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Aaron Judge's Pursuit of Yankees History Should Be Taken Seriously

Zachary D. RymerMay 25, 2022

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 23:  Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees follows through on his fifth inning two run home run against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on May 23, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

We're a quarter of the way through the 2022 Major League Baseball season, and Aaron Judge continues to make it impossible to look away from him.

Really the only thing that's changed is the focus of the attention on Judge. Back on Opening Day, it was on his unsuccessful contract negotiations with the New York Yankees. Now it's where it rightfully belongs: on all the baseballs that he's pulverizing.

After collecting what's already his fourth multi-home run game of the season Monday, the 6'7", 282-pound right fielder's home run tally stands at a league-leading 17 through 41 games. No other hitter has more than 12 home runs.

This, folks, may be Yankees franchise history in the making:

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A hot start to the season puts Aaron Judge among some elite company 🔥👀 <a href="https://t.co/kkf1FnEPNg">pic.twitter.com/kkf1FnEPNg</a>

If it seems like someone is missing here, you're probably thinking of Roger Maris' 1961 season.

That would be the one in which he didn't record his 17th home run until the Yankees' 49th game on June 7. He nonetheless went on to hit 61 homers, topping Babe Ruth's 60 from 1927 to claim the major league record for home runs in a single season.

Maris' 61 blasts from '61 still stand as the Yankees' club record for a season. And because both shot way past Maris in the thick of MLB's Steroid Era, some will argue that neither Mark McGwire's 70 home runs from 1998 nor Barry Bonds' 73 from 2001 represent the "true" home run record for all of Major League Baseball. 

We'll get to that, but first things first. If we're going to dive into the possibility of Judge matching or even surpassing Maris, we must begin by acknowledging that the merits of his pursuit are nothing if not compelling.


How Judge Is Chasing Maris

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 23:  Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees follows through on his first inning home run against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on May 23, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

There might be someone out there who knows nothing about Judge but is aware of everything else about what's going on in baseball in 2022. If so, they're probably very confused by how one guy could be hitting so many home runs in a season like this one.

It's no secret that home runs are way down after spiking to record-setting levels between 2017 and 2021. This isn't coincidental. The only ball in circulation is the one that MLB intentionally deadened ahead of the '21 campaign, and there are also humidors at every stadium now. Previously, only 10 stadiums had them.

Because of these factors, Judge is working at a disadvantage relative to his first six seasons with the Yankees, across which he hit 158 home runs over 572 games.

Relative to the one Maris played in back in 1961, however, Judge actually has a slight leg up in this season's home run-hitting environment:

  • 1961: 0.95 HR/G
  • 2022: 0.99 HR/G

As for how Judge is also ahead of Maris' pace from '61, I covered the basics less than two weeks ago. The big one is that Judge is hitting the ball really hard, relative to his own lofty standards. His average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and barrel rate are higher than ever, and he even has more expected home runs (18.2) than actual home runs.

I also touched on Judge's swing decisions, but perhaps inadequately in retrospect. Whereas I focused on how Judge has been taking wiser hacks at breaking balls, Yankees ace Gerrit Cole hinted at a more holistic approach with these comments to reporters on Monday:

“Sometimes I feel like he’s salivating for something, gets it, and drills it. And sometimes I feel like he’s just being a good baseball player, staying up the middle, and drills it the same way. Not all the things are going his way; he’s not looking for slug all the time. He’s just putting better swings than guys are throwing. He’s just—better.”

The telling part here is Cole's perspective on how Judge is "putting better swings than guys are throwing." A telling illustration is this home run off Chicago White Sox reliever Kendall Graveman from Sunday, in which Judge turned on a 97 mph sinker that was running in on his hands:

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In no way, shape or form was that a bad pitch by Graveman. Even setting aside its velocity and movement, it was in a good location to boot—inside, but not too inside.

Judge is seeing more pitches like that in 2022, with 44.5 percent of all pitchers' offerings to him ending up in the "shadow" of the strike zone. It's to his credit that he's adjusted accordingly, as 3.9 percent of his swings in the "shadow" area are producing home runs.

That may not sound like much, but it's twice as high as the 1.9 percent of shadow swings that Judge turned into home runs when he launched a then-rookie-record 52 long balls in 2017. In essence, he's now twice as good at hitting pitchers' pitches.

That effectively leaves pitchers without a safe way to try to get Judge out. And lest anyone is thinking that pitchers should just start walking him more often, the complication there is similar to that of just putting Maris on in '61.

Just as Maris was protected by Mickey Mantle that year, Judge has Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton backing him up this year. Protection like that could explain why Judge is seeing more pitches in the strike zone and taking fewer walks than he did in 2021.


Let's Not Bicker About MLB's 'True' Home Run Record

New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris poses at Yankee Stadium on the final day of the regulars season, Oct. 1, 1961, with a jersey indicating he hit his 61st home run, breaking Babe Ruth's single-season record. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

If Judge ultimately does best Maris' club record of 61 home runs, he might have at least one teammate in his corner willing to argue that he should also be crowned the new single-season home run king for MLB.

This is assuming that Giancarlo Stanton's mind hasn't changed from 2017. As he was pursuing his own 60-homer season for the Miami Marlins that year, Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel asked Stanton if he believed that Maris' 61 homers from 1961 was baseball's legitimate home run record and got an interesting response.

"Considering some things, I do," Stanton said, adding: "But at the same time, it doesn't matter. The record is the record. But, personally, I do [think 61 is the record]."

A bit self-serving, perhaps, but certainly not an unpopular opinion.

The anger that people still feel toward McGwire, Bonds and other steroid-era stars isn't exclusive to fans. Hall of Famers don't want confirmed or suspected juicers in Cooperstown, and the voters have been eminently willing to oblige. Neither McGwire nor Bonds got voted in despite their obviously worthy statistical credentials.

Yet, at least until Bonds' 73 and McGwire's 70—not to mention McGwire's 65 from 1999 and each of Sammy Sosa's 60-homer seasons from 1998, 1999 and 2001—are officially stricken from the record, all this is academic. So, too, is any discussion about asterisks.

As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports argued in the wake of Stanton's comments, you could hypothetically put an asterisk next to any home run record. Indeed, Maris' record did have an asterisk for decades on account of how he benefited from a longer season (162 games) than Ruth (154 games) when he hit 60 in '27.

Meanwhile, Ruth played against only seven other teams in a non-integrated era. 

There's perhaps an argument that Judge doesn't have any notable advantages in this year's pursuit. In addition to the ball-related challenges, there's the reality that basically every pitcher throws over 95 mph and also that he rarely gets to see the same pitcher more than twice in a given day.

The counter-argument here is that Judge is playing in the thick of baseball's information age and all the benefits that come with it. He has access to all the videos and scouting reports that he could ask for. His improvement against shadow pitches, for example, might not be an intuitive adjustment but a deliberate one based on the data.

So rather than go on about what the "true" or "real" home run records are, this matter is best kept simple. By chasing Maris' 61 home runs, Judge is pursuing the Yankees' single-season record. And that's good enough.

No, seriously. It really is.

Even setting aside the other things—27 World Series championships, etc.—that make the Yankees special, no team has ever dingered like them. Not by a long shot, as the club's 16,594 home runs are 1,894 more than any other team.

That's not because the Yankees have been around longer than most teams. It's because a lot of great home run hitters have come through the Bronx over the years. To claim this particular franchise's single-season home run record is to claim one of the great prizes in all of baseball.


Besides, Maris Isn't the Only Yankee Great Judge Is Pursuing

Babe Ruth the Yankee slugger, photographed as he smacked out his first home run in the Yanks, athletics game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, April 12, 1932. Ruth Garnered two homeruns and Gehrig also poled two four hits as the yanks defeated the athletic. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

Far be it from me to suggest that a hitter's OPS+ is as sexy as his home run count, but Judge's 211 OPS+ is still worth a good, long gander.

It may only be the second-best mark in baseball, but it puts him in rarefied air the likes of which only three Yankees have ever breathed before him: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle.

It perhaps goes without saying that Judge has his work cut out for him here, but, well, he has his work cut out for him here.

He's not avoiding strikeouts (26.2 K%) or taking walks (11.0 BB%) like Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle were able to in their heydays, so the only way he's going to keep his OPS+ this far above the 200 threshold—a place where no hitter has ended up in after a full 162-game season since Bonds in 2004—is if he continues to make the most of his batted balls.

Fortunately for Judge, that's a "no notes" situation.

It's good enough that he's batting .462 and slugging 1.019 when he makes contact, yet even better than his expected average and expected slugging percentage are at .469 and 1.134. The former is the best such mark that any hitter has achieved since Statcast's debut in 2015, and only Joey Gallo's 2019 season is keeping Judge from also holding the top spot for the latter.

The plain English version of all this is that Judge really is mashing as much as it seems like he is. The longer he keeps it up, the better his chances of rubbing shoulders with the greatest hitters the Yankees have ever known.