Saturday, October 1, 2022

Aaron Judge chasing home run history: Yankees star on pace to break Roger Maris’ record; will he get there?

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 Sunday’s games Judge owns a .301/.389/.669 batting line and an MLB-leading 43 home runs. He also leads baseball in runs scored (91), RBI (97), total bases (267), OPS (1.058), OPS+ (196), and both the FanGraphs (6.8) and Baseball Reference (6.3) 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. 8:

  1. Aaron Judge, Yankees: 43
  2. Kyle Schwarber, Phillies: 34
  3. Yordan Alvarez, Astros: 30
  4. Austin Riley, Braves: 29
  5. Pete Alonso, Mets: 29

Despite going homerless this past weekend Judge has been on a rampage since the All-Star break, going deep 10 times in 16 games played in the second half. He has more second half homers than the Marlins. Literally the entire team. Miami has somehow managed to hit only eight homers since the All-Star break.

Slugging 43 homers through 109 team games puts Judge on pace to hit 64 home runs this season (63.9, to be exact). We are now more than a week into August 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. 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.

What Judge has done already

While we’re focused on how many home runs Judge will finish the season with, it’s important to note we’re discussing this because of what Judge has done to date. He is the 10th player in history to hit 43 homers through his team’s first 109 games. Only three players (five instances) hit more. Here are the five:

Barry Bonds, 2001 Giants

50 (2.18 G per HR)

73 (2.22 G per HR)

Mark McGwire, 1998 Cardinals

46 (2.37 G per HR)

70 (2.31 G per HR)

Mark McGwire, 1996 Athletics

46 (2.37 G per HR)

52 (3.12 G per HR)

Babe Ruth, 1921 Yankees

46 (2.37 G per HR)

59 (2.59 G per HR)

Mark McGwire, 1999 Cardinals

44 (2.47 G per HR)

65 (2.49 G per HR)

McGwire’s home run rate slipped significantly after his first 109 games in 1996. The others all more or less maintained their home run pace through the rest of the season. When you’re chasing 60 homers, I reckon the first 30 are much easier to hit than the last 30 for many reasons, including fatigue. The hardest part of this chase is still in front of Judge.

“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 18 home runs in New York’s final 53 games to match Maris’ AL record, meaning he needs 19 homers to break the record and 17 to reach 60. Judge has hit 22 home runs in his last 53 games and that’s not even his most prolific 53-game stretch of the season — he hit 24 homers in 53 games spanning June 3 to Aug. 2.

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

62 homers (new AL single-season record)

19

2.79

61 homers (ties Maris’ AL record)

18

2.94

60 homers (ninth 60-homer season ever)

17

3.12

Judge’s current pace

2.53

If you’re thinking big, Judge will need to hit a home run once every 1.97 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: 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, second fewest ever behind Ryan Howard (658).

It is no surprise Judge’s career home run rate at home (one every 13.1 plate appearances) is higher than his home run rate on the road (one every 16.3 plate appearances). That works against Judge in his pursuit of Maris’ AL record because the Yankees will play only 25 of their remaining 53 games at home. Here is the ballpark breakdown of those games 53 games:

Yankee Stadium

25

112

Fenway Park

5

107

Globe Life Field

4

96

RingCentral Coliseum

4

69

Angel Stadium

3

114

Rogers Centre

3

114

American Family Field

3

119

T-Mobile Park

3

92

Tropicana Field

3

89

What these numbers mean is Yankee Stadium inflates home runs by right-handed batters to 112 percent the league average. RingCentral Coliseum, on the other hand, suppresses righty homers to only 69 percent 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 30 of the team’s remaining 53 games in a good ballpark for righty homers, or 57 percent. 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 53 games remaining but Judge almost certainly will not play all 53. The Yankees are all-in on load management, have been for years, and they rarely deviate from their rest schedule. In fact, Judge was out of the lineup last Wednesday even though the Yankees had an off-day Thursday. They used it as an opportunity to give him two straight days off his feet.

Judge has been perfectly healthy this season, not even a single day-to-day injury situation, and he has started 101 of his team’s 109 games (he’s pinch-hit four times). A similar pace would have Judge starting 49 of New York’s final 53 games. Four fewer starts could really cut into his home run total! It could cost Judge a shot at Maris’ AL record too.

The Yankees are 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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