Getting 62 was tough, but what will Judge do for an encore?
Now we see what Aaron Judge does for an encore after being the biggest star in baseball last season, after having an offensive season -- across the board -- as great as any Yankee has had since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, one that evoked memories of Mickey Mantle’s Triple Crown season of 1956.
Even now, four months after Judge’s regular season ended, you look at his numbers, and the screen in front of you seems to grow a little brighter:
Sixty-two homers, the all-time American League record, 131 RBIs, a .311 batting average, .686 slugging, an OPS of 1.111, 111 walks and a .425 on-base percentage -- the best of his career.
He won all the offensive awards worth winning, became MVP, was awarded a new $360 million contract and then was honored by being named the first Yankees captain since Derek Jeter.
So what will he do for an encore, as a second act to all that?
Everybody knows that he placed a huge bet on himself by turning down the contract extension the Yankees offered him before the season, then went out and had the season of his life. Judge didn’t just cash in on his bet, but won a Mega Millions baseball lottery.
No one is expecting him to hit 62 homers again, unless Judge himself is. But it is interesting to look back at how other Yankees did in the year after the year when they led the world in home runs.
Ruth, of course, didn’t stop hitting homers after he hit 60 in 1927. He came back with 54, then 46, then 49, then 46. But Roger Maris, after passing Ruth with his 61 in ’61, went down to 33 homers the next season -- even if he did knock in 100 -- and had an otherwise fine year (it is a largely forgotten fact about Maris that he had been MVP in ’60 for the Yankees, the year before he hit all those home runs).
The year after Mickey’s Triple Crown year (.353, 52 homers, 130 RBIs), he came back to hit .365 with 34 homers and 94 RBIs. After an even bigger home run season for him in ’61, when he was chasing Ruth along with Maris, he played 30 fewer games than he had in ’61, and hit 30 homers with 89 RBIs and batted .321.
And Judge’s teammate, Giancarlo Stanton, hit 59 homers for the Marlins in 2017, then hit 38 when he got to the Yankees, the most he has hit in pinstripes, more than somewhat because of various injuries.
There is a Red Hot Chili Peppers song called “Encore” whose last line is this one: “Results are gonna vary now.” It means that even Judge has to turn the page now, after what we all saw with our own eyes over the second half of last season, when it felt as if he were hitting at least a homer a day until even he briefly hit the pause button after No. 61.
I asked a current American League manager on Monday what it was like to go up against Judge in 2022, what kind of approach his team had against No. 99.
“Our plan for Judge actually changed from series to series,” he said. “Early in the year, we attacked him to try to get into pitcher-leverage counts as soon as possible. We were able to control his power against us by getting him into uncomfortable counts.
“Early-count fastballs or strike sliders worked. He would usually expand out of the zone late. For a while, it felt like we were in control of the at-bats. Later in the year, though? He made some adjustments in the strike zone and covered everything we threw. He became the hitter we had to know where he was in the batting order. Normally, I look at 3-4 hitters away. But with Judge, I was concerned when he was six hitters away.”
It is worth remembering that Judge did this later in the year even when he wasn’t getting a lot of help in the Yankees' batting order, as the team that had started out 64-28 became a .500 team (35-35) the rest of the way. The hitter known as All Rise picked everybody up, as he chased Ruth and Maris and was even in play for a Mickey-like Triple Crown late into the regular season.
Here is something else the AL manager I spoke to said about what he saw from Judge in the summer of ’22, and defined what he saw and what we all saw perfectly:
“It felt like we were facing a game-changing at-bat every time he came up.”
A week or so ago, Judge reminded Jimmy Fallon that his walk-up song last season had been “Hello” by Pop Smoke. Whatever the song is this season, he will be saying hello again to Yankee Stadium on March 30, the Yankees’ opener against the Giants, of all teams -- the ones who made the kind of run they did at Judge during free agency. After the season of 62 homers, he will try to hit No. 1, in what really does feel like Act Two for No. 99.