Aaron Judge won’t break the home run record — and that’s okay

| Contributing writer

It’s a cool summer night in the Bronx when Aaron Judge steps onto the plate. There is one out in the bottom of the ninth as the first-place Yankees are locked in a pitchers’ duel with the Kansas City Royals. The game is sealed at a tie, and the Yanks have been held to just one hit through eight innings. Judge towers over the plate and watches as Royals closer Scott Barlow winds up and delivers a 4-seam fastball over the plate. The pitch is low for 6-foot-7 Judge, but it hangs over the plate just enough, and the Yankee superstar unleashes his powerful stroke and belts it well over the Centerfield fence. Game over. Yankees win 1-0.

Aaron Judge is in the midst of a season for the ages. As of Sept. 25, he stands at 60 home runs — nearly 20 more than the next big-leaguer. All eyes have turned to Judge over the last week of the season as he climbs up the rungs of the MLB single-season home run record ladder.

Babe Ruth knocked 60 home runs in 1927, and fellow Yankee Roger Maris drilled 61 in 1961 to set the big league record. Between 1998 and 2001, a trio of sluggers — Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, and Barry Bonds — combined for an unsurpassed seven seasons of 60+ home runs, with Bonds setting the current record of 73 in 2001. In the years since, the legitimacy of Bonds’ record has been called into question as Bonds, along with Sosa and McGuire, have each been found to have been using banned performance-enhancing drugs during their careers. Each star remains outside of the pearly gates of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and many fans and writers alike consider Maris’ 61 home runs to be the “true” record.

As a Yankee fan, Judge has been a joy to root for over the last few years. He is a home-grown star (I remember watching him years ago in the minor leagues) and is a great and lovable character both on and off the field. He emerged from a period of relative Yankee mediocrity, leading the team to six consecutive playoff appearances, and he has impressed even as the team has failed to make it past the American League Championship Series. It seems like everyone has been rooting for Judge this season — no member of the Yankees has enjoyed such widespread support since Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera retired. 

But when push comes to shove, Bonds still holds the record. And as much as many of us would love to see a player like Judge (who — despite his 6-foot-7, 287-pound frame — has never even been accused of using steroids) top the record books, this will not be the year. Maybe the records of Bonds, McGuire, and Sosa deserve an asterisk in the record books — but as far as fans should be concerned, they still stand today.

When Judge’s current teammate Giancarlo Stanton had his own home run chase with the Miami Marlins in 2017, Stanton repeatedly announced that he saw 61 home runs as the true record, sparking the debate that continues today. Stanton ultimately finished with 59 home runs and now bats behind Judge for the Yankees. Judge, on the other hand, has been crystal-clear with his views: Bonds’ 73 home runs is still the mark to beat. Growing up in California, Judge admired Bonds and his pursuit of 73. In a New York Post interview, Judge said that “[Bonds’ record is] the record. I watched him do it. I stayed up late watching him do it. That’s the record. No one can take that from him.”

But really, what fans should be more focused on is appreciating just how great Judge has been this season. While Judge has always been good — he mashed 52 home runs in his rookie season of 2017, and made the All Star team four times — he has taken his game to new heights. Judge hasn’t just hit for power this year — he has been, far and away, the best, most valuable, and most well-rounded player in the league. 

In nearly every category, Judge is in the company of some of baseball’s greats. He leads the MLB in wins above replacement, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, walks, and total bases, with marks that, in many categories, have not been topped since Bonds. Perhaps most impressively, he is nearly in position to win the American Triple Crown — with his 60 home runs and 128 runs batted in, Judge easily leads the AL, and his .314 batting average puts him in a tie for first place. If he can finish the season strong and move back into the sole position of first place, he would join future first-ballot hall of famer Miguel Cabrera as only the second player in 55 years to win the Triple Crown. A Triple Crown is, perhaps, the most prestigious feat a baseball player can accomplish on offense — one that legends Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, and Willie Mays all failed to attain.

Perhaps the most underrated part of Judge’s game is his defense, which was showcased on Sept. 22 in the Yankees’ playoff-clinching win versus the Red Sox. With no one out and the game tied at 4 in the top of the ninth, Red Sox outfielder Tommy Pham ripped what appeared to be a surefire double to right field. But no — enter Judge, playing the ball with ease off of the Yankee Stadium wall and ripping a perfect strike (later measured at 92.3 miles per hour) from the warning track to second, nailing Pham and keeping the Sox out of scoring position. 

This season, Judge has split time between Center and Right Field, performing above-average in each spot. He has played wherever the Yankees needed him the most and has become the epitome of defensive stability on a Yankees team that struggled mightily through the months of August and September. 

Judge has largely — by himself — kept the Yankees afloat. Despite injuries to All-Star-caliber players Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, and DJ LeMahieu as well as underwhelming seasons from veterans Aaron Hicks and Josh Donaldson, the Yankees are on-pace to win 100 games and are given the third-best odds to win the World Series, per baseball reference. The Yankees are 38-11 when Judge homers, compared to a much more pedestrian 55-47 when he fails to do so. 

Judge should win his first MVP award this season, even as Shohei Ohtani has put up historic numbers as both a pitcher and a hitter (34 home runs, 2.47 ERA, 8.9 WAR). And even though he won’t match the numbers of Bonds, Sosa, or McGuire, he will soon finish what statistically appears to be the greatest single-season performance in the 120-year history of the Yankees’ storied franchise. Once the calendar turns to October, Judge will have the chance to lead the Yankees to their 28th World Championship — and his greatness will continue to be on display.

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