I'm a staff writer at SB Nation's Yankee affiliate, Pinstripe Alley, handling everything from player analysis and cultural pieces to nightly game coverage and minor league recaps. If the written word isn’t your thing, I also co-host the SB Nation Yankee Podcast: Monument Talk. Listen in to hear me gripe about how Bull Durham is vastly overrated.
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Without Aaron Judge, the 2018 Yankees don’t look like the 2018 Yankees
Aaron Judge is the best player on what could be the best team. In Boston, they looked lost without him.
In a letter to his wife—traveling war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn—a lonely, lovesick Ernest Hemingway penned the line, “Since you’ve left, I’ve had hangovers they could name battleships after.”
It’s a deeply romantic yet brooding mindset, a depiction of a man slipping deeper away from himself. Without the center of his universe keeping him centered, all of the rum in Key West can’t right the ship. He’s empty. He’s lost.
It’s a feeling that can’t be faked, but can be shared. After a dark weekend in Boston, the Yankees, like Papa Hemingway, have a tremendous hangover, caught slipping away from who they are. Lost and empty, they need the center of their universe back. They need Aaron Judge.
The fateful weekend in New England, henceforth known as the Boston Massacre II, was on all levels devastating. The pitching was bad, the defense was listless, and the offense decided to skip the trip altogether. The entire team looked uninspired. When the shelling was over and the dust cleared, an angry little ulnar styloid bone decided to step on the Yankees’ heads while they were drowning.
Still feeling pain from the chip fracture in his wrist, Judge couldn’t commit to the original three week recovery timetable set forth by an optimistic Aaron Boone a little over a week ago. The threat of losing Judge for a longer spell during a brutal divisional fight down the stretch is troubling, considering his importance to the team.
The Yankees are 5-7 without Judge in the lineup this season. 10 of those 12 games and six of those losses have come in the past week since his injury. It’s a small sample size, but for a team that’s done an awful lot of winning this year, it’s a startling albeit understandable statistic.
In Judge, the Yankees have a top-five player in the league. Without playing the last nine games, he maintains a 5.0 fWAR. That ranks fifth in MLB, trailing only the incomparable Mike Trout, a rising star in Jose Ramirez, and the maddeningly consistent Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor. His .947 OPS and 26 HR make him a lurking danger in any lineup, but the potency of New York’s power hitters means he’s an almost unavoidable threat.
Though Judge is often touted for his offensive effort (encompassing his base running as he’s no slouch between the bags), he has been the best defensive right fielder in the league this year. His 8.1 UZR is an MLB-best for right fielders, edging out Betts’ 7.9 UZR and miles ahead of the next contender, Max Kepler at 4.8 UZR.
Right field isn’t the most challenging or important position, but Judge has one asset that he can hold above all other outfielders: the English field culverin hanging off his shoulder. Fangraphs’ ARM statistic—measuring the amount of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm—puts Judge’s at a 6.9, an MLB best. It confirms what the eye test already told us, as time after time we’ve seen Judge gun down would-be runs at the plate with ease and bravado.
Judge stands among the baseball elite. There was no question that his absence would sting more in a big Boston series than the absence of Gary Sanchez or J.A. Happ. Make no mistake, the lacking Sanchez effect was present in a big way. The Red Sox spent four days running all over and disrespecting Austin Romine like a rowdy group of toddlers with a new babysitter, but the body language of the team spoke volumes, too. They were a lifeless squad without a leader, defaulting to the posture of a defeatist schlub.
In the dugout, Judge retained his supportive, positive persona. Stuck on the sidelines, however, it seemed to lack its usual impact. It was almost sad to see Judge there, helpless to fight the quicksand his teammates were sliding into. Undoubtedly, he’d rather be with the team in Fenway that rehabbing down in Tampa, but without a bat in his hands, it felt like Rocky fighting Drago with a hand tied behind his back.
Judge has always led by example and the Yankees’ success has mirrored his. In the first half of 2017, Judge was the best hitter in baseball and the Yankees were the best team in baseball. Through July and August, his production fell apart and the Yankees let their division lead disappear. When he regained his footing in September, so did the Yankees. True to form, as his sophomore campaign lived up to the hype, so, too, did the 2018 Yankees.
Six games remain between the Yankees and Red Sox. History be damned, the season is long from over. The next meeting will be in the Bronx and should hopefully feature a Yankee team at full strength, led by their star magistrate in right field. The return of Judge may come too late to salvage a divisional title, but it will certainly re-center the team. Maybe then, the 2018 Yankees will look more like the 2018 Yankees and less like a battleship with a hangover.