Aaron Judge is back with the Yankees, and all is right with the world.
It's the place where he just set an AL record (and some would argue a major-league record) with 62 home runs and a place where we know he's built to thrive. And as such, it should make the masses think much harder about selecting him No. 1 overall.
For me, there was never a doubt. Judge was far and away the No. 1 player in every scoring format last year and has special distinction among power hitters at a time when power is becoming much harder to come by. It's less about the number 62, which he's of course unlikely to repeat by the nature of it being historic, than the number 16, the gap between him and the second-place home run finisher, Kyle Schwarber.
Quite simply, I think it's legit. From the time he broke in with 52 home runs as a rookie in 2017, Judge has been an outlier in terms of how hard he impacts the ball, placing in the highest percentile for average exit velocity every single year. Injuries were the only reason he wasn't able to follow up on that 52-homer season (until this past one, of course).
His unmatched quality of contact is how he was able to overcome an exorbitant strikeout rate early in his career, and it matters more than ever in a post-juiced ball landscape where everyone has to hit the ball that much harder to get it out. What could flippantly be called wasted effort from Judge before is now an essential skill, and it makes him the one player in this environment that you could reasonably predict to hit 50 home runs.
Aaron Judge RF
NYY N.Y. Yankees • #99 • Age: 31
That's a far cry from 62, yes, but it still would have led the majors. And let's consider also that Judge is a more complete player than when he hit those 52 home runs in 2017. The strikeouts rate isn't exorbitant anymore. For the second straight year, it clocked in at a respectable 25 percent, leading to a .311 batting average. He also stole 16 bases. As with the 62 home runs, I don't know that we can bank on Judge repeating either number, but a .290 batting average and double-digit steals both seem like reasonable bets.
In points leagues, end of argument, but I understand that in 5x5 scoring, you may feel pressured to take a big base-stealer with your first pick, as has become conventional in recent years. But that was when home runs were on the rise (because of the juiced ball) and stolen bases were on the decline. You were responding to scarcities in a way that made sense at the time. Now, it's the home runs that are on the decline, and judging by some of the rule changes set to take effect in 2023, stolen bases could soon be on the rise.
The most significant of those rule changes is that pickoff attempts will be limited to two per at-bat. Runners will be emboldened to entice two throws and then take a big lead thereafter. Stolen base numbers have spiked in the minors with these same rule changes, and the league itself estimates that stolen base rates will return to levels not seen in 20-plus years. I think they could increase by even more than that.
So with apologies to Trea Turner, Jose Ramirez, Julio Rodriguez or any other base-stealer who you might consider taking No. 1 overall, I ultimately think Judge's power will be the bigger differentiator. It was in 2022 -- and by a big enough margin that it won't take a full repeat. When you factor in everything else Judge brings to the table (in contrast to, say, Schwarber), I actually think 45 home runs would be enough to justify the first pick.
So will his return to the Yankees make Judge the consensus choice at the top? I suspect not, at least not in standard 5x5 scoring, but it should help to relieve whatever doubts folks have had about him. He'll remain my choice, as he would have if he signed with the Giants or someone else.