As far as contract years go, you could do worse than the one Aaron Judge is having. He was a Triple Crown contender, put up more than double the wins above replacement of the next-best player on his team, and just happened to break Roger Maris’ American League home run record while he was at it. Wherever Judge plays next year, he’s going to get paid.
Not all players are as lucky — or as good — as Judge. Injuries or nerves or just the vagaries of season-to-season adjustments can result in a poor performance during a contract year. Judge’s type of performance is rare — but not completely unprecedented. Sometimes the stars align and a player puts together the kind of season that goes into the record books and secures them a hefty contract. Here’s a short list of other sports greats who got it done when the financial stakes were at their highest.
Barry Bonds, 1992
Bonds had an incredible end to his Pittsburgh Pirates career. He won MVP honors in 1990 and 1992 and was runner-up in 1991. That ’92 season was just a preview of what he would accomplish later, but what a preview: 34 home runs, 109 runs, an OPS of 1.080 and 9.0 B-Ref WAR. He signed a then-record six-year, $43.75 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, and posted an OPS of 1.000 or more in all but one of his 15 seasons with the team. To be fair, that one season was when he was 41 — and his OPS was .999 in it.
Alex Rodriguez, 2000 and 2007
A-Rod had extremely good fortune when it came to his contract years. His 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers raised a number of eyebrows when he first signed it, but in his age-24 season in 2000 with the Seattle Mariners, Rodriguez absolutely destroyed the league. He hit 41 home runs, knocked in 132 runs, scored 134 and had an OPS of 1.026 — all while playing exceptionally well at shortstop. After his trade to the New York Yankees, Rodriguez continued mashing — and in 2007, before his opt-out clause, he had 54 HR, 156 RBI, 143 runs scored and a 1.067 OPS. That was enough to win him MVP — and earn another 10-year contract, this time for $275 million.
CC Sabathia, 2008
One year removed from winning the 2007 Cy Young Award, Sabathia started off 2008 somewhat slowly, going 6-8 with a 3.83 ERA for the Cleveland Guardians. They traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers midway through the season, and he carried them on his back for their first playoff appearance since 1982, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA, including seven complete games. Sabathia signed a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees in the offseason, at the time the biggest contract ever for a pitcher.
Deion Sanders, 1994
It was generally a bad idea to throw the ball anywhere near Sanders, but this was especially so in his one-season cameo with the San Francisco 49ers. Sanders had six interceptions, returning half of them for touchdowns and totaling 303 return yards on the year. That earned him a seven-year, $35 million contract with a $12.999 million signing bonus the next season with the Dallas Cowboys.
Randy Moss, 2007
Defenders were legitimately triple-covering Moss in his legendary 2007 season with the New England Patriots. It didn’t matter. He had 98 receptions, 1,493 yards receiving and an NFL-record 23 receiving touchdowns. Pretty good for a one-year deal. Moss would return to the Patriots on a three-year, $27 million deal with a $12 million signing bonus.
Drew Brees, 2011
There have only been 12 seasons in NFL history where a quarterback has completed more than 70% of his passes. Drew Brees has five of those seasons, including 2011, where he set a then-record of 71.2%. Brees also threw for 46 touchdowns, a then-record 5,476 yards passing, and won the Offensive Player of the Year award. That resulted in a five-year $100 million contract to return to the New Orleans Saints in 2012.
Joe Flacco, 2012
Flacco’s 2012 regular season was decent enough — 59.7 completion percentage, 3,817 yards passing, 22 TDs, 10 INTs. That was enough for the Baltimore Ravens to reach the playoffs, whereupon Flacco became truly elite. He threw for 11 touchdowns and 285 yards per game in leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl win. He was rewarded with a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
Von Miller, 2015
Miller’s 2015 season was brilliant, with 11 sacks. He punctuated this with an unreal playoff run — 2.5 sacks and an interception against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, and then another 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in a Super Bowl MVP-winning performance against the Carolina Panthers. The Denver Broncos placed the franchise tag on Miller and signed him to a six-year, $114.5 million contract.
Shaquille O’Neal, 1995-96
You just need to look at the numbers to get a sense of just how dominant Shaq was in his final season with the Orlando Magic — 26.6 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 2.9 APG and 2.1 BPG. The Los Angeles Lakers gave him a then-record seven-year, $120 million contract, resulting in three straight NBA titles.
LeBron James, 2009-10
Before taking his talents to South Beach, LeBron shot over 50% from the field for the first time in his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He scored 29.7 PPG, had 8.6 APG and pulled down 7.3 RPG. That was enough for his second consecutive MVP season, and a six-year, $110.1 million with the Miami Heat.
Kawhi Leonard, 2018-19
It’s always good to leave on a high note, and what higher note could there be than bringing the Toronto Raptors their first NBA title? That’s what Kawhi Leonard did in 2018-19, leading the team to a 4-2 win over the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. For the season, Leonard had 26.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 3.3 APG. He signed with the Los Angeles Clippers after the season for a three-year, $103 million contract.
Candace Parker, 2020
Parker was a defensive force with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2020, winning Defensive Player of the Year and nearly averaging a double-double (14.7 PPG, 9.7 RPG and 4.6 APG to boot). Parker signed a two-year, $385,000 deal with her hometown Chicago Sky.
Bobby Hull, 1971-72
Hull had 50 goals and 93 points in just 78 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. He went to the newly formed World Hockey Association the next season, signing a 10-year, $1.5 million contract with the Winnipeg Jets.
Johnny Gaudreau, 2021-22
Gaudreau played every single game with the Calgary Flames in 2021-22, scoring 40 goals, racking up 75 assists and leading the league in plus/minus with 64. He signed a seven-year, $68.25 million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the offseason.