Aaron Judge is betting big on himself, again — this time by going to an arbitration hearing with the New York Yankees that starts at noon Friday rather than agreeing to a settlement.
On the eve of this season, Judge turned down a $213.5 million contract offer from the Yankees, choosing instead to leave open the possibility that he could become a free agent this fall. Now, in the midst of the best season of his career and with the arbitration case looming, Judge has taken a similar approach with his 2022 salary. According to sources, the Yankees offered to settle at the midpoint — $19 million. But Judge declined, and is instead aiming for an arbitration victory that officials in both management and the union believe will alter the financial landscape for players in the immediate future.
Arbitration cases are typically adjudicated during the offseason, with players and teams proposing salaries in January and taking those numbers into a hearing in February. But the sport’s recent offseason calendar was obliterated by the owners’ lockout of the players, and so the arbitration cases have spilled over into this season.
Given the unusual timing of this year’s hearings, any evidence generated after the start of the 2022 season cannot be presented by either the Yankees or Judge’s representatives; the three-person panel cannot consider any production from this year. That Judge is on pace to become the first player in more than two decades to reach 60 homers, has an OPS of over 1,000 this year and is the likely front-runner for the AL MVP, is supposed to be irrelevant in the arguments, which are expected to last anywhere from four to five hours over Zoom, with Judge in cyber-attendance.
Before the COVID pandemic, hearings were held with all of the principles in the same room — club officials, the player and his representatives, the arbitrators — and often, cases were settled through informal conversations either before the proceedings, or during breaks. But that type of side-by-side dialogue can’t occur in this setting.
The arbiters are also not supposed to consider the relative success or failure of either management or the union in the 2022 cases — although in past years, officials on both sides have suspected that the overall numbers have had at least some bearing on decisions. Per AP, teams have won nine of the 13 cases so far this year.
Judge, 30, has been paid at a prorated salary based on the Yankees’ $17 million offer. If he should prevail in the case and be paid $21 million for this year, the team would be obligated to reimburse him with the back pay — to date, an accumulation of $1.65 million.
Judge’s injury history greatly complicates his case. When he has been on the field, he has been one of the majors’ best players. In his first full season of 2017, he played 155 games and clubbed 52 homers, scored 128 runs, won the AL Rookie of the Year and finished second to the Astros’ Jose Altuve in the MVP voting.
But Judge missed 142 games in the 2018-2020 seasons, with a range of injuries. Playing 148 games in 2021, Judge returned to preeminence, finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting.
Judge made close to minimum wage his first three full seasons in the majors, and in his first pass through arbitration in 2020, his salary was pegged at $8.5 million (although he didn’t make nearly that much, with the MLB season limited to 60 games by COVID). Judge’s salary was $10.175 million in 2021, and the Yankees offered a raise of nearly $7 million this year. Judge’s side proposed a salary more than double what he made last year.
If the Judge prevails, it will be considered a major victory for the players’ association because of how it could impact future cases of players who have lost significant time to injury.