Ruth. Foxx. Mantle. Griffey. Rodriguez. Pujols. Ortiz.
It’s undeniable that many of baseball’s greatest power hitters have passed through the American League. It’s equally impossible to debate the fact that none of them had ever hit more than 61 home runs in a season, a feat accomplished by Roger Maris in 1961.
Until now. On Tuesday night, in the first at-bat of the second game of a doubleheader, all rose as Aaron Judge issued a much-anticipated verdict, sending his 62nd home run of the season flying into the left field stands of Globe Life Field. By doing so, Judge sealed his spot in baseball history as the first player in 61 years to set a new home run record in the American League. This is, of course, a record that due to admitted steroid usage by the three top single-season sluggers in the National League, many see as the true MLB record.
— MLB (@MLB) October 5, 2022
It Started With Judge Betting on Himself
Before this season, Judge was embroiled in contentious contract negotiations with the Yankees. It’s reported that they offered him a deal worth $213.5 million over 7 years, and he turned down that hefty check. He gambled on himself, which many thought to be foolish given his age, size, and injury history. But that bet is about to pay off in spectacular fashion, probably more than even Judge himself could have dreamed; he led the major leagues in runs, home runs, RBI, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases, WAR by both major measurements, and he did it all while playing his usual top-notch right field and even chipping in as the Yankees’ every day centerfielder for long stretches. He’s going to make far more than that offseason total- whether the money comes from the Yankees or elsewhere is still undetermined, but either way, he’ll be held up as a hero in Yankee history, and enshrined in Monument Park when the time comes, just as Maris was in recognition of his record-breaking season.
More than once, Judge has remarked how so many of the all-time home run kings did it not by being a “true outcomes” type of player who homers, walks, or strikes out, but rather by being great contact hitters too. In the past, Judge has come up short of his stated bar of being a .300 hitter, usually living somewhere in the .270s and 80s. This season, however, he ended with a batting average of .311, fifth in the whole MLB and just a few points away from winning the AL Hitting Title, which would have secured him an absolutely unfathomable Triple Crown. Of course, as is so often the case in baseball history, there is a bit of controversy around this race too. Minnesota Twins infielder Luis Arraez, who ultimately topped Judge for the crown, spent the past couple of weeks of the season sitting out against lefty starting pitchers, manipulating his final numbers by picking and choosing favorable matchups. If he and his manager had shown a bit more integrity and respect for the game, it’s hard to say what may have happened in an epic batting average showdown.
One notable aspect of Maris’s chase for history is that it was almost an intra-squad duel; Mickey Mantle, the other half of the so-called “M&M Boys,” smacked 54 homers in ‘61, hitting just behind Maris in the lineup. Judge, on the other hand, had no such hall of fame help; he was often the only hitter in the Yankee lineup with an OPS over .800, or even at times, .750 or .700. He often had little lineup protection, and paid the price with lots of walks and tough pitches, but he still got the job done far more often than not. This was the case especially in the biggest spots, as Judge smacked 4 walk-off hits this season, including the first three such home runs of his career. Indeed, Judge accounted for about a fifth of the Yankees’ team offense as per wRC, nearly the highest share of any player since 1947. His impact on team success-the only important thing, if you ask him- is also reflected by his truly ridiculous total of 11.5 fWAR, considered by many to be the most complete measure of player value.
It’s also been a down-year for offense across the league- this isn’t 2017, where Judge and then-Marlin Giancarlo Stanton battled for the home run title with both cracking the 50s. The gap between Judge and Kyle Schwarber, the next-most prolific home run hitter this season, was 16 bombs. No one other than Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx have ever led the league by more home runs than Judge did this year. Judge’s OPS+ of 211- keep in mind, 150+ is considered to be Hall of Fame caliber- also means that his raw OPS production (a ridiculous, and visually satisfying, 1.111) was twice that of the average MLB hitter.
One of the Most Impressive Accomplishments in American Sports
Truth be told, there’s seemingly endless further evidence that Judge’s quest for 60+ was the hardest and/or most impressive ever. Other than the obvious steroid asterisks, there’s the issues of league size and thus number of pitchers faced, starting pitchers going too far into games, pitch velocity, spin, and location, expansion teams and dilution of the talent pool, juiced baseballs in addition to the juiced players, and in Ruth’s case, even playing in a segregated league. Suffice it to say, that hitting in the Major Leagues of 2022 is harder than it’s ever been. But still, with the weight of looming contract negotiations, New York’s massive hopes and expectations, and baseball history on his back, Judge excelled in a way that few, if any, ever have before- and he’s done it all while being humble, down to Earth, and a consummate professional.
For a while, as he struggled to get from 60 homers to 61, and then from 61 to 62, it felt that it might never happen- and why should it? Baseball fans had spent decades, for some like me, their whole lives thinking they’d never see Maris be topped by anyone playing clean, enhancement-free baseball. Judge is a truly special baseball player, and human being- you could see it through the joy of his teammates, the Yankees faithful, and even opposing fans and players that got to witness the history he’s been making all year. And of course instagram didn’t exist for any of these other players’ historic runs- but if it did, I doubt many of them would have posted a photo of their teammate before one of themselves on the night they hit their 60th, as Judge did to celebrate Stanton’s remarkable walk-off grand slam.
The past two weeks had been a tense, almost boringly repetitive song and dance, with the mentions of the record books, the camera shots of the Judge and Maris families in the stands whenever #99 came to the plate, and of course, the silence of a ballpark and nation with all eyes on one person four or so times per game. To Judge, and to many Yankee fans, the most important part of the season is yet to come, and we’ll soon see how that all plays out; the same could be said of Judge’s very future with the team. But with a game to spare in a magical, presumably-MVP season, time stood still as Aaron James Judge crushed a baseball into the Texas night. He broke into a trot, touched all four bags for the 62nd time this year, launching the sporting world into a frenzy, and himself into baseball immortality.