Contract years are legend in sports. Professional athletes on the precipice of hitting the open free agency market sometimes find a whole new level of play buried within themselves, only able to unlock it through the promise of an exorbitant salary come season's end. Which brings us to the core of this post: did Aaron Judge put up the greatest contract year of all time in 2022?
Judge negotiated extensively with the New York Yankees last offseason and the team's final offer was a seven-year, $213.5 million contract. That's a lot of money, to be sure, but it's not top-tier superstar money. By refusing to go higher, the franchise was essentially telling its homegrown slugger that they believe he's a great player but not one of the best in the league. That he didn't deserve a deal as big as his teammate, Gerrit Cole, or a contract on par with other players of his ilk that stretched for more years and worth more money annually.
Judge apparently took that personally. He turned down the deal, went to arbitration, and bet on himself. Then all he did was break an AL record over a half-century old and establish himself as not only one of the best hitters in all of baseball, but one of the best in baseball history by hitting 62 home runs in a single year (and counting!). It is not unrealistic to think that Judge earned himself an extra $100 million or even more by doing so. Judge's starting point for negotiations this winter will be $300 million. Given he'll be hitting the open market, he'll probably end up with a deal worth even more.
It's hard to think of anybody in recent sports history putting forth a greater record in a contract year. There are plenty of examples scattered over the last decade of guys who previously hadn't shown much suddenly becoming good players on the eve of getting a new deal, then regressing back to their average play once the check cashes. But it's quite rare to see a player everyone already sees as great to enter a contract year and elevate their play to historic levels. Mostly because those kinds of players never enter contract years. Teams lock them up as soon as they're able. The Yankees did not. And it is going to cost them big-time.
The closest thing to what Judge is doing this year might be 2007 Randy Moss. Moss was incredible early in his career and then put forth a couple years' worth of subpar efforts because he was on a bad team in a city he didn't want to be in. He was traded to the Patriots and renegotiated his contract so that he was on a one-year deal. Moss then broke the NFL single-season touchdown receptions record as part of the greatest offense in NFL history. It led to a new $27 million contract and $12 million guaranteed. It was a remarkable career turnaround given his age and how close he was to being out of the league entirely. But the dollar amount that Moss earned with his own historic contract year obviously pales in comparison to what Judge is going to get. No one player has elevated their value more with one single incredible year.
It's difficult to compare given how MLB salaries have ballooned for players of Judge's quality over the last decade, in fairness. But we can appreciate the greatness through a simple lens: with everything on the line, Judge put forth a season the likes of which we haven't seen in decades. It may be even longer before we see someone replicate his feat. And we probably won't see anybody do anything like this ever again in a contract year.
Judge is going to become an obscenely rich man in a few months. He's earned every penny. And his 2022 season will go down as the greatest contract year in sports history.