Aaron Judge made his MLB debut on Aug. 13, 2016. In his first at-bat in the big leagues, he hit a home run to dead center field off the Yankee Stadium batters’ eye. That was very clearly a preview of what was to come.
The next season, he was unanimously named the AL Rookie of the Year with 52 home runs, then an MLB record for a rookie. He finished in second place in that year’s MVP voting to Jose Altuve, which has since become controversial amid the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal that season.
Over the next three seasons, he suffered multiple injuries, but his on-field talent never wavered. From 2018 to 2020, he owned a .917 OPS, hitting .274 average. In 2021, he hit .287 with a .916 OPS, finishing in fourth place in the AL MVP vote as he carried the Yankees down the stretch to a wild card game appearance.
But now the Yankees had an issue. Their superstar’s contract was set to end after the upcoming season, and the MLB lockout made it literally impossible to negotiate for three months.
Just before opening day, Yankees offered him a $17 million salary for 2022, and then $213.5 million over the next seven seasons.
Judge declined. He was going to be a free agent after the 2022 season. He gambled on himself.
To say the bet worked is the understatement of the year.
Judge’s year was one for the ages – he became the American League home run king on Oct. 4 in Arlington, Texas, when he belted his 62nd home run of the season, surpassing former Yankee Roger Maris 61 years after he hit 61 homers. Several others (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa) shattered Maris’ mark, but their links to performance-enhancing drugs have tainted their numbers. Thus, many deem Judge to be the “true” single-season home run king.
But his season was so much more than 62 homers.
Judge was in the Triple Crown race until the last day of the season – his .311 batting average was second in the AL. His 111 walks were the most in the American League, and his 62 homers, 131 RBI, .425 on-base percentage, .686 slugging percentage, 133 runs scored, and 391 total bases all led the majors by comfortable margins.
It was one of the greatest offensive seasons in the history of baseball – while making zero errors in the field. He was easily named the American League Most Valuable Player, adding even more intrigue to his free agency market.
The rumor mill was swirling, and on Dec. 6, he was reportedly very close to joining his hometown San Francisco Giants. That’s when Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner gave Judge a call and asked him what it would take for him to remain in pinstripes. In that phone call, Judge and the Yanks agreed to a nine-year, $360 million deal, the largest ever by a free agent, and the second-largest in total value behind only Mike Trout’s $425 million.
Now, the face of baseball is a Yankee for life. In his “welcome home” press conference on Dec. 21, he was named the 16th captain in Yankee history, and the first since Derek Jeter.
Only four people have a higher OPS in a Yankee uniform than Judge’s .977 – Ruth (1.195), Lou Gehrig (1.079), Mickey Mantle (.978), and Joe DiMaggio (also .977). Judge is .0002 points behind DiMaggio – he’d pass him if he gets on base in his first plate appearance next season.
Judge has just about every accolade in baseball – three Silver Slugger Awards, a Home Run Derby championship, four All-Star nods (all starts), a Rookie of the Year, an MVP.
But there is one thing missing.
Judge has not won, or appeared in, a World Series yet. He’s now 30, and the Yankees have had a problem with the Astros, who have defeated them three times in the ALCS since Judge began his career, including this past October.
The ring is something Judge obviously wants badly. And Yankees fans are tough – they want championships with their stars. Considering Judge is a .211 postseason hitter, he knows he needs to be better if he wants to give the Yankees their 28th World Series title.
But if he doesn’t win 10 like Yogi Berra, or nine like DiMaggio, or seven like Mantle, or five like Jeter – God forbid he wins zero like Don Mattingly – he will go down as maybe the most polarizing figure to ever put on the pinstripes. His 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame, combined with maybe being the best player in baseball, already makes him some sort of magical player.
And that’s what his 2022 was.
From the gamble, to the broken records, to the contract, to the captaincy.
It was nothing short of magical.