NEW YORK — Aaron Judge’s pursuit has become a transcendent one: Bigger than the Yankees, bigger than a game, bigger than the game. With the massive slugger sitting at 60 homers, each at-bat, each swing, each pitch has become a breathless spectacle; a potential glimpse of baseball history.
But what is the history? What is the allure?
After all, Judge trails not only the 61 homers of Roger Maris in 1961, but also the 73 of Barry Bonds (2001), the 70 (1998) and 65 (1999) of Mark McGwire, and the 66 (1998), 64 (2001), and 63 (1999) of Sammy Sosa.
Yet in many ways, what Judge is doing — at least purely from a power-hitting standpoint — is more impressive than what those other sluggers accomplished. When Maris hit 61, he was joined in the chase of Babe Ruth by Mickey Mantle (54). Sosa rode shotgun to both Bonds and McGwire, resulting in two players surpassing 60 homers in each of those three seasons.
Judge, however, has pulled away from the field in shocking fashion. This year’s de-juiced baseball — layered on top of a time when pitcher usage has shifted dramatically — has made power an increasingly rare commodity.
When Bonds hit 73, 11 other hitters had 40 or more homers. When McGwire hit 70, a dozen hitters crossed the 40-homer barrier. Even Maris, in his 61-homer season, was accompanied by seven other players hitting 40 or more homers.
But in 2022, Judge and Kyle Schwarber (40) are the only players in the big leagues to reach that benchmark. Judge is not a product of the game as it’s being played this year — he is an extraordinary, captivating departure from it, in a way that distinguishes him from the other players who reached and surpassed 60 homers in the last 95 years.
“He’s doing it in an era that is very tough to hit. Let’s put it that way. I’ll leave it at that,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora — an eyewitness to Bonds breaking McGwire’s three-year-old record in 2001 — when asked to compare the two feats. “The separation between him and the rest of the players is huge.”
The gap is as colossal as Judge himself. The idea that Judge has *20* more homers than any other big leaguer is hard to process.
In baseball history, only one player has ever finished a season with 20 more homers than the runner-up: Babe Ruth, who had back-to-back years in 1920 and 1921 in which he outpaced the homer runner-up by 35 longballs (54 to 19 in 1920; 59 to 24 in 1921), then hit 23 more homers than anyone else in 1928 (54 to 31).
Ruth also left the field in the dust in a slightly different fashion in 1919, while still with the Red Sox. He hit 29 when no one else in baseball hit more than 12, a landmark development in both his final year as a regular rotation contributor and as a member of the Sox. It was that performance that played a catalytic role in transforming how the game was played.
All of which is to say that Judge stands above his power-hitting peers literally and figuratively in a way that hasn’t been seen in 94 years, and in a way that has never been experienced by any player, except for Babe Ruth. In the 21st century, only one player has finished 10 homers ahead of the field — José Bautista, who in 2010 had 54 homers, 12 more than runner-up Albert Pujols.
“I go back to the context of the season. The more I look at it and dive into it, it’s gotta be an all-time great season,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “I think it mirrors other sports we’ve seen — [Wayne] Gretzky in the days when, what’s the difference between one and two? Jim Brown, Babe Ruth — I think it’s that kind of season that we’re looking at.
“The difference by that top guy and the next one seems like it’s a pretty huge gap in an era, in a time where it’s a tough climate to hit in. And he is hitting a ton of them.”
Another iconic name comes to mind: Secretariat pulling away to win by 31 lengths at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
What Judge is doing is remarkable in its own right. When viewed against the performances around the rest of the league, it becomes mind-blowing.