close it out. And they probably would have, if not for the one player the Yankees have that makes them special.
Aaron Judge, the larger-than-life superstar who returned to the Yankees this season with a freshly inked $360 million contract and was named the first captain of the team since Derek Jeter, took an 0-2 middle-middle splitter from Orioles closer Félix Bautista and sent it 403 feet into the left field bleachers to tie the game. The Yankees would soon go on to win on an Anthony Volpe sac fly in the bottom of the tenth.
The win was undoubtedly huge for the Yanks, their 11th in the past 14 games, propelling them from barely above .500 to the second Wild Card spot in a vicious American League playoff picture. But it also highlighted something that has become abundantly clear in the past two seasons: the Yankees are Aaron Judge. Right now, they can only go as far as his superhuman efforts carry them.
Judge would go 0-for-5 with four walks as the Yankees dropped the final two games of the Orioles series.
The Yankees are a franchise built on championships and star power. They’ve retired 22 numbers, which includes every single digit and the number eight twice. No other team has retired more than 12. It makes sense–the path to a number retirement is made much clearer by winning a handful of rings.
Judge is clearly on the path to becoming one of those all-time Yankee superstars. He’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory at 31 and just the 14th Yankee to win an MVP. But of all his predecessors, perhaps no Yankee has ever had the team’s success so obviously tied to his own. And unlike the majority of those predecessors, he’s yet to win a World Series ring.
In 2022, Judge put up 10.4 offensive wins above replacement (oWAR) en route to his first career MVP award. By that metric, it was already the 21st best offensive season in MLB history. But the stat looks even more impressive when you consider that of the entries ahead of Judge, six were Babe Ruth seasons, three were Barry Bonds, three Mickey Mantle and the rest Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb.
The Yankees did win 99 games last year (an appropriate number in light of the 99 stitched on Judge’s enormous jersey), but what good was the rest of the roster? With Judge’s total contributions taken into account, the slugger/primary center fielder was worth 10.6 WAR. The next eight Yankees combined put up 22.8, meaning Judge, when in the lineup, was essentially a third of the entire team’s offensive output. He scored 133 runs, 56 more than anyone else on the team, and drove in 131, 55 more than anyone else.
Judge has had a little more help this year in the form of a career year from Anthony Rizzo and occasional surges from Harrison Bader and Gleyber Torres. But despite missing 11 of the team’s 51 games, Judge leads the Yankees in home runs, doubles, runs, RBI and walks. He's clearly the emotional spark plug as well--as demonstrated by his four-homer series in Toronto galvanized by a pitch tipping episode and a bunch of needless jawing from the Blue Jays. Overall, the team is 25-15 when he plays, but 5-6 without him.
It’s not as though the Yankees have set out to build a team entirely consisting of Judge and a bunch of scrubs. They took on $301.5 million of Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million extension initially signed with the Marlins. They dished out the largest free agent pitching contract to Gerrit Cole prior to the 2020 season, then handed the 30th-largest contract in baseball to Carlos Rodón this offseason. The current $268.9 million total team payroll is easily the largest in franchise history.
They also traded away starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery for Harrison Bader, who has not only allowed the 280-pound Judge to stop taxing himself in center field, but has played Gold Glove defense in doing so. In 2021 trade acquisition Anthony Rizzo, the Yankees have not only provided the best protection Judge currently has in the lineup, but by all appearances, the captain’s best friend on the team. If the Yankees are a one-man team, it isn’t for a lack of trying.
But as any general manager who’s been in the league long enough to take some lumps will tell you, money doesn’t buy production. To win a championship, a team must get consistent production up and down the roster. The stars have to play like stars, while the role players have to step up when the moment calls for it. And throughout Judge’s tenure, the postseason has been a bugaboo for all pinstripe-wearing parties involved.
Since their most recent World Series title in 2009, the Yankees have been to the postseason ten times. That's a fantastic success rate--only the Dodgers have been to October the same amount of times over that 13-season span. But unlike the Dodgers, the Yanks have not won a title, nor even been back to the Fall Classic.
For most pro sports franchises, a 14-year title drought, while annoying, wouldn’t be headline-worthy. 20 of the 30 MLB teams have longer droughts, in fact. But the Yankees have only had droughts this long twice since winning their first title in 1923. Parity in baseball has grown exponentially in the last century; the Yanks won a full 20 of their 27 rings in 40 years with seven in the last 60. But expectations still remain the same at the start of every season: Championship or Bust.
It isn’t fair to tie those postseason failures entirely to Judge, but throughout his career, Judge has played worse the deeper the Yankees have advanced in October. In 24 plate appearances in the Wild Card round, Judge has a 1.217 OPS. In 101 plate appearances in the divisional round, that dips to .719. And in 73 trips to the plate in the ALCS, where the Yankees have lost three times since Judge was a rookie, all to the Astros, Judge has just a .703 OPS.
Nowhere was the Yankees' postseason hump more visible than this past October, when the Yankees were swept away by the Astros en route to Houston's second title in the past six seasons. Judge went just 1-for-16 at the plate and in a single series, cost the Yankees 3.5% championship win probability according to Baseball Reference. It was the worst playoff series of his career and a low point in the Yankees' 21st century history.
It also isn’t a particularly large postseason sample size that Judge and his Yankees teams have accumulated. Carlos Correa, who is three years younger than Judge, has 136 more postseason plate appearances. But that’s part of the problem–the 31-year-old Judge, who didn’t become a full-time major leaguer until 25, is by no means old, but he’s not exactly young, either. He might have three more years at the peak of his powers; he might have six. Regardless, the clock is already ticking.
Tough Road Ahead
Competition in the American League has also never been more fierce. Within his own division, Judge faces a trio of teams whose superstars are significantly younger, and whose rosters are all much more balanced than the Yankees’. The Rays, whose oldest everyday starter is 31 (Yandy Díaz), are lapping the league in most offensive categories. The Orioles have a budding catching superstar in Adley Rutschman, a top three farm system and the best bullpen in 2023. And even the Blue Jays, who are struggling in May, have three All-Star bound position players all younger than Judge.
Beyond the division, there’s obviously the Astros, who have been the thorn in the Yankees’ side for the better part of a decade. But there’s also the Rangers, who have overtaken the Rays for the major league lead in run differential. There’s the young, talented Mariners, if they can figure out how to start scoring against teams other than the A’s. And almost as an afterthought, there’s the team out in Anaheim that employs the services of both Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout.
The Yankees will need Judge to be better in October if they want to rise above the pack–whether this season or in the years soon to come. But they’ll also need a bunch of his teammates to step up.
They’ll need Rizzo to keep raking. They’ll need Stanton not only to get healthy, but to punish the ball like few others outside of Judge can. They’ll need D.J. LeMahieu to be a real threat in the box, rather than a guy who bunts with the tying run at third. They’ll need Volpe, Oswaldo Cabrera or Oswald Peraza to prove they’re ready for the game’s biggest stage.
They’ll need Cole to pitch like the Cy Young candidate he looked like through his first seven starts, not the up-and-down starter he’s been in his last four. They’ll need Rodón to come back healthy and pitch like his 2021-22 self. They’ll need Nestor Cortes to stop giving up home runs in bunches. And they’ll need their bullpen, which has the lowest ERA in baseball at the moment, to continue to lock it down.
It isn’t as though a Yankee title categorically cannot happen. FiveThirtyEight currently has the Yankees at a 10% chance to win the World Series, fifth-highest in all of baseball. To do so, it is essential for Judge to continue his spectacular play. But the Yankees also cannot continue to rely on him as their sole savior.
Breaking the American League home run record and leading the team single-handedly to a division title last year clearly took a lot out of Judge, so much so that by Game 4 of the ALCS against Houston, he looked downright pedestrian at the plate. Having the MVP is a great formula for winning the World Series–since the current award was established in 1931, 42 of the 92 eventual champions had their league’s MVP. But like any Best Picture winner, that lead actor still must have an All-Star supporting cast.
It isn’t that the Yankees shouldn’t be Judge’s team. Everyone knows they are–and that’s okay. But the Yankees also shouldn't be comfortable allowing his individual greatness to become their entire identity. That isn’t who the Yankees have ever been in the past, nor should they be now. For the Bronx to recapture their championship mystique, they’ll have to assemble a squadron of Bombers once again instead of a one-man army.