How Aaron Judge can hit 60 (or 70?!) home runs this season in 5 easy steps

How Aaron Judge can hit 60 (or 70?!) home runs this season in 5 easy steps post thumbnail image

New York Yankees star Aaron Judge crushed his 45th home run of the season two days ago in Seattle, a towering 412-foot shot that landed in the second deck, off a first-pitch slider from the Dickensian-named Penn Murfee. As far as Judge home runs go, this one was actually rather pedestrian: His 36th-best exit velocity, 26th-best in distance and 11th in highest launch angle at 32 degrees. Yes, just a routine second-deck home run.

It was Judge’s 15th home run in his past 23 games as he continues to tower over both leagues. He has 11 more home runs than Kyle Schwarber, the No. 2 home run hitter in the majors. If that spread holds the rest of the season, it would be the largest margin since Jose Bautista hit 54 in 2010, 12 more than Albert Pujols, and if Judge can get the spread up to 13, it would be the largest since Willie Mays hit 13 more than Willie McCovey in 1965.

The bigger number that is now in sight, however: 60 … or 62 … or even … it almost feels ridiculous to say it out loud … 74.

The Yankees have played 112 games. Who are the leaders for most home runs through 112 team games played?

Barry Bonds, 2001: 47

Babe Ruth, 1921: 46

Aaron Judge, 2022: 45

Mark McGwire, 1998: 45

Mark McGwire, 1999: 44

Bonds, of course, would go on to finish the 2001 season with a record 73 home runs, breaking McGwire’s total of 70 established three years prior. OK, chasing down Bonds will be almost impossible — Judge’s season-long pace puts him at 65 — but he has a great chance to become just the sixth player to reach 60 home runs (it has happened nine times total) and Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 is clearly within reach.

Needless to say, given that the only players with more than 61 are Bonds, McGwire and Sammy Sosa, many will consider 62 the single-season record, or at least the “clean” record. We’ll leave that debate to another time, but I expect there will be a lot of attention given to Judge chasing down Maris’ 61. At the minimum, the AL record itself is an important record to go after.

Anyway, let’s compare Judge to the previous eight 60-homer seasons and consider how those players reached those numbers (aside from extra-curricular help). For the record, those eight seasons:

Bonds, 2001: 73

McGwire, 1998: 70

Sosa, 1998: 66

McGwire, 1999: 65

Sosa, 2001: 64

Sosa, 1999: 63

Maris, 1961: 61

Ruth, 1927: 60

1. Avoid homerless droughts

Makes sense. You’re not going to reach 60 home runs if you have a long stretch of homerless games at some point during the season. It’s hard enough to average 10 home runs per month over the six-month regular season without slumping, let alone with one. Surprisingly though, of our 60-homer seasons, the player with the longest drought is the guy at the top:

Bonds, 2001: 13 games

McGwire, 1998: 8 games (twice)

Sosa, 1998: 11 games

McGwire, 1999: 12 games

Sosa, 2001: 9 games

Sosa, 1999: 8 games

Maris, 1961: 10 games

Ruth, 1927: 10 games

Bonds’ 13-game drought was from June 24 through July 8, a stretch when he hit .214 (9-for-42). July would prove to be Bonds’ worst home run month with six, but he would catch McGwire from behind, slamming 28 home runs the final two months (while hitting .376).

A good example of somebody who failed to reach 60 due to a big slump was McGwire in 1997, the year before he set the record. He finished the season with 58, but had a 19-game homerless stretch from July 17 through Aug. 7 — perhaps brought on by the stress of trade rumors (the A’s ended up trading him to the Cardinals).

As for Judge, his longest homerless stretch so far has been seven games, from April 14 to April 21. Judge actually homered just once in his first 13 games before finally breaking out with a two-homer game at home against Cleveland on April 22. Let’s discount that slow start due to the short spring training and the cold weather we saw early in the season. In the 95 games he has played since, Judge has 44 home runs. If he plays all remaining 50 games and continues to homer at the same pace, we get 23 more home runs — and a season total of 68. Overall, his ability to avoid long slumps — which he’s had in the past, including a 15-game drought when he hit 52 as a rookie — has been a key to his extraordinary season.

2. Play in a big offensive season

Yeah, this makes sense as well. Nobody in 1968 or 1972 or 1988 or 2014 was going to hit 60 home runs — those were low-scoring seasons. All eight of the 60-homer seasons came in leagues that averaged at least 4.50 runs per game:

Bonds, 2001: 4.70 runs per game/1.14 home runs

McGwire, 1998: 4.60 runs per game/0.99 home runs

Sosa, 1998: 4.60 runs per game/0.99 home runs

McGwire, 1999: 5.00 runs per game/1.12 home runs

Sosa, 2001: 4.70 runs per game/1.14 home runs

Sosa, 1999: 5.00 runs per game/1.12 home runs

Maris, 1961: 4.53 runs per game/0.95 home runs

Ruth, 1927: 4.92 runs per game/0.35 home runs

Ruth, of course, famously outhomered every other AL team in 1927, but that was a different era and different style of game. His actual offensive environment, however, was very high at nearly five runs per game.

McGwire and Sosa in 1998 and Maris in 1961 set their marks in expansion seasons, so it often gets mentioned that they took advantage of the bump in additional pitchers in the league. Maybe so, but the National League in 1998 averaged exactly the same number of runs per game as it did in 1997, with home runs still averaging less than one per game per team. The AL in 1961 saw only a small increase in offense, from 4.39 runs per game to 4.53.

Judge, on the other hand, is playing in a much tougher offensive environment. The AL in 2022 is averaging 4.22 runs per game and 1.06 home runs per game, compared to 2021 (4.60 runs/1.26 home runs) or the rabbit-ball year of 2019 (4.88 runs/1.43 home runs). If Judge or someone else was going to chase 60 in this era, one of those other seasons would have made much more sense. The fact that he’s doing it in 2022 is all the more remarkable.

Judge’s toughest upcoming stretch might be a 10-game road trip to Oakland, Anaheim and Tampa Bay, three of the more pitcher-friendly parks in the AL, from Aug. 25 to Sept. 4. On the other hand, the A’s and Angels don’t exactly have the best pitching in the league. The Yankees finish the season with four games in Texas, including a doubleheader on the next-to-last day of the season (get your tickets now, Rangers fans).

3. Play in a favorable home stadium

Or at the minimum — don’t play in a pitcher’s park. It’s hard to imagine Judge chasing 60 if he did play in Oakland, for example. Here are the home/road numbers for the 60-homer seasons (home listed first):

Bonds, 2001: 37/36

McGwire, 1998: 38/32

Sosa, 1998: 35/31

McGwire, 1999: 37/28

Sosa, 2001: 34/30

Sosa, 1999: 33/30

Maris, 1961: 30/31

Ruth, 1927: 28/32

First off, it’s amazing that Bonds hit 37 home runs in what was then called Pac Bell Park. That was not an easy home run park, especially for left-handed batters, and you wonder how many fly balls Bonds might have hit into that triangle in right-center field that were caught that year. The surprising numbers here are that Maris and Ruth, despite the notorious short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, both hit more home runs on the road.

The record for home runs at home: Hank Greenberg’s 39 for the Tigers in 1938. He finished that season with 58. He had a chance to catch Ruth’s record of 60, but he didn’t homer his final five games — the final three of those on the road in Cleveland.

Bonds’ 36 is the record for the road. Who might have hit 60 if he had played in a different stadium? Jeff Bagwell hit 30 home runs on the road in 1999, but just 12 at home in the cavernous Astrodome. Or how about David Ortiz in 2006? He hit 32 on the road and 22 at Fenway Park.

Judge doesn’t hit left-handed like Maris and Ruth, but he hits so many home runs to right field and right-center that he is able to take advantage of the short porch at Yankee Stadium from time to time. He has hit 25 home runs at home (in 55 games) and 20 on the road (in 53 games). But, really, most of his home runs are hit so far that it doesn’t matter which park he’s in.

Statcast estimates, given the distance of each home run, how many of a player’s home runs would have been hit out of each ballpark (not factoring in weather, altitude or other external factors). Judge would have an estimated 47 home runs if all his games had been played at Yankee Stadium — but 53 in Cincinnati. So Yankee Stadium helps him a little bit. The Yankees’ remaining schedule is split evenly: 25 at home, 25 on the road.

4. Finish strong

To hit 60, you have to average 10 home runs per month. The guys who got to 60 averaged 12.9 home runs in the last month of the season (September and those final couple of days in October):

Bonds, 2001: 16

McGwire, 1998: 15

Sosa, 1998: 11

McGwire, 1999: 14

Sosa, 2001: 12

Sosa, 1999: 8

Maris, 1961: 10

Ruth, 1927: 17

Ruth’s 17 is tied with Albert Belle in 1995 for the last month (September/October) record. Five players have hit 16 in a month, including Bonds in his record 2001 season. More recently, J.D. Martinez did it in 2017. That was the season Giancarlo Stanton finished with 59 home runs. Stanton had mashed 18 in August, putting him on pace for 60, but he hit just eight in September as he seemed to wear down. He homered for the Marlins in Game 159, but went homerless those final three games.

The Yankees will play 31 games in September. Let’s say Judge has a September to remember and he hits 15 home runs. That means he could go homerless in the Yankees’ final 19 games of August and still reach 60. In order to match Bonds at 73, operating under the assumption he hits those 15 homers in the final month of the season, he needs to hit 13 in the Yankees’ next 19 games. So, yes, 73 appears out of reach. Then again … we mentioned Judge has hit 15 in his past 23 games. If he stays at that pace, that’s 32 more home runs — and 77 on the season.

5. Stay in the lineup

This goes without saying, but in Judge’s case it’s not about staying healthy, but how many games he’ll end up playing. First, the number of games played and games started for each player:

Bonds, 2001: 153/147

McGwire, 1998: 155/152

Sosa, 1998: 159/159

McGwire, 1999: 153/150

Sosa, 2001: 160/160

Sosa, 1999: 162/162

Maris, 1961: 161/160

Ruth, 1927: 151/151

That’s right, Bonds didn’t start 15 games in 2001. Ruth’s 151 games came in a 154-game season.

Judge has played in 108 of the Yankees’ 112 games — but started just 104. That has cost him some at-bats. And with a big lead in the division, the Yankees could very well focus on giving their starters an occasional day off down the stretch.

Indeed, despite the current tear Judge is on, manager Aaron Boone sat him last week in the series finale against Seattle (and despite facing a good starter in Luis Castillo). With a day off the next day, that meant two days off in a row for Judge. That had been his first non-start since July 12 (he entered as a pinch hitter that day) and first full missed game since July 7.

On the other hand, the Yankees are also battling the Astros for the best record in the AL and home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Yankees are also just 13-20 since July 3 — given that they’re 3-5 when Judge doesn’t start, maybe his rest days will remain infrequent.

Obviously, the Yankees will keep the bigger goal in mind: Getting to the World Series. But watching Aaron Judge over these final 50 games will be a pretty fun backup act.

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