Friday, October 7, 2022

Aaron Judge closing in on Roger Maris: Yankees star hits 51st home run, remains on pace for new AL record

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 this season. Some players would crack under that pressure. Judge hasn’t. He’s thrived. 

Judge reached a milestone Monday night in Anaheim, cracking his MLB-leading 50th home run of the season. He followed it up Tuesday with homer No. 51. Judge 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. 31:

  1. Aaron Judge, Yankees: 51
  2. Kyle Schwarber, Phillies: 36
  3. Paul GoldschmidtCardinals: 33

Slugging 51 homers through 130 team games puts Judge on pace to hit 64 home runs this season (63.55, to be exact). We are just about into 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, who passed away in 1985, 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. 

“It’s always nice to see dad brought back in the public eye a little bit for his accolades in baseball. He accomplished a lot in the game. We couldn’t be more proud in what he accomplished. Sixty-one is a unique number,” Kevin Maris, one of Roger’s sons, told MLB.com in August. “… But (we) would be excited for (Judge if) he is able to achieve (the) monumental task. It’s something that is a unique record, one of the best in sports. Hitting a baseball is not easy. To accomplish that, you have done it over a season, not just one game or one at-bat.”

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 10 home runs in New York’s final 32 games to match Maris’ AL record, meaning he needs 11 homers to break the record and nine to reach 60. 

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

62 homers (new AL single-season record)

11

2.90

61 homers (ties Maris’ AL record)

10

3.20

60 homers (ninth 60-homer season ever)

9

3.56

Judge’s current pace

2.55

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 28 games at home.

Judge 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 32 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 122 of his team’s 130 games (he’s pinch-hit four times). A similar pace would have Judge starting 30 of New York’s final 32 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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