Sixty is a big, fat round number.
In baseball’s long history, only five players had hit that many home runs in a season. Whether or not they were aided by performance enhancers, they are among the greatest hitters of all time: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Maris and Babe Ruth. On Tuesday, for the first time in over two decades, a new name joined that list.
With a 430-foot blast to lead off the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge hit his 60th of the year, adding yet another memorable moment to one of the greatest offensive seasons ever. His home run also started a rally — four batters later, Giancarlo Stanton delivered a walk-off grand slam, giving the Yankees a 9-8 win.
And with 15 games left in the Yankees’ regular season, Judge still has plenty of time to threaten Maris’s American League record of 61 home runs in a season, set in 1961 and considered by some to be the clean home run record. Bonds holds the major-league record, with 73 home runs in 2001, but, like Sosa and McGwire, he has been tied to performance-enhancing drug use during an era before steroid testing began.
There are many ways to illustrate the excellence of Judge’s 2022 season but few would be as telling as this: entering Tuesday, the next highest home run total this year is 39, belonging to Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time before this season that a player led the majors by more than 20 home runs was 1928, when Ruth (54) bested Jim Bottomley and Hack Wilson by 23.
“Early on in the year, he would hit a home run and we’re all jumping up and down,” Yankees hitting coach Dillon Lawson said of Judge. “It isn’t that we’re not excited about it anymore, but it’s just a different form of excitement. You’re like, ‘Wow, again’ and ‘again, oh my gosh’ and ‘again!’ You’re more in awe of it now that it’s sustained and that it’s gone on for this long. He’s been so consistent, not just on the field but in the clubhouse.”
It is not like Judge hadn’t been a great hitter already. In his five full seasons before 2022, he had 154 home runs, a .954 on-base plus slugging percentage, three All-Star selections, a 2017 A.L. Rookie of the Year trophy and was runner-up for the Most Valuable Player Award that season.
But Lawson said Judge has been even better now because he is constantly tweaking, focusing especially well on his load — how he readies his body before swinging — and he has been even better at controlling how he hits the ball.
An already elite bat speed coupled with an improved bat path through the strike zone has meant even more home runs — left, right and center — on all sorts of offerings. Judge is hitting the ball just as hard this year as past seasons (an average exit velocity of 95.8 miles per hour), but making more contact on the barrel of the bat than ever and hitting more fly balls than before.
In other words, Judge has been a terror to opposing pitchers. He is 6-foot-7, 282 pounds and can clobber all types of pitches; for example, he has a whooping M.L.B.-leading .822 slugging percentage against the most important one of all, the fastball. Lawson said that Judge has not only hammered opposing pitchers’ mistakes but he has also been taking away their successes.
“Some pitchers are really good at not missing into a hitter’s damage zone,” Lawson said. “For righties, that’s mostly down and in, and guys can keep their fastballs up and out away from it. He’s done a really good job of recognizing who those guys are and picking his times to be like, ‘All right, I’m going to leave my area of strength and I’m going to take their strength away.’”
The result is a season for the ages. Based on one advanced statistic — O.P.S.+, which adjusts for the varying sizes in ballparks and compares a player to his peers — Judge has a 213 O.P.S.+, good for top 50 of all time. Another way of saying it: since a 100 O.P.S.+ is league average, Judge is more than twice as good as an average hitter. Mike Trout, a three-time A.L. M.V.P., has gotten close but never recorded an O.P.S.+ of 200 or more in a season.
The historic performance is a result of Judge being relentless at the plate, according to his teammate Stanton.
“When the game is out of hand or you already got three hits on the day, that fifth at-bat is the most important of the day,” he said. “A lot of those subconsciously you lose your focus maybe. So from my vantage point, I see him giving away the least amount of at-bats. Over 600-700 at-bats in a season, when you have that power and you get two extra at-bats per series, you add that up.”
When asked over the weekend in what ways he had become a better hitter, as he is also vying for another rare feat of a triple crown, Judge’s answer was simple: “Staying on the field and getting more at-bats.” He was alluding to his health this season. After battling injuries from 2018 to 2020, he has largely avoided the injured list since.
During a game at Yankee Stadium over the summer, Judge clubbed another home run and his total was in the 40s, and he and Lawson were sitting near the bat rack in the dugout and having a typical debrief: Did the at-bat play out as you were expecting? Were you looking for that pitch?
Then Lawson couldn’t help himself. He complimented Judge, saying, “My kids’ kids are going to be talking about this.” Judge simply smiled. Reflecting on the moment later, Lawson added, “I’ll pass away and there’s going to be generations that are gone that will still be talking about Aaron Judge the way that they talk about these Yankees legends.”
Asked repeatedly in recent weeks about his chase of Maris (or Ruth), Judge has often demurred and pointed to his focus on winning. “I’m thinking about we’re coming down the stretch and we’ve got some big games coming up,” he said after smashing his 58th and 59th home runs on Sunday.
Even though Judge publicly downplayed the possibility of making history, fans and his teammates knew the significance of the number 60. When he was with the Miami Marlins in 2017 and won the National League M.V.P. Award, Stanton hit 59 home runs. He had three games remaining in the regular season to reach 60 and didn’t get there.
“You want to get to the round number,” he said recently. “For me, anyway, that was a good one to shoot for.” And on Tuesday, Judge got there, a place very few others have reached.