MINNEAPOLIS -- As the 2022 regular season draws to a close, baseball fans everywhere have watched Aaron Judge with bated breath, fixated on his home run total as he inched closer and closer to the American League record of 61 set by Roger Maris -- and ultimately matched that mark with a seventh-inning blast in Toronto on Wednesday night.
But those around the Twins’ clubhouse have probably been more concerned about one of Judge’s other statistics: the Yankees slugger’s batting average.
At this point, it’s all but assured that Judge will lead the Junior Circuit in both home runs and RBIs. And entering Wednesday, he also sat atop the leaderboard in batting average. So in addition to earning at least a share of the AL homer record, Judge is also in the driver’s seat to join Miguel Cabrera as the only batters to claim the hitting Triple Crown since 1967.
But at this point, the only man standing in Judge’s way could be Luis Arraez.
The Twins’ All-Star contact king continued his ongoing quest for his first career AL batting title by going 2-for-5 with a pair of singles in Minnesota’s 8-4 win over the White Sox at Target Field. With seven regular-season games remaining for both the Twins and Yankees, the two hitters are separated by mere percentage points -- and that neck-and-neck battle is likely going to be the biggest storyline for the Twins in what remains of their season after being officially eliminated from postseason contention with Seattle's 3-1 win over Texas.
“I try to do my job,” Arraez said earlier this week. “If I win, I'm happy. If Aaron Judge wins, I'll be happy too, Xander Bogaerts, [too]. They're here to compete with me. If Aaron Judge wins, I'll be happy because he got an amazing year, too.
“I mean, he has  homers. He's doing everything this year. And then I like to see those guys play like that. I'll be happy if he wins. If I win, I'm happy. But if I see Judge win it, I'll be happy, too.”
Judge’s record-tying 61st homer was his only hit in four at-bats against the Blue Jays, and Arraez picked up his seventh multi-hit game of the month with singles in the fifth and eighth innings against the White Sox.
Here’s where that leaves things:
Aaron Judge, NYY: .313406 (173-for-552)
Luis Arraez, MIN: .313321 (167-for-533)
Xander Bogaerts, BOS: .308688 (167-for-541)
There could hardly be two more different hitters vying for this honor down the stretch. There’s Judge, the hulking, larger-than-life, 6-foot-7 and nearly 300-pound mountain of a slugger -- and then there’s Arraez, the slimmed-down, 5-foot-10, throwback slap hitter who developed this skillset because he hated striking out more than anything as a kid in Venezuela -- often to the point of tears.
This is the closest Arraez has been to his lifelong goal of winning a batting title, since he didn’t have the plate appearances to qualify in his first three seasons. But his skipper doesn’t want him to feel that pressure.
“I told him he should plan on being in this situation for many years to come,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Let's just imagine you look out for the next five years -- he should plan on playing September in a batting race of some kind. It should become something that is usual for him.
“Instead of living in a place where you're scoreboard watching and living and dying by every at-bat, I think it's unnecessary. Going into next year, the year after that, this is the reality for Luis Arraez. He just has to go out there and play and do what he normally does, and he'll be fine.”
Arraez got off to a torrid start this year, leading the AL by a wide margin with his .338 average at the All-Star break, seemingly on track to cruise to the crown. But partly due to leg issues and the rigors of a full season, he’s slowed down with a .280 mark in the second half, while Judge has been otherworldly with a .360 second half to take the lead.
It’ll all come down to this final week.
“I just need a little bit of good luck to get more hits,” Arraez said. “If it's coming, good. But if not, I just need to finish strong.”
“You’re not going to get a hit every time you hit a ball squarely, but he’s having really good at-bats right now,” Baldelli said. “I think if he continues to focus on that and just swings the bat the way he is, he’s going to have a pretty good shot at this thing.”