With the MLB season just barely past the halfway point, the answer to the above headline is obviously “no.” Judge could go down with a season-ending injury (dear god, if that happens, please don’t send me hate mail); Mike Trout could come back better than ever and lead the Angels to a miraculous playoff spot; or the Yankees could fade away from the playoff landscape and voters could do that thing they do where they refuse to acknowledge the best player in baseball because his team didn’t make the postseason.
That being said, Judge (as you surely know) is doing crazy things this season. He leads all hitters by over 1.0 wins by FanGraphs WAR, and if the season ended today, he would win the AL Triple Crown. He just set the Yankee rookie record for home runs and, again, we’re not even at the All-Star break yet. He’s been the biggest story in baseball in recent memory, and he’s single-handedly putting baseball back on the map for some of the sport’s fans who have been dormant in recent years.
Before we take a more historical look at some context for Judge’s dominance, let’s have a little fun with rest-of-season projections.
The below table has three potential 2017 totals, based on three possibilities: Judge continues at his current pace, he plays at the level ZiPS projects in its most recent update, or he plays at the pace he displayed in his 27 games from 2016.
Judge’s rest of season possibilities
There’s basically a best-case scenario, reasonable-case scenario, and worst (non-injury) case scenario. It’s hard to imagine Judge slipping back to his habits from 2016 that caused him to sport a 44.2 percent strikeout rate and 60.2 percent contact rate. Both of those figures have improved significantly, and as a 25-year-old learning the league, it’s fair to give him the benefit of the doubt. On the flip side of that, it’s hard to imagine Judge keeping up his insane 2017 pace for the entire season (though not quite as difficult as the slumping version). His hypothetical pace would be the best season from a hitter (non-Trout division) since arguably prime Barry Bonds, and depending on where you come down on PEDs and the value of WAR, you could go back a really long way trying to find comparable seasons.
Of course, the top and bottom results are the extremes. The middle row, his adjusted projections are the most likely outcome, and those would likely be enough to win Judge an MVP, given Trout’s aforementioned injury. A large-market slugger with a .300 batting average, 45+ homers, and well over 100 runs and RBI (and over 7 WAR, for the stat-savvy voter) — that would be hard to deny.
That being said, the click-baity title of this article dealt with whether Judge had already locked up the MVP. Now, that was not implying that Judge could take an early vacation, leaving the second half of the season unplayed, and still walk away with the award. Instead, I want to see if there is any historical precedent for a player having the type of first half that Judge is currently having while not going on to win the MVP. With that in mind, let’s dive into the FanGraphs Splits Leaderboard and see what we can learn.
Since 2000, there have been only 11 players (min. 130 plate appearances) who finished the first half of the season with a wRC+ of 198 or better (Judge sits at 198 through Wednesday’s game). Here they are:
Best First Halves
A few things stand out. For as amazing as Judge has been, there are actually two players just this season with better first-half wRC+ figures than him. That’s incredible. Now, both Mike Trout and Freddie Freeman have missed time due to injury, making Judge’s wRC+ actually more impressive, and that’s why I wanted to use WAR as the determining factor (and thus account for playing time). Unfortunately, neither FanGraphs nor Baseball-Reference appear to have first-half/second-half WAR splits right now, so wRC+ it is.
The smaller plate appearance total for Trout and Freeman actually leads nicely to our next observation: Of the nine, non-2017 players to post a better first-half wRC+ than Judge, five of them still failed to win the MVP. However, of those five, three were dealing with significantly lower time played in the first half than Judge. Hanley Ramirez (2013), Matt Kemp (2012), and Manny Ramirez (2009) all hit extremely well in the first half, but they had about 200 fewer plate appearances of hitting at this torrid pace than Judge has already racked up.
I could have simply set the plate appearance minimum at 210 and eliminated a bit of the flotsam, but I wanted to leave those players on the list to illustrate the point that Judge could still hit well in the second half, but if he doesn’t stay healthy, it won’t matter. It was also interesting to see Trout and Freeman both show up with their 2017 efforts.
Now, let’s shift our focus to the six who are not from 2017 and also crossed the 200 plate appearance threshold, who are probably the best comps for Judge. Of those six, there are four MVP wins (Barry Bonds with two, Bryce Harper with one, Miguel Cabrera with one). The two who failed to win an MVP (2011 Jose Bautista and 2005 Derek Lee) both finished third, and for the sake of this article are truly the most interesting and deserving of a deeper look. Both players hit better than Aaron Judge in the first half, over a similar number of PAs, but both failed to walk home with the MVP, thus answering this article’s headline with a resounding “no.” So what was the deal with these two seasons?
2011 Jose Bautista
Bautista was absolutely demolishing the ball in the first half of 2011. He was slashing .334/.468/.702 with 31 bombs and 138 RuBIns (runs+RBI) in the first half of the season. Those numbers look eerily similar to Judge’s 2017 first half. Here’s a quick side-by-side:
Judge and Bautista side by side
The only stat perceptibly different is the on-base percentage, and even there it’s not too far off.
For Judge, this is the depressing case study. Bautista didn’t get hurt in the second half, but his numbers fell off considerably, still hitting 12 homers, but slashing just .257/.419/.477 in the second half. His end-of-season slash line was still impressive (.302/.447/.608), but Justin Verlander’s 24 wins and Jacoby Ellsbury’s 32 homers and 39 steals (awww, remember when Ellsbury was good?) were enough to relegate Bautista to third in the AL MVP vote.
2005 Derek Lee
While Bautista hit a bit of a brick wall in the second half of 2011, Lee ran into a bit of a brick Pujols. Lee didn’t slow down too much in the second half of 2005 — he still hit .287 with 19 homers and an OPS of .960 — but this was the era of Peak Pujols, and there wasn’t much a player could do to top Peak Pujols. The Cardinals first baseman finished the season with 41 homers, 246 RuBIns, and 8.4 WAR (although voters were most certainly not using WAR in 2005). It was the right decision, but a harsh one for Lee, who undoubtedly had the best season of quite a strong career. (If Andruw Jones had been the one to defeat Lee for the award — he finished second — it would have been a much closer decision, but Pujols was able to prevent that potential debate from ever happening.)
This is where I will end by pointing out one (big) advantage Judge has on Lee. There is no Albert Pujols in the American League in 2017. I mean, there is literally Albert Pujols in the American League in 2017, but not the Peak Pujols with which Lee had to contend. There is Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, but he will have missed at least 45 games by the end of the season — a massive and probably insurmountable gap, even for a player as incredible as Trout.
Right now, Judge has an over 1.0 fWAR gap over the next best player in the AL (Mookie Betts), and while Betts could certainly shrink that gap by season’s end (especially with a few more eight-RBI games), if Judge is able to finish 2017 with that middle row from above, it’s hard to imagine Betts, Trout, or anyone else topping him in the MVP vote.
There is obviously tons of time left in the season. The narrative could change plenty between now and October. But there’s certainly not a lot of historical precedent for a player producing at the level Judge has in 2017 — and in the league environment Judge enjoys right now — and not being a heavy, heavy favorite to collect some serious hardware by season’s end.
(P.S. Dear Yankee fans, I’m so sorry for the severe curse I just placed on your favorite player. You may indeed feel free to blame me if/when he doesn’t win the AL MVP.)
Stats current through the games of June 5.
Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay, Call to the Pen, RotoBaller, and Insider Baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @FantasyBaseTurv.