Is the 2021 version of Aaron Judge better than the 2017 edition?

Table of Contents ‘17 vs ‘21 proratedDefenseBaserunning In 2017, Aaron Judge had one of the…

In 2017, Aaron Judge had one of the best seasons a right-handed batter has ever had for the Yankees. Heck, it may have turned out to be the best if it weren’t for a shoulder injury that he might have incurred during the Home Run Derby, which essentially turned him into Ronald Torreyes for two months. If you think that’s an exaggeration, think again: Judge posted a .179/.335/.351 slash line from the All-Star break through September 3, 2017 — Torreyes hit .292/.314/.375 in 2017.

Regardless, the other four months of 2017 were so dominant that he still posted season totals of 8.0 bWAR, 171 OPS+ and led the American League in home runs, runs, and bases on balls while winning the Rookie of the Year Award. Additionally, he also led the AL in most MVP awards stolen from him.

None of the above is a newsflash, nor is it news that he’s having a monster 2021 season as well. He’s currently in the top 10 in the AL in counting stats such as home runs and walks, rate stats like OBP and SLG, and advanced measurements OPS+, DRC+, wRC+, bWAR, fWAR, and WARP. Whatever mathematic calculation you prefer, the answer is the same — Judge is a great player having a great season.

“As great as the 2017 version of Aaron Judge?” you might ask. At the very least, it’s worth considering.

Here’s how the seasons would compare should Judge continue at his current pace:

‘17 vs ‘21 prorated

Season G PA HR OBP SLG OPS+ bWAR BB K
Season G PA HR OBP SLG OPS+ bWAR BB K
2017 155 678 52 .422 .627 171 8.0 127 208
2021 prorated 152 651 41 .409 .566 173 6.8 88 162

A few things stand out with those numbers. First, as you can see from the virtually identical OPS+, the rate statistics are closer than they appear when the run-scoring environment of each season is factored into the equation. As far as the counting stats, the home run production may end up lower in 2021 due in part to the different baseball, but it’s also due to how Judge is hitting. As you can see from the drastically lower walk and strikeout totals, he’s a different type of hitter now than he was in 2017.

Tom Krosnowski detailed many of the differences in a great article earlier this month for PSA, so there’s no re-hash everything here. For today’s purposes, what you need to know is that the 2021 Aaron Judge swings at more first pitches, puts more balls in play, hits fewer in the air, and (somehow) hits the ball harder than the 2017 Judge. The most telling stat for me is that Judge currently has a 25.8 percent strikeout rate in 2021 — the league average is 23.9 percent. The 2017 strikeout king (literally, he led the league) has become pretty much average in terms of strikeout rate, while still sitting in the top ten in home runs and SLG.

Another aspect you may have noticed is that his bWAR would be more than one win lower this season than he accumulated in 2017 should he continue at his current rate. If regardless of the “how”, the actual offensive production is very similar, so what would explain the lower value in terms of wins with regards to the 2021 Judge? If you’re curious, as I was, if this is a Baseball-Reference thing, it’s not. Both Baseball Prospectus (WARP) and FanGraphs (fWAR) rank the 2017 Judge as more valuable than the 2021 version so far as well.

The reality is that Judge was a better defensive player and runner in 2017 than he is in 2021. Could the mysterious “lower body situation” be a factor? Possibly. Could the proclamation that he would be more selective about his aggressiveness in order to ensure a full and healthy season be an explanation? Possibly.

Whatever the case is, the numbers are clear:

Defense

Season OAA Jump Def dWAR
Season OAA Jump Def dWAR
2017 96th 48th -1.3 0.2
2021 34th 18th -4.1 0

OAA – Outs above average percentile rank league-wide
Jump – outfielders’ jump percentile rank
Def – FanGraphs’ comprehensive defense metric
dWAR – Defensive WAR

Baserunning

Season BRR BsR Speed Rank Ft. per sec.
Season BRR BsR Speed Rank Ft. per sec.
2017 -0.1 0 75th 28
2021 -1.3 -0.4 51st 27

BRR – Baseball Prospectus’ baserunning runs above or below average
BsR – FanGraphs’ comprehensive baserunning metric
Speed Rank – sprint speed percentile rank league-wide
Ft. per sec. – maximum speed measured in feet covered per second

Judge was a far better fielder in 2017 than he is now and he was clearly faster as well. Now the original question of “Which version of Aaron Judge would you rather have, the 2017 version or the 2021 version?” becomes more complex. The discussion about what type of hitter you’d rather see Judge be can come another day. The bottom line level of production is more or less the same — any version of Aaron Judge is a savage in the box. The disparities in defense and baserunning do present other issues, however.

In an overly simplified world, the 2017 version would provide more value overall so one would likely lean that way. But the world is not that simple. If in fact, the regressions in running and fielding are due to conscious modifications that increase the likelihood of Judge getting more than 500 plate appearances and more than 112 games played — numbers he hasn’t exceeded since 2017 — then I think we’d all agree that we’re just fine with this version of him, regardless of how he compares to his 2017 self.