Aaron Judge didn’t hit a home run on Wednesday against Seattle, though it wasn’t because the Mariners did anything particularly notable to keep him in the park. No, the reason Judge didn’t add to his ever-increasing total was because of just about the only thing that can reliably keep him from doing damage in what’s shaping up to be a historic season: The Yankees, on a hot day in New York, in their last home game before a three-city road trip through St. Louis, Seattle, and Boston, chose to give him the day off.
When they start their three-game set in St. Louis on Friday, they’ll have 106 games behind them. They’ll have 56 remaining. Two-thirds of the way through the season, Judge has 43 home runs, more than (to pick a team at random here) any Pirate has had in a full season in nearly half a century.
All of which is to say that you know the question at hand, or at least you should. Is this, for Judge, going to be a historic home run season … or "merely" a great one? Is the all-time home run record in reach? If not, what about the all-time Yankees record, which is pretty notable in its own right?
We're far enough into the season that it's time to seriously consider it -- even if Judge himself understandably doesn't want to talk about it.
The all-time single-season home run record is 73, held by Barry Bonds in 2001. Behind that, there are five seasons between 1998-01 from Sammy Sosa (three) and Mark McGwire (two), ranging from 70 down to 63, until you get to Roger Maris’ 61 in 1961, still the all-time American League mark, just ahead of Babe Ruth’s legendary 60 in 1927. It goes without saying that not every fan likes, enjoys, or even acknowledges any of the seasons above Maris on the list. Your opinion on all that aside, they’re in the books. They count.
Judge, right now, is on pace for 66 home runs, which would be tied for the third-most of all time. Great -- we're done here. We can go home. Sixty-six it is.
Of course, “on pace” is a dangerous premise; do remember that it wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about the Yankees themselves being on pace to break the all-time wins record, and they’ve been playing .500 ball for six weeks. So, maybe we need to think a little more about this.
That said, we can take two paths here. The all-time record is a huge deal, but the AL/Yankees record held by Maris is a huge deal, too, considering the all-time superstars who have worn the pinstripes. Judge needs 30 to tie Bonds. He needs a more reasonable sounding 18 to tie Maris. One is considerably easier than the other. Let’s talk about how he gets to both.
The reason we’re talking about what’s next, of course, is because of what’s happened so far. If you look at all the months of his career, and sort them by “most home runs,” his September 2017 might be first (15), but the next three are the most recent three – May, June, and July of 2022. You know all about his Statcast exploits (he’s currently essentially tied with Yordan Alvarez for 2022’s best hard-hit rate), but note, also, that only three Yankees have ever topped the .676 slugging percentage he’s running – and you don’t need last names behind “Babe, Lou, and Mickey.”
But most importantly, no matter what happens from here on out, he’s already banked those 43 homers in 106 team games. If you’re wondering how well that ranks, the answer is: very.
Through 106 team games, Judge has the fourth-most home runs in history.
Most home runs through 106 team games
45 – Barry Bonds, 2001 – total 73
45 – Mark McGwire, 1998 – total 70
44 – Babe Ruth, 1921 – total 59
43 – Aaron Judge, 2022 – total ???
43 – Babe Ruth, 1928 – total 54
He’s behind Bonds, who played in just 99 of San Francisco’s first 106 that year. He’s behind McGwire’s best homer season. He’s behind the season that Ruth, by himself, outhomered half the other teams in the league (though Ruth had just 154 games in his season, not 162). That’s it. That’s how special this start is.
(Did any of them keep up their pace, you're wondering? Bonds and McGwire actually increased their homer paces after team game 106; Ruth markedly declined after in each of those two seasons.)
Now: It’s tempting, for some, to say this is because of his sometimes comfy home park, and he does indeed have 25 dingers at home against 18 on the road. Then again, that’s something of an oversimplification, in part because he’s had 10 more games started at home than on the road, and in part because of his 43 homers, only five would have been out of seven or fewer parks.
So that’s where we are. Where, then, are we going? Let’s answer a bunch of questions.
The path to the all-time home run record
The Yankees, as we said, have 56 games left. But even if he remains perfectly healthy, Judge might not. That’s because with the AL East long wrapped up, New York will almost certainly give him some days off before the playoffs; for example, they finish their season with a four-game set in Texas that includes a double-header on Oct. 4. It’s possible, if he’s in reach of a record, they’ll let him play as much as he can. But do you really believe he’s playing 18 innings in Texas on an early-October Tuesday? We don’t either.
Still, you don’t chase records by sitting on the bench, and the designated hitter is an option, and the Yankees still have six more off-days built into the schedule after they arrive in St. Louis, so let’s assume we’re full-speed ahead here. Let’s say he’ll have 56 bites at the apple.
1) Has he ever hit 30 in a 56-game span, as he’d need to catch Bonds?
Well, no. His most is 26, which he’s done over a few different overlapping 56-game spans this year. Has anyone? Sure, a few times. Most recently, Giancarlo Stanton got up to 32 homers in 56 games in 2017, and J.D. Martinez mashed 28 in 56 that same year. Bonds somehow hit 35 in 56 in his 2001 season. It’s not impossible. It’s just not something that Judge, himself, has done before. So if you want him to tie Bonds’ 73, you’re asking him to not only play every day, but to turn his pace up from what he’s already done. That’s … probably not going to happen.
That’s okay, though. Bonds is hardly the only target here.
2) What about 18, which he’d need to tie Maris?
Now we’re talking. Judge has hit 18 in 56 over a few different overlapping spans this year. He hit 24 in 56 in the summer of 2019. He hit 18 in 56 last year and in 2018, and he hit 21 in 56 back in 2017, and if you toss out 2020, a season in which he played just 28 games … he’s done this at least once in every season of his career.
When you look at it that way, getting to Maris not only seems possible but well within reach -- as long as you don't consider the fact that he already had his big 56-game span this year. Can he do it again? Let's keep going.
3) What do the projections say?
Projection systems are valuable, because you can’t just look at what’s happened and expect that’s what will happen, at least without some context of track record, age, so on. This is almost always more useful than just "on pace."
Somewhat surprisingly, all the major ones listed at FanGraphs, which have the knowledge of what he's done so far this season, say the same thing: 16. They all think he’s going to hit sixteen more home runs, which would get him to a tantalizing 59 – but, notably, in 49-to-53 more games played. That’s perfectly reasonable, for all the reasons we said above. But if they're right, if that's how he's trending in the final two weeks of the season, it's hard to imagine he won't get all the playing time he wants, which would make this an open question heading into the final series of the year.
4) Is there anything notable about where he’s playing?
The Yankees have 31 remaining road games. Five will come at Fenway, and four more apiece will be in Texas and Oakland. There’s three-game sets in St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Milwaukee and Toronto.
In those parks for his career, he’s essentially played a full season – 147 games, 654 plate appearances – with 35 homers. If you look at the Statcast park factors for right-handed home runs over the last three seasons, where 100 is "average," you’ll see some extremely friendly parks (especially Milwaukee), a terribly difficult one (Oakland), but overall, it comes out as a wash. These average out to … average. (Yankee Stadium, for what it’s worth, has a 115 mark, or sixth-friendliest.)
This nets out to "neither great nor bad," though it should be noted that having more road games than home games doesn't exactly work in his favor. In these parks, for his career, he's hit a homer once every 16 at-bats -- compared to his home park, where it's one in every 11.
5) So how often will he need to homer?
The projections believe he'll get 200 at-bats for the rest of the year. In order to hit 18 homers, he'd have to hit one longball approximately every 11 at-bats. (Not plate appearances, because we're not penalizing him for taking walks here.)
Judge, for his career, has hit a home run once every 12.2 at-bats -- but in 2022, he's homered once every nine at-bats. In fact, after a slow start in April (one homer every 12.5 at-bats) he's homered at least once every nine at-bats every other month of the year (that'd be 8.6 in May, 9.9 in June, and 7.2 in July). None of this seems out of reach.
Maybe, then, an easier way to think about it is not "by at-bat" but "by series." Judge needs 18 homers to tie Maris ... and the Yankees have 18 series remaining. He doesn't need to hit multiple homers every night, or even every series. He just needs to touch each team once, from here on out. That doesn't seem so unreasonable.
6) All of which means ...
We don’t think Judge has a realistic shot of catching Bonds. But getting to Maris seems reasonable, if also something that might happen on the last day of the season, making life particularly uncomfortable for manager Aaron Boone in the season’s final days as he attempts to plan ahead for the playoffs.
That, then, is our prediction. He'll get to 60 in the first game of the doubleheader on Oct. 4. Boone won't be able to keep him out -- and an otherwise meaningless final game 162 in Texas on Oct. 5 is going to be must-watch television.
And if Judge falls just short? You might just have the Orioles to blame. On May 17, Judge stepped up and blasted a ball to left that, last season, would have been out of every park in the Majors. But since Baltimore moved their left-field fence back 26.5 feet for this year, instead of being an easy homer, it hit the very top of the wall. Judge settled for a double. It was the only park in the bigs it wouldn’t have been a homer in. It might just cost him history.