Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 31, 2022 -- "Aaron Judge"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 81
August 31, 2022

Aaron Judge hit homers #50 and #51 the last two nights in Anaheim, placing him on this list:

Good Company (50+ homers prior to September 1)

Barry Bonds   2001   57
Mark McGwire  1998   55
Sammy Sosa    1998   55
Sammy Sosa    1999   52
Six tied with        51

This is Judge’s second 50-homer season, making him the tenth player to hit 50 at least twice and the first since Alex Rodriguez had his third 50-homer campaign in 2007.

Judge’s homer last night, a fourth-inning, three-run blast off Mike Mayers that just about ended the contest, came off the bat at 107.5 mph, another in a long line of Judge rockets in his seven-season career. Since Judge’s debut season in 2016, just one player has hit more balls with an EV of 110 mph or higher. The two know each other.

Rocket Launcher (Batted balls with 110+ mph EV, 2016-22)
Giancarlo Stanton      296
Aaron Judge            253
Nelson Cruz            208
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.  179
Manny Machado          154

You can argue Judge versus Stanton, Stanton versus Judge. What you can’t argue is that these are the two most powerful hitters of their era, two of the most powerful hitters ever.

Because Judge has done this before, hitting 52 homers in 2017, his monster season isn’t entirely a surprise. What 2017 and 2022 have in common is volume. This is just the third time Judge has qualified for the batting title (502 PA for most players in most years), having been plagued by nagging injuries from 2018 through 2020. While playing more, he’s making the best contact of his career -- the best power hitter in baseball has a slightly above-average strikeout rate (25%). He’s also hitting more balls in the air; his groundball rate of 39% is his lowest since that 2017 season. Judge hits the ball so hard, so often, that elevating it is more valuable to him than to almost any other player in the game. This year, Judge’s fly balls have gone for homers 34.2% of the time, the sixth-highest full-season rate on record (since 2002, ex. 2020). That’s shy of his 2017 mark of 35.6%, second-best ever.

More plate appearances, more contact, more fly balls...more homers.

Judge’s great season has gone mostly unmentioned here, and that’s not an accident. I have largely shied away from his accomplishments, saying at one point I wanted Judge to hit 59 homers or 74. All the numbers in between, as was made very clear last night by one national writer (I’m not linking to him), would just open the door to turning what should be a great story for baseball into yet another opportunity to get turn of the century baseball wrong, to bash the declared villains, to go through the looking glass on what is “real” and what is not.

I don’t want to write about that. It’s a religion at this point, the Church of Steroids, and you either believe or you don’t. If you want to separate Judge out, give him special credit for what he’s doing, you can do it without reheating 20-year-old meals.

Records are most often broken when talent, opportunity, and context come together. For the clutch of players who have hit the most homers in a season, they all had talent, and they all played a lot in seasons when home runs were cheap. Go back to that chart above; ten players have gone into September with at least 50 homers, but in just six seasons. Giancarlo Stanton, the last player to do it, did so in 2017, when the league HR/PA was 3.3%, the highest in MLB history. Barry Bonds, who in 2001 had the most homers ever at this point in the season, did it in a league that hit homers 2.9% of the time, to that point the second-highest figure ever.

In 2022, with no pitchers batting, MLB is hitting homers 2.8% of the time. Judge isn’t benefiting from the rising tide of the double expansion of the 1990s or even the single expansion that helped Roger Maris. He’s hitting a baseball that is two-thirds lead and still chasing a 60-homer season.

Let’s put Judge’s performance in a different context. He has 51 homers, and no one else in baseball has 40. That just isn’t done, not since Babe Ruth was out-homering entire teams a hundred years ago. From 1919 to 1928, Ruth hit at least 13 homers more than the next guy did seven times. Twice, in 1920 and 1921, he hit 35 homers more than the second-place slugger. You’re paying money for a baseball newsletter: I can probably stop telling you Babe Ruth was good.

Outside of Ruth, the biggest lead any player ever had in the home-run race was 17, by Jimmie Foxx in 1932, when he hit 58 homers and...well, this is awkward...Babe Ruth hit 41. A year later, Foxx hit 48 and...yeesh...Ruth hit 34. That gap, 14, is the second-largest ever.

Lapping the Field (Biggest home-run race victories, non-Babe division)

                       HR   Lead
Jimmie Foxx     1932   58     17
Jimmie Foxx     1933   48     14
Willie Mays     1965   52     13
Buck Freeman    1899   25     13
Jose Bautista   2010   53     12
Cecil Fielder   1990   51     11
Kevin Mitchell  1989   47     11
George Foster   1977   52     11
Ralph Kiner     1949   54     11

When Barry Bonds hit 73, Sammy Sosa hit 64 and two other guys hit 50. When Mark McGwire hit 70, Sosa hit 66 and two other guys hit 50. Roger Maris’s 61 was chased by Mickey Mantle (54), and four other guys hit at least 45 homers.

Aaron Judge has 15 homers more than the next guy, Kyle Schwarber, does with a month to play. No one has won the home-run race by that much since Jimmie Foxx, and if Judge stretches the lead, he could do what no hitter has done since Babe Ruth.

Yes, records are usually set when talent, opportunity, and context come together. Judge is operating outside that formula, though, hitting bombs in a context that is punishing hitters for hitting the ball hard and up. Let’s spend this next month tracking him, enjoying him, marveling at him, centering him. Judge’s power in a league drained of it is the story.