Friday, October 7, 2022

Aaron Judge closing in on home run history: Yankees star on pace to break Roger Maris’ record after 49th blast

Back in spring training, New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge rejected a very reasonable seven-year contract extension worth $213.5 million. It was a bold decision, no doubt about it, and Judge has responded this season by doing what seemed impossible: he’s made himself more money. Some players would crack under that pressure. Judge hasn’t. He’s thrived. 

Through the Aug. 28, Judge owns a .293/.393/.655 batting line and an MLB-leading 49 home runs. He also leads the league in walks, runs scored, RBI, total bases, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and both the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference versions of WAR. The race for the home run title isn’t much of a race at all. 

Here is the MLB home run leaderboard as of Aug. 28:

  1. Aaron Judge, Yankees: 49
  2. Kyle Schwarber, Phillies: 35
  3. Paul GoldschmidtCardinals: 33
  4. Several tied with 31

No players has led baseball in home runs by as many as 14 — Judge’s current lead over Schwarber — since 1933, when Jimmie Foxx won the home run title with 48 homers, and Babe Ruth finished a distant second with 34.

Slugging 49 homers through 128 team games puts Judge on pace to hit 62 home runs this season (62.02, to be exact). We are now a few days away from September and Judge has maintained a home run pace that not only gives him a chance at 60 homers, but also a chance to set a new American League single-season record. That is still Roger Maris’ 61 homers with the 1961 Yankees.

“I try not to, but people keep asking me that question,” Judge told our Matt Snyder at the All-Star Game when asked whether he thinks about chasing 60 homers. “… I might have a better answer at the end of the year if it happens. If I get to that point, we can talk about it. Until then, it’s just so hard. We’re only halfway through. Only being halfway there, it’s tough to talk about.”

There is some wonderful symmetry in Judge’s pursuit of Maris’ AL home run record. Maris hit 61 homers 61 years ago in 1961. He also wore No. 9. Judge wears No. 99. Also, Judge hit his 203rd career home run on Aug. 10, the same number of homers Maris hit with the Yankees. 

The question is, can Judge actually break Maris’ record? Or reach 60 homers in general? Here’s what you need to know about Judge chasing Maris.

Single-season home run leaderboard

Before we go any further, I should note only eight times in MLB history has a player hit 60 home runs in a season, and six of the eight came during the so-called Steroid Era. What we’re talking about Judge possibly doing doesn’t happen often. Here are the eight 60-homer seasons in history:

  1. Barry Bonds, 2001 Giants: 73
  2. Mark McGwire, 1998 Cardinals: 70
  3. Sammy Sosa, 1998 Cubs: 66
  4. Mark McGwire, 1999 Cardinals: 65
  5. Sammy Sosa, 2001 Cubs: 64
  6. Sammy Sosa, 1999 Cubs: 63
  7. Roger Maris, 1961 Yankees: 61
  8. Babe Ruth, 1927 Yankees: 60

Giancarlo Stanton made MLB’s most recent run at 60 homers, going deep 59 times in his 2017 NL MVP season. That includes a truly mind-boggling stretch in which Stanton hit 30 homers in a 48-game span. Ryan Howard slugged 58 homers in his 2006 NL MVP season. Even in this homer-happy era, it is not often a player makes a real run at 60 dingers like Judge is this year.

“Aaron is cut out for this. If we’re a month from now, six weeks from now, and he’s knocking on the door of those kind of things, and we understand the attention that’s going to come with that, I can’t think of someone more equipped to handle it,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told Newsday earlier this month. “I think you can start at the start of this year with all the talk centered around the contract and how that’s affected him. He’s built for this. I think anything you throw at him, whether he gets to a number or doesn’t get to a number, I don’t think that the circumstances and the pressure is going to be a reason he does or doesn’t.”  

What Judge needs to do the rest of the season

Judge needs to hit 12 home runs in New York’s final 34 games to match Maris’ AL record, meaning he needs 13 homers to break the record and 11 to reach 60. 

Here are the paces Judge needs to maintain to reach those milestone totals:

62 homers (new AL single-season record)

13

2.62

61 homers (ties Maris’ AL record)

12

2.83

60 homers (ninth 60-homer season ever)

11

3.09

Judge’s current pace

2.61

If you’re thinking big, Judge will need to hit a home run once every 1.42 games from here on out to match (not even beat) Bonds’ single-season record of 73 home runs. As much fun as that chase would be, Judge won’t get there. Unless Judge gets nuclear hot the next few weeks and catching Bonds become plausible, Maris’ AL record is the only realistic target.

Judge’s remaining schedule

Judge certainly plays in the right home ballpark to make a run at 60 homers. Yankee Stadium is one of the most home-run-happy ballparks in the big leagues, though Judge isn’t exactly padding his total with short right field porch cheapies. His 412-foot average home run distance is fifth-highest in baseball among players with at least 20 homers.

According to Statcast, Judge has hit only two home runs this season that would have been homers at Yankee Stadium and only Yankee Stadium: a 364-footer vs. Shane McClanahan on June 15 and another 364-footer against Jonathan Heasley on July 30.

That home run against Heasley was Judge’s 200th career homer. He reached 200 career homers in only 671 games, the second-fewest ever behind Ryan Howard (658).

It is no surprise Judge’s career home run rate at home (one every 13.2 plate appearances) is higher than his home run rate on the road (one every 16.1 plate appearances). The Yankees will play 16 of their remaining 34 games at home, so Judge doesn’t have a significant home-field advantage or disadvantage as he pursues Maris’ record. Here is the breakdown of those games 34 games:

Yankee Stadium

16

112

Globe Life Field

4

96

Angel Stadium

3

114

Rogers Centre

3

114

American Family Field

3

119

Tropicana Field

3

89

Fenway Park

2

107

What these numbers tell us is Yankee Stadium inflates home runs by right-handed batters to 112 percent of the league average. Tropicana Field, on the other hand, suppresses righty homers to only 89 percent of the league average. The higher the number, the more homer friendly the ballpark plays, at least when it comes to righty homers.

The good news: Judge will play 27 of the team’s remaining 34 games in a good ballpark for righty homers. The bad news: the Yankees wrap up their season with four makeup games in Texas (that’s one of the series postponed by the owners’ lockout), so, if Judge is creeping up on 60 homers in the final week, he’ll have to get it in a ballpark unfriendly to righty power hitters.

The other good news: I’m not entirely sure home run park factors apply to Judge. As noted earlier, his power is mammoth and only a few players have averaged more distance on their homers this season. He can hit the ball out of any part of any park. That said, to get 60 homers, Judge will need a few cheapies along the way. The schedule seems to work in his favor.

What about his workload?

This is important. The Yankees have 34 games remaining, but Judge almost certainly will not play all of them. The Yankees are all-in on load management, have been for years, and they rarely deviate from their rest schedule.

Judge has been perfectly healthy this season, not even a single day-to-day injury situation, and he has started 120 of his team’s 128 games (he’s pinch-hit four times). A similar pace would have Judge starting 32 of New York’s final 34 games. Two fewer starts could cut into his home run total. It could cost Judge a shot at Maris’ AL record, too.

Despite their poor August, the Yankees are close to a postseason lock and the ultimate goal is winning the World Series (Judge himself would tell you that), so they will do what they think is best to make sure the team is in the best position heading into October. That said, they are not oblivious to the home run chase and the potential history, especially since it’ll put a lot of butts in the seats in September. How could the Yankees sit Judge at home in September?

My guess — and I emphasize this is just a guess — is the Yankees will revise their rest schedule a bit, and rather than give Judge full days off down the stretch, they’ll give him more (potentially much more) time at DH. Judge’s rest schedule is definitely a thing to monitor, particularly as we get into September and have a better idea of whether Judge really has a shot at Maris’ AL record.

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