If, like me, your first thought was that can’t be true – as great as Judge was in ’22 and as important as he was to the Yankees’ success this year there have to be five or ten seasons in which a player did even more to help his team to win than Judge did – let me assure you, it’s at least worth a discussion.
So let’s have it.
Before we begin, let’s be clear about some discussion points. First, we’ll start with WAR and we’ll use Baseball Reference’s version. The other versions of WAR may have slightly different numbers but are not different enough to drastically change the discussion, so let’s keep it simple. Secondly, I’ve been assured by the smart kids that quibbling over decimal points in WAR is silly, so I’ll include players who had a minimum of 10 WAR in a season (Judge had 10.6 in ’22).
We’ll also limit the discussion to position players. I’m not going to denigrate what Dwight Gooden did in 1985, or what Bob Gibson did in 1968, but there are enough variables to muddy the discussion, so again, let’s keep it simple.
Finally, I shouldn’t have to say this but…Yes, I understand WAR is not everything – but it’s pretty goddamn good. It literally measures a player’s overall value, which is what we’re talking about.
Enough of the preamble…
Aaron Judge posted 10.6 WAR in 2022 for a team that won 99 games and an ALDS. And although baseball is probably more of a team game than any other team sport, Judge did a major portion of the heavy lifting for the team as no other Yankee had an impact year. Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gleyber Torres all started off great but due to a variety of reasons they all regressed significantly to varying degrees as the season wore on. (Personally, I don’t put too much stock in the team’s record or his teammates’ performance when weighing an individual player’s value but I know many of you folks do, so let’s include it.)
Judge posted 10.6 WAR – if the Yankees had a replacement player* instead of Judge, they theoretically would have won 88 games and been on the road for a best of three in Seattle for the Wild Card Series, (which, needless to say, was a significantly harder path than getting a bye then facing Cleveland in the ALDS) so Judge had a major impact on the team’s postseason chances. And he did it while the next most important Yankee by WAR was Nestor Cortes with 4.2 (Gleyber’s 4.1 was best among position players.)
(*Knowing Yankees GM Brian Cashman, if something had happened to Judge you know the team would not have traded for Juan Soto – they absolutely would have used a replacement player from Triple-A or off the waiver wire.)
So the question becomes, how many other players accrued 10 WAR or better, for a team who made the postseason and either wouldn’t have (or had a much harder path) without the player’s production, with that big of a gap between him and his best teammate?
I checked and going back to the start of divisional play exactly zero players reached the above criteria that Judge did in ’22. A player posted 10 wins or better 16 times since 1969 but some were for non-competitive teams – Ripken ’91, and Trout ’16 are two examples. Others had teammates who had great seasons as well – Eddie Murray posted 7.1 wins with Ripken’s 10.0 in 1984, and Paul Molitor posted 6.2 to Robin Yount’s 10.6 in 1982 – as examples. Others, like Joe Morgan in 1975, played for teams that were so good they could have withstood the loss of a great player. The Reds won their division by 20 games, so even without Joe’s 11.0 WAR, the Big Red Machine would have still run away with the NL West.
Let’s go back further, to the start expansion era. Did any players have 10 WAR or better, directly affect his team’s postseason chances, and had a gap of 6.4 WAR or more than his best teammate? One – Carl Yastrzemski, 1967. We’ll come back to Yaz in a minute…
Heck, I even opened the search up to the start of integration, figuring that Mantle, Musial, Mays, or Williams would have had to have a season (or three) like Judge had in ’22. The answer is “nope”. No one besides Yaz in ’67 posted 10 WAR or better, for a team that reached the postseason and wouldn’t have without him, with a gap of 6.4 or more WAR between him and his best teammate.
So now the question is, by those criteria, which was the most valuable season of all time: Judge 2022 or Yaz in 1967?
Even as a Yankee fan, I’ve long held that Carl Yastrzemski is vastly underrated historically and that his 1967 season is one of the best any player has ever had. In fact, Yaz is exhibit A for the argument that you should always check era-adjusted stats first – the mid to late 60s was the hardest in which to hit in baseball history, so Yaz didn’t put up traditional numbers as gaudy as Sammy Sosa in the late 90s as an example, but when you weigh run-scoring environments, Yaz did significantly more damage comparatively speaking. For fun, let’s look at Sosa’s 1998 season, considered one of the best and most memorable in our lifetimes, compared to Yaz’s bat in 1967:
Sosa 1998: .308 BA, 66 HR, 148 RBI, 416 TB
Yaz’ 1967: .326 BA, 44 HR, 121 RBI, 360 TB (won triple-crown)
When adjusted for run-scoring environment:
Sosa ’98: OPS+ 160
Yaz ’67: OPS+ 193
It’s not even particularly close.
Furthermore, Yaz was an elite defensive left fielder and elite baserunner. In ’67 only seven AL players had more base running runs, and his 1.7 defensive WAR is remarkable when we consider that left fielders are penalized by WAR since they provide little to no value with the glove compared to other positions. For some perspective, only Brooks Robinson and Tommie Agee – the best defensive third baseman of all time and an elite defensive center fielder – had more dWAR than Yaz in ’67, and no other left fielder even had a positive dWAR number.
Yaz was an all-time monster in the box and an impact player on the bases and in the field for the ’67 Red Sox. But how does he compare to Judge ’22 with our selected criteria?
Yaz finished 1967 with 12.5 WAR, a good chunk better than Judge’s 10.6. The Red Sox won the AL Pennant in 1967 by only one game over both Minnesota and Detroit, and three and seven games over Chicago and California respectively. Quite simply, Boston would have been a fifth-place team without Yaz’s production. As far as help from the supporting cast, Boston first baseman George Scott posted a solid 4.4 WAR, good for second best on the team – but significantly further behind Yaz than Nestor was to Judge.
For me, it would be really hard to argue a player has ever been more valuable to his team than Carl Yastrzemski was to Boston in 1967, but just the fact that Judge is in this discussion – and Barry Bonds, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, etc. are not – is telling with regards to Judge’s ’22 season. Remarkably, we may even be underrating a player who hit 62 home runs and led the league in RBI, runs, walks, OBP, and SLG for a 99-win team.
To be fair, Yaz played against and with a significantly lower level of competition, and far fewer competitors overall, than Judge does, so separating yourself from the pack is much harder in 2022 than it was in 1967.
Is any of this conclusive? Of course not! This is all very subjective, and very arbitrary – it doesn’t solve anything or really answer too many questions – but it is an interesting discussion.
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