A quick glance at the MLB.com front page shows us three articles about New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge: a Triple Crown piece; a baseball immortality article; and a news update on his home-run record chase. He now has 59 home runs through 146 team games, and he’s played 142 times this season. Obviously, this is something worthy to explore, regardless of the MLB.com pimping.
No clean/honest player since Roger Maris has gotten this far, ever, in the history of the sport, and only Babe Ruth hit this many prior to 1961. The record 61 dongs that Maris hit that season remain the real home-run record in the eyes of many fans and journalists, since the three players to surpass Maris over the decades since the 1960s have all been associated with cheating and/or PED use.
(We won’t mention them by name, but you know who they are.)
So, if the big question in ’61 was whether Maris should get an asterisk for hitting his 61 HRs in more games than Ruth could play when he hit his 60 in 1927, it’s now time to wonder two things about Judge: First, do we think he’s clean? And second, do we still need an asterisk debate?
We say yes and no, respectively, to those questions, and here’s why, starting with the PED issue:
- We hate to even go here, but there is not a whisper of Judge’s character being explored anywhere. But if you’re a loyal reader here, you know we have other ways of analyzing this: his career stat patterns. Judge broke into the majors late at age 24 in 2016, when his body was close to full maturation, and his numbers have been progressively consistent in improvement;
- His rookie season (2017) saw him hit 52 HRs although he never hit more than 20 in a MiLB season (2015). What we see with his statistical record from college ball through the minors is incrementally increasing power. That being said, we don’t think anyone would have predicted a rookie to hit that many HRs ever;
- His official rookie year came at age 25, which isn’t too far of a stretch from the typical peak of age 27, really, especially for a player who played college ball (2011-2013) and still had to work his way up through the minors. Since then, his sabermetrics have remained somewhat stable, when we factor in injuries: OPS marks of 1.049, .919, .921, .891, .916, and now 1.120 this season. That low mark was 2020 when COVID made everything unreliable, statistically speaking;
- Judge is 30 years old, and he should be having the best season(s) of his career. This makes sense; he’s not in his mid-30s and experiencing a sudden power explosion hitherto unseen. His SLG in 2017 was .627, and this year it is .701—definitely within the realm of expected improvements;
- When we aren’t hearing any gripes from other players about suspected use, then that’s a good sign that even his peers think he’s clean. Sometimes, putting your ear to the wall like this really tells us a lot. Based on available evidence, whether hearsay or statistical, we have no reason to doubt Judge right now.
As for the asterisk crap, we never thought Maris should have had to put up with that garbage at the time. Hitting a baseball is always hard, no matter the situation, but consider Ruth never had to deal with night baseball under lights, or extensive travel from coast to coast, or even players of color throwing him pitches: Maris hitting 61 HRs in 161 games is just as good to us as Ruth hitting 60 HRs in 151 games.
The rules of the time are what they are; we can argue that until we’re blue in the face, but even now, Judge has to deal with more specialization in pitching staffs, more travel than ever, and definitely more media scrutiny on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis than Maris did. And we know the stories about Maris and his hair falling out in clumps from the stress.
So, to us, if Judge hits 62-plus HRs in 158 games—the max he can play in now—that’s going to be the new record for single-season home runs in MLB history as far as we are concerned. He has 16 games left to hit 3 more HRs and claim the the title of the (clean) HR champ. We’re rooting for him to do it, because until we know better, why not? Isn’t this why we watch the game? Yes, it is.