BOSTON — Within the rivalry, there have always been rivalries. They are the mini-dramas that help sustain this nearly century-old play known as Yankees-Red Sox. Even when the teams don’t finish 1-2 in the standings, a phenomenon that has occurred only 19 times through the 98 seasons since Babe Ruth switched sides, debates have raged over Joe DiMaggio vs. Ted Williams, Thurman Munson vs. Carlton Fisk, Don Mattingly vs. Wade Boggs, Derek Jeter vs. Nomar Garciaparra, Roger Clemens vs. Pedro Martinez, Robinson Cano vs. Dustin Pedroia, Alex Rodriguez vs. David Ortiz, and on and on.
And now, regardless of where the second half of the season takes them, the Yanks and Sox are waging another individual competition. Look out at right field in Fenway Park on Sunday night and you will see them, the pre-eminent power hitter in the game and one of the most dynamic all-around players, this season’s early favorite for American League MVP and last year’s runner-up.
Just how giant is Home Run Derby champion Aaron Judge?
We stacked some of this year’s MLB All-Stars — as well as some recognizable names from the NFL and NBA — against the Yankees’ 6-foot-7, 282-pound rookie right fielder.
Who ya got?
“Wow. Very tough choice,” a longtime National League scout said. “I’d love to be selfish and have both.”
Sorry. This isn’t the All-Star Game, when acting AL manager Brad Mills moved Betts to center field to accommodate both him and Judge in the starting lineup. It’s our question and our rules, and during the past few days, ESPN.com asked a half-dozen talent evaluators — two AL executives, three NL scouts and one AL scout — which star right fielder they would rather have.
The result: three votes for Judge, three votes for Betts. A split decision. Go figure.
“Both players are exciting and will have long careers,” said a third AL executive who remained largely noncommittal. “There is probably higher risk with Judge due to his height. Pitchers may find holes at some point. But at the same time, there is clearly huge upside.”
A year ago — even five months ago — this wasn’t a conversation. Betts had blossomed into a full-fledged superstar, putting together a 2016 season in which he batted .318 with 42 doubles, 31 homers, 113 RBIs, 26 steals, an .897 OPS and 32 defensive runs saved, more than any player at any position, according to Baseball Info Solutions. While Betts was worth 7.8 wins above replacement, second in the AL to eventual MVP Mike Trout, Judge was in Triple-A until mid-August. After the Yankees called him up, he hit .179 with four homers and 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats, a staggering lack of contact that left Judge to compete for a job when he arrived in spring training in February.
But this has been the Season of Judge. He had 30 home runs at the All-Star break, the most since Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis bashed 37 by the midpoint of the 2013 season. Between the enormity of his stature (6-foot-7, 282 pounds) and the sheer force with which he hits a baseball, Judge has become a New York celebrity with his own aptly named rooting section, the “Judge’s Chambers,” in right field at Yankee Stadium. And his profile rose to even greater heights during the All-Star festivities after he won the Home Run Derby and was described by commissioner Rob Manfred as a player “who can become the face of the game,” potential that has also been affixed to Betts over the past year.
Judge is a classic slugger, to be sure. But in watching him play, one is struck by how nimble and athletic he looks in the outfield. The rookie also has a sharp eye at the plate. Although Judge entered the All-Star break on a 205-strikeout pace, he also was leading the league with 61 walks and a .448 on-base percentage.
Yet in our survey, the talent evaluators who chose Judge pointed to his prodigious power at a time when there is a spike in the number of homers being hit across the game.
“He has gotten shorter and quicker with his swing, more selective and disciplined,” said one of the NL scouts who chose Judge over Betts. “I understand that Dave Winfield has really helped him, as they are similarly tall and great athletes. Winfield talked to him about not striking out as much and thinking about RBIs, not home runs.”
Added the AL scout: “I would lean Judge because the power and the RBI potential are special. My only question is whether Judge will maintain as he goes through the league more and pitchers get a book on him.”
Indeed, that’s the biggest X factor in all of this. Judge’s 57-homer pace might not be sustainable, especially if teams pitch around him more often late in the season. But can he be a consistent 40-homer hitter, or will his performance drop off? After all, according to Baseball-Reference.com, just nine players who were 6-foot-6 or taller hit at least 100 career home runs — Winfield and players’ union chief Tony Clark are among them.
Betts doesn’t have that problem. He’s 10 inches shorter and nearly 100 pounds lighter than Judge. But thanks to his lightning-quick hands and the warp speed with which his bat whistles through the hitting zone, he generates more power than most players his size.
There’s also a longer track record with Betts, who made his major league debut in 2014 and hit .291 with 18 homers and 21 steals in 2015, his first full season in the big leagues. And with 29 doubles, 16 homers and 16 steals at the All-Star break, he’s on the short list of MVP candidates again.
“I’ll take Betts all day every day,” said one of the NL scouts. “Just a total player where the other guy is more of a power type. I think [Judge’s] batting average will go down. You strike out that much, it always does. Betts is a better outfielder, better hitter, better baserunner. Also less chance of getting hurt with a smaller body than a 275-pound guy.”
Said another NL scout: “Betts for me. I love the Judge, but he’ll be pitched to tougher. Still impact power, but Mookie can beat you in every phase of the game.”
Asked if Betts has any weaknesses, the second NL scout said, “I’ve stopped looking for any.”
Betts, who doesn’t turn 25 until October, is actually six months younger than Judge. He also will be more expensive over the next few seasons, as one of the AL executives noted. Because of their service time, both are being grossly underpaid this season (Betts is making $950,000, Judge $544,500). But Betts is eligible for salary arbitration after this season and likely will see his salary soar into the eight-figure realm. Judge, meanwhile, won’t be arbitration-eligible until after the 2019 season.
Still, the executive chose Betts.
“Given the track record of Betts and positional value that likely tracks better during the aging curve, I’d lean in his direction slightly,” the AL executive said. “There’s clearly more upside in Judge if he keeps up this pace and retains such elite value for a longer term of control. But if I had to take one tomorrow, I’d take Betts.”
One thing is for certain: Judge vs. Betts is the next rivalry within the rivalry, the latest star vs. star comparison that will cause fans of the Yankees and Red Sox to bicker for years, regardless of where the teams sit in the standings.
“They are different impact superstars that have plus game-impacting tools offensively and defensively,” one of the NL scouts said. “I think whoever you put No. 1 or 2, they’re both franchise players to build a team around. I wish I had to make that decision.”