The top hitter in Major League Baseball this season also should be recognized as one of the league's most improved players.
Already among the elite sluggers coming into the 2022 season, New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge has made a leap into legendary company by improving his offensive output by about 40%.
Judge, who came into action Monday night leading the American League in the Triple Crown categories, batting .314/.421/.697 with 128 RBIs and 60 home runs — one short of tying Yankees legend Roger Maris in 1961 for the American League record. He could break the record in his next game, and he could be named AL MVP later. But we already know, by using the metric Weighted Runs Created Plus, that Judge is having the seventh-best offensive season in history since the league integrated.
MLB's most improved: Pitchers in 2022
Found at FanGraphs, wRC+ attempts to quantify a player's total offensive value and measure it by using runs — while also comparing it to league average and accounting for park effects. If you want to know who the best hitter is (or the 300th best), check wRC+. Judge, at 209 wRC+, is 109% better at the plate than league average, and is 40% better than the 149 wRC+ he put up in 2021.
In the larger context of history, only three individuals since 1947 — Barry Bonds, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle — have performed better than Judge in a single season as measured by wRC+. Bonds, who owns the three top seasons, was at his best in 2002, when he put up a 244 wRC+.
|Player, Team, Year||wRC+||AVG||OBP||SLG||HR||RBI||PA|
|1. Barry Bonds, Giants, 2002||244||.370||.582||.799||46||110||612|
|2. Barry Bonds, Giants, 2001||235||.328||.515||.863||73||137||664|
|3. Barry Bonds, Giants, 2004||233||.362||.609||.812||45||101||617|
|4. Ted Williams, Red Sox, 1957||223||.388||.526||.731||38||87||546|
|5. Mickey Mantle, Yankees, 1957||217||.365||.512||.665||34||94||623|
|6. Barry Bonds, Giants, 2003||212||.341||.529||.749||45||90||550|
|7. * Aaron Judge, Yankees, 2022||209||.314||.421||.697||60||128||657|
|8. Ted Williams, Red Sox, 1954||207||.345||.513||.635||29||89||526|
|9. Ted Wiliams, Red Sox, 1947||207||.343||.499||.634||32||114||693|
|10. Frank Thomas, White Sox, 1994||205||.353||.487||.729||38||101||517|
|10. Mark McGwire, Cardinals, 1998||205||.299||.470||.752||70||147||681|
* Season still in progress. Statistics through Sept. 26
It could be argued that Judge making a leap from great to legendary qualifies him for Most Improved Player, even though his percentage increase isn't the largest. Among those who have at least 300 plate appearances this season, the biggest improvement belongs to Seattle Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh, (118 wRC+), who is hitting .207/.283/.482 with 25 homers. Raleigh's batting average and on-base percentage don't rank highly on any list, but he's still doing 150% better than a year ago when he batted .180/.223/.309 with just two home runs in 148 plate appearances. Although we're not focusing on defense, Raleigh was strong behind the plate as a rookie and ranks third at Fielding Bible in Total Runs Saved among catchers. He's one of the top defensive players in the league too.
Among the 15 or so best hitters in the league this season, Cleveland Guardians infielder Andrés Giménez combines the biggest yearly improvement with elite stats. He's batting .303/.375/.482 with 17 home runs and 19 stolen bases, which is 96% better via wRC+ (145) than his 2021 performance in 201 plate appearances as a rookie. Giménez has been better than Rafael Devers of the Boston Red Sox, teammate José Ramírez and Vladimir Guerrero of the Toronto Blue Jays, to name examples. Like Raleigh, he's also ranked 11th at Fielding Bible in Total Runs Saved among all infielders.
Giménez having a complete season is one of the biggest reasons the Guardians are headed to the playoffs. Not to be overlooked, teammate Josh Naylor recovered from a horrible leg injury and improved 30% at the plate in his fourth season.
|1. Aaron Judge, Yankees||209||149||+40%||657|
|2. Yordan Álvarez, Astros||184||136||+35%||536|
|3. Eloy Jiménez, White Sox||153||100||+53%||303|
|4. Nolan Arenado, Cardinals||152||113||+35%||603|
|5. Andrés Giménez, Guardians||145||74||+96%||527|
|6. Yandy Diaz, Rays||145||111||+96%||527|
|7. Albert Pujols, Cardinals||141||89||+58%||333|
|8. William Contreras, Braves||136||86||+58%||349|
|9. Jeff McNeil, Mets||136||93||+46%||558|
|10. Joc Pederson, Giants||135||95||+42%||404|
|11. Eugenio Suárez, Mariners||134||84||+60%||594|
|12. Harold Ramírez, Rays||128||90||+42%||405|
|13. Isaac Paredes, Rays||127||73||+74%||351|
|14. Travis d'Arnaud, Braves||124||78||+59%||403|
|15. Jake McCarthy, Dbacks||124||95||+31%||317|
|16. Christian Walker, Dbacks||122||87||+40%||631|
|17. Gavin Lux, Dodgers||121||90||+34%||443|
|18. Cal Raleigh, Mariners||118||47||+150%||396|
|19. Nick Gordon, Twins||117||79||+48%||408|
|20. Josh Naylor, Guardians||117||90||+30%||472|
|21. Luis Rengifo, Angels||108||49||+120%||471|
|22. Elvis Andrus, White Sox||106||74||+43%||538|
|23. Alec Bohm, Phillies||104||76||+37%||591|
|24. Ha-Seong Kim, Padres||103||70||+47%||548|
|25. Jonah Heim, Rangers||99||59||+68%||436|
Minimum 99 wRC+ in 2021. Minimum 300 plate appearances in 2022. Stats through Sept. 26.
Players aren't supposed to get nearly 60% better when they're about to turn 43 years old, but that's what has happened with St. Louis Cardinals legend Albert Pujols, who is batting .264/.336/.524 with 21 home runs — just enough to push him into the 700-homer club in his final season before retirement. After being well below average for five years, Pujols' 141 wRC+ in 333 plate appearances is his best since 2011 and, amazingly, equals his career average.
Pujols has been so good (mostly against left-handed pitching), he's made his results look typical of his career. The only other player on this list kind of like Pujols is Elvis Andrus, who turned up his game at age 34 once the Chicago White Sox picked him up from Oakland's discard pile in late August. It certainly wasn't his fault the White Sox failed to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
|1. Cal Raleigh, Mariners||+150%|
|2. Luis Rengifo, Angels||+120%|
|3. Andrés Giménez, Guardians||+96%|
|4. Isaac Paredes, Rays||+74%|
|5. Jonah Heim, Rangers||+68%|
|6. Eugenio Suárez, Mariners||+60%|
|7. Travis d'Arnaud, Braves||+59%|
|8. Albert Pujols, Cardinals||+58%|
|9. William Contreras, Braves||+58%|
|10. Eloy Jiménez, White Sox||+53%|
Among players who struggled over a full season in 2021, nobody has improved more than infielder Eugenio Suárez of the Seattle Mariners. Suárez ranked No. 34 out of 234 qualified hitters in wRC+ from 2017 to 2019, but he fell to league average in 2020 before dropping to 125th of 132 a year ago, right behind Isiah Kiner-Falefa. This season, Suárez improved to .235/.335/.470 with 31 home runs, a 60% rise.
Others who have produced big seasons in the past but fell off a year ago — Joc Pederson of the San Francisco Giants, Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets, Christian Walker of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Travis d'Arnaud of the Atlanta Braves — also were among the larger improvers this season.
The other big gainers in wRC+ look like a cross-section of MLB talent.
Infielder Luis Rengifo of the Los Angeles Angels is batting .273/.302/.439 with 15 homers in 471 plate appearances, an improvement of 120%. Rengifo was 51% below average a year ago.
Other breakthrough bats include second-year Braves catcher William Contreras, Gavin Lux of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Harold Ramírez and Isaac Paredes of the Tampa Bay Rays and Nick Gordon of the Minnesota Twins. Catcher Jonah Heim of the Texas Rangers ascended to league average at the plate, but he was the fifth-highest improver at 68%. Ha-Seong Kim of the San Diego Padres, Alec Bohm of the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona's Jake McCarthy made big improvements in their second seasons.
In another corner, Yordan Álvarez of the Houston Astros and Nolan Arenado of the Cardinals are two of the more established great players in the league — but they also both have improved 35% over a season ago. Only Judge is having a more potent season at the plate than Álvarez, who is batting .303/.407/.614 with 37 home runs in 536 plate appearances for a 184 wRC+. Arenado is a top NL MVP candidate in having his finest season at the plate to date, batting .299/.370/.537 with 30 home runs without the advantage of playing half of his games at Coors Field. Yandy Díaz of the Rays is another consistently strong performer who has made a big jump this season.
A few others who didn't make the cut because of small samples nonetheless got better. Matt Carpenter had several down and injury-plagued seasons before helping Judge carry the Yankees for a few weeks. Carpenter improved by 209% over 2021, batting .305/.412/.727 with 15 home runs in 154 plate appearances. Keston Hiura also rediscovered his stroke for the Milwaukee Brewers, and Jazz Chisholm of the Miami Marlins was 43% better than a season ago before injuries put him out until 2023.
Be sure to check back Thursday for the Most Improved Pitchers in MLB in 2022.