ST. LOUIS — Aaron Judge did not hit a home run this weekend in St. Louis.
Yeah, that’s noteworthy. The Cardinals didn’t exactly lock up Judge; the mammoth Yankees slugger had five hits, four RBIs — including two bases-loaded hits on Sunday — a pair of runs scored and even a stolen base during the three-game series. Even when he’s not doing Capital D damage, he’s doing damage.
But with the way Judge has been mashing the baseball lately, every at-bat that doesn’t end in a home run is yeoman’s work by the opposing pitcher. Coming out of the All-Star break, Judge had 10 homers in New York’s first 13 second-half games, with a .525 on-base percentage and 1.083 slugging percentage in 61 plate appearances.
“Aaron Judge, I think, is the best player on the planet right now,” Matt Carpenter told The Sporting News on Friday. “I watch him. I get a front-row seat to it. I’ve joked, he reminds me of the 14-year-old that lied on his birth certificate to play in the Little League World Series. He’s in another league, he’s that good.”
So Judge left St. Louis with the same home run total as he arrived with: a major-league leading 43 homers, in 109 team games. That’s still nine ahead of anyone else in the bigs. That’s still on an incredible pace. But with 53 games left, Judge’s chances of catching Barry Bonds’ record of 73 home runs in a season are very slim. At the moment, even with all his incredible feats of strength this year, he’s “only” on a 64-homer pace.
“You get numb to batting practice, but what he’s doing right now is just incredible,” Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks said, sitting in front of his locker before Friday’s game. “You find yourself just laughing, ‘He did it again.’ All these different situations come up and he answers the call every single time. It’s truly fun to watch. Hell, I was here before him, so I watched him come in as a rookie all the way to now. It’s fun to watch.”
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If 73 is highly unlikely, what’s left?
“Only” this: The same chase that taunted sluggers for decades, for generations. The chase for the magical 60-home run mark. Yes, that still matters in this sport.
“I think it's definitely still is a magic number,” Hicks said. “The last person to get close to it was G (Giancarlo Stanton, with the Marlins in 2017). That’s a hard number to chase down. You just think about the history behind it, the players that did it.”
Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for the Yankees in 1927, and everyone else tried and failed to match his feat until another Yankee, Roger Maris, popped 61 in 1961. That record stood for another 37 years, until both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa passed it in 1998, a summer that felt magical at the time. Both players passed 60 again (Sosa twice) and Barry Bonds obliterated McGwire’s record of 70 with his unreal 73-homer campaign in 2001.
Of course, now we know things.
Those numbers are still on the record books, as they should be, but ask yourself if they feel sacred. Sorry, tainted numbers are not sacred. In a sport where round-number plateaus, though arbitrary monuments to achievement— the 500-home run club, the 3,000-hit mark, batting .400 in a season, posting an ERA under 2.00 — matter more than any other sport, the 60-homer achievement still stands tall. And the point here isn’t to knock what Bonds, McGwire and Sosa did, but rather to say those inflated totals didn’t erase the enduring magic of Ruth and Maris both reaching 60.
And Judge can still get there. He can join Ruth and Maris, while remaining separate (in more ways than one) from Bonds, McGwire and Sosa.
The Yankees have 57 games remaining, and Judge needs 17 homers to tie Ruth, 18 to tie Maris. That, folks, is very possible. Not going to go so far as to call it likely, but it’s certainly in the realm of distinct possibility.
Using Baseball-Reference’s StatHead search, we see Judge had multiple overlapping stretches with at least 18 homers in 57 games in 2017, when he hit 52 homers and finished second in the AL MVP (and won the Rookie of the Year). He had multiple overlapping stretches of 18 homers in 57 games in 2018, when he hit 27 homers in 112 games. He had multiple overlapping stretches of 18 homers in 57 games in 2021, too.
And in 2022? His best mark is 26 homers in a 57-game stretch. Impressive, but here’s what really tells the story of Judge’s incredible season. You can literally pick any 57-game run of Judge’s season (he’s played in 105 of the Yankees’ 109 games) and he has hit at least 18 home runs in that stretch.
Yeah. Maybe we will bump it up to “likely” that he gets to 60 if he stays healthy.
“It would truly be awesome to watch a Yankee beat another Yankee’s number,” Hicks said, smiling. “It would be awesome to watch that.”
And by this point in the season, you’re probably wondering the same thing I’ve been wondering: Why in the world do teams keep pitching to him? His solo walk-off shot in the bottom of the ninth against Kansas City on July 28 really stands out. He’d hit five home runs in the previous six games, was playing at home, and it was a tie game in the ninth inning so a solo homer costs the Royals the game. And yet, he got a first-pitch 95-mph fastball right over the middle of the plate, in the lower half of the strike zone.
Of course he hit that pitch over the fence. What were the Royals expecting? Oh, and then he hit two more homers against Kansas City the next night and his fourth of the series on the 30th.
Maybe at some point, I dunno, walk him? I asked Aaron Boone that very question.
“He does get pitched around some, and teams are being very careful with him,” the Yankees manager said before Friday’s game. “But eventually you’ve got to pitch to guys, especially because we’ve got a pretty formidable lineup, with Rizz (Anthony Rizzo) hitting behind him and D.J. (LeMahieu) in front of him. It’s not always as easy as ‘Go ahead and walk him.’ We’ve probably seen that a little bit more lately, teams blatantly at times pitching around him. But he’s just done a really good job of just focusing on having quality at-bats and not necessarily worrying about a home run, just kind of taking his team at-bat.”
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And that’s exactly what he did in the St. Louis series. Judge did hit one 404 feet to dead center in Sunday’s game — with the bases loaded — but it hit the base of the wall and he had to “settle” for a two-RBI double.
If — when — Judge gets to that magical 60-home run plateau and joins Yankees legends Ruth and Maris, it will be because he didn’t settle for anything but greatness.