Where Aaron Judge’s 2022 ranks among all-time best seasons

Where Aaron Judge’s 2022 ranks among all-time best seasons post thumbnail image

Right when you think Aaron Judge might slow down, he goes on another blistering home run barrage. In mid-August, he went a season-high nine games in a row without a home run, but he followed that drought with nine home runs in his next 14 games to put himself right back on record pace.

That run culminated with round-trippers in four consecutive games that displayed all his supernatural abilities at the plate: a 392-foot opposite-field shot at Tropicana Field off an outside changeup, a majestic 450-foot blast down the left-field line at the Trop off an insidesinker that soared into the upper deck, a 404-foot shot down the line and into the second deck at Yankee Stadium against a hanging slider (don’t hang a slider to Judge), and finally a mere 374-foot homer into the first row of the left-center bleachers that he simply muscled over the fence.

Judge is now sitting on 55 home runs through 141 team games — a 162-game pace of 64 that would eclipse Roger Maris’ American League record of 61. While the focus is understandably on his extraordinary home run total, Judge’s domination compared to his peers is perhaps even more astonishing. Consider his American League-leading offensive totals across the board compared to the closest AL hitter in each category:

Judge also leads in numerous other rate statistics and advanced metrics — on-base percentage, slugging percentage, adjusted OPS, weighted runs created, win probability added and ACIOMAPC (anxiety caused in opposing managers and pitching coaches).

Judge isn’t simply having a great home run season; he’s having one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time.

Let’s put Judge’s season into context

That suggestion might not compute with the general sporting public. After all, Judge isn’t going to hit .356 with 60 home runs like Babe Ruth did in 1927. He’s not going to hit .406 like Ted Williams in 1941. He is certainly unlikely to match Barry Bonds’ record 73 home runs from 2001. No other sport likes to compare its contemporaries to its past stars like baseball, and while baseball statistics are fun and wonderful and can tell amazing stories, they are also complex representations of time and place and style of game.

To solve for this in comparing players across generations, or at least to solve in an objective evaluation, we can use two statistics that serve as a general summation of a player’s offensive contribution: adjusted OPS (OPS+) and weighted runs created (wRC+), found respectively at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. These are both scaled to where 100 is a league-average hitter and a 200 OPS+ or 200 wRC+ are viewed as an absolute monster of a season. The last player with a 200 OPS+ or 200 wRC+ season: Barry Bonds in 2004. Before that: Bonds in 2003, 2002 and 2001. Before that: Sammy Sosa in 2001. Before that: Mark McGwire in 1998. Yeah, I know.

Aaron Judge currently has an OPS+ of 206 and a wRC+ of 203.

I took the 100 best seasons via OPS+ and the 100 best seasons via wRC+, both since 1901, which is widely considered the starting point of modern baseball. While the two statistics aren’t measuring quite the same thing — OPS will overvalue slugging and undervalue OBP — they still arrive at similar lists of players. When combining the two — and leaving off Juan Soto and Freddie Freeman from the shortened 2020 season and two other seasons from players who didn’t play 100 games — we get a list of 108 all-time best seasons, including Judge and Goldschmidt from 2022.

Just seven players are responsible for nearly half — 53 out of 108 — of these seasons: Ruth (12), Cobb (8), Williams (8), Bonds (8), Hornsby (6), Gehrig (6) and Mantle (5). If you want to list the greatest hitters of all time, those seven names are a pretty good start.

These players also dominate the very top of the leaderboard. Bonds, Ruth and Williams are responsible for the best 11 seasons in OPS+ — Bonds’ 2002, 2004 and 2001 seasons rank first, second and third with McGwire’s 1998 season, the only one from outside the big seven to crack the top 20. Likewise, the big seven take the top 22 spots on the wRC+ leaderboard until McGwire again comes in at No. 23. Bonds take first, third and fourth here, with Ruth’s 1920 season ranking second.

If we break this into two blocks of 60 years, we get this:

–1901-1959: 61 seasons

–1960-2022: 47 seasons

All this is to say it’s more difficult than ever to have one of these seasons — not to mention that a large percentage of the best seasons of the past 60 years came from steroid-era sluggers. While players like Cobb, Ruth, Hornsby and Williams were evolutionary hitters, most of the evolution in today’s game comes from the pitchers. Those guys never had to face a pitcher like, oh, let’s say Spencer Strider and his 98 mph fastball, 88 mph changeup and 86 mph wipeout slider.

Yet … Judge’s 206 OPS+ ranks tied for 31st and his 203 wRC+ ranks tied for 27th. His metrics for 2022 easily top the other five best seasons since 2010:

Yes, Goldschmidt is also having a remarkable year in the National League, just not quite the equal of Judge’s, and certainly not the equal in the home run department — plus he’s doing it in a higher run-scoring environment. The AL has averaged just 4.20 runs per game, while the NL has averaged 4.41. This relatively low offensive environment makes Judge’s season even more remarkable. This isn’t the middle of the steroid era, when runs per game peaked at 5.39 in the AL in 1996.

Now, OPS+ and wRC+ are hardly perfect. They don’t factor in the game context of the performance; a home run with a 10-0 lead has the same value as a walk-off home run (Judge, by the way, has three of those this season). The other flaw is that both are rate statistics as opposed to cumulative — a 200 OPS+ in 575 plate appearances obviously isn’t as valuable as a 200 OPS+ over 675 plate appearances.

We can use adjusted batting runs to account for this — the number of runs a hitter is estimated to have created compared to a league average hitter. The leaderboard actually doesn’t change much here: Bonds’ 2001 season ranks first at 126 batting runs; his 2002 and 2004 seasons are tied for second at 124 runs. Three Ruth seasons follow.

Entering Saturday’s game, Judge is at plus-71 batting runs; that’s already a top-100 total (tied for 79th) and gives him a season pace of plus-83 — which would rank 38th all time. That might undersell his final numbers by a few runs given that he’s been scorching hot in the second half (he’s hitting .346/.495/.818 with 22 home runs in 46 games) and might not miss any games down the stretch with the Yankees now in a fight with the Rays for the AL East title.

Of the 37 seasons higher than Judge’s projected plus-83 batting runs, 25 of them came before 1950 — before integration of baseball was in full swing. Of the 12 since 1950, four of them were from Bonds from 2001 to 2004, plus McGwire in 1998 and Sosa in 2001 and Jason Giambi in 2001, all players suspected of or who have admitted to using PEDs. The other five are Mantle in 1956 (+87), Mantle (+92) and Williams (+89) in 1957, Norm Cash in 1961 (+85) and Bonds in 1993 (+88), before he allegedly began using PEDs. And Cash, who hit .361 with 41 home runs, later admitted to using a corked bat that season, crediting his success to “expansion pitching, a short right-field fence and my hollow bats.” He never hit .300 again.

Of course, this gets us into a more subjective evaluation of the greatest seasons. Do we dismiss Ruth because he played in a segregated era and against an inferior class of pitching than Judge faces? Do we dismiss some of Williams’ best seasons for the same reasons? Do we dismiss Bonds and McGwire because of steroids? Those are all well-tread arguments. But I do think part of what we’re considering is our emotional relationship to the most iconic seasons. Does Judge’s season compare?

How Judge’s 2022 stacks up to all-time great seasons

Babe Ruth, 1927

Why it’s the most iconic season ever: Ruth’s 60-home run season was so revered that when Maris was challenging it in 1961 in a season that had been expanded an extra eight games, commissioner Ford Frick declared there would be two records: One for 154 games and one for 162. Ruth, after revolutionizing the game, hit his 60 home runs for the Murderers’ Row Yankees — still regarded by some as the greatest team of all time.

Why it’s not: Heck, it’s not really Ruth’s best season. In terms of wRC+, it’s only his fifth-best season. In adjusted batting runs, tied for fourth.

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: Look, you can’t compare baseball in 1927 to baseball in 2022. Aside from the better pitching, managers now deploy a steady stream of flame-throwing relief pitchers. As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello pointed out, Ruth faced just 67 different pitchers in 1927; Judge has faced 228.

Hack Wilson, 1930

Why it’s the most iconic season ever: Hey, 191 RBIs is 191 RBIs. His 56 home runs remained the National League record until McGwire broke it in 1998. That’s an impressive daily double.

Why it’s not: The advanced metrics aren’t so impressive. Wilson’s 177 OPS+ isn’t even in the top 100, and neither is his 76 adjusted batting runs.

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: This is a classic example of why context matters. The 1930 National League was the highest-scoring season of the modern era at 5.68 runs per game. Wilson also played in a favorable hitter’s park, hitting .388 with 33 home runs at Wrigley Field compared to .321 with 23 home runs on the road. When you adjust for league and park factors, Judge has been much more valuable than the average hitter in his league than Wilson was.

Ted Williams, 1941

Why it’s the most iconic season ever: Williams’ season continues to grow in stature and legend as the last player to hit .400 — .406 to be exact. He famously reached that mark by going 6-for-8 in a doubleheader on the final day of the season. Throw out the metrics and go old school: .406 is .406 (oh, and Williams hit 37 home runs while striking out just 27 times).

Why it’s not: Williams didn’t even win MVP honors that year as voters were more impressed with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak (it also helped that the Yankees finished in first place). We’re also still in the pre-integration major leagues, and Williams received a big benefit from Fenway Park, where he hit .429. While the metrics adjust for home park factor, Williams probably doesn’t hit .400 in a different home park.

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: He might hit 30 more home runs than Williams did — while facing that higher caliber of pitching.

Mickey Mantle, 1956

Why it’s the most iconic season ever: Mantle’s Triple Crown season — .353, 52 home runs, 130 RBIs — remains the treasured memory of many kids who grew up in the 1950s. There’s a reason a Mickey Mantle rookie card just sold for $12.6 million. He’s perhaps the most beloved player of all time, the seminal star of the team that dominated the era.

Why it’s not: Mantle certainly dominated his league, smashing 20 more home runs than any other AL player — but his 1957 season, when he posted a .512 OBP, might actually be better as it rates higher in OPS+, wRC+ and adjusted batting runs.

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: Yes, Mantle hit 20 more home runs than Vic Wertz — but just nine more than Brooklyn’s Duke Snider. Judge owns a towering 19-homer lead over Kyle Schwarber for the major league lead. That would be the biggest margin for the major league home run leader since 1928, when Ruth hit 23 more than our man Hack and Jim Bottomley. Judge is completely and utterly dominating this category in an era when everyone is trying to hit home runs — and when home runs aren’t as cheap as the rabbit-ball seasons of 2017 and 2019.

Roger Maris, 1961

Why it’s the most iconic season ever: Look, there are 61 reasons everyone remembers Roger Maris’ 1961 season. But outside of the home run total that made it legendary, well …

Why it’s not: Maris didn’t even lead his own team in OPS+ that season, as his 167 mark was well behind Mickey Mantle’s MLB-best 206. Maris also finished sixth in the majors in offensive WAR behind Mantle, Cash (remember that corked-bat season I mentioned earlier?), Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: While we could be waiting until the final days of the season to see if Judge passes Maris’ home run total, the two seasons really aren’t close overall. What Judge is doing in this season’s run-scoring environment is on another level, whether he trots around the bases 62 times or not.

Carl Yastrzemski, 1967

Why it’s the most iconic season ever: He won the Triple Crown and MVP, but it was his September heroics in carrying the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox to the pennant that adds additional luster to this season. You like clutch? Yaz was beyond clutch. He hit .417 in September, including .491 with 18 RBIs in Boston’s final 15 games (and 7-for-8 the final two games as the Red Sox clinched on the last day of the season). Thanks to some outstanding defensive metrics, his 12.5 WAR ranks fourth best all time, behind three Ruth seasons.

Why it’s not: Sorry, this comparison is only about offense, and Yaz’s 193 OPS+ isn’t quite at Mount Everest level.

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: What more do you want from the man? At times, he seems to be carrying the entire offense. The Yankees lead the AL in runs scored and home runs, and it sure isn’t because of Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Aaron Hicks and the dearly departed Joey Gallo. And speaking of clutch, Judge is hitting .366/.526/.774 with runners in scoring position, .395 with two outs and runners in scoring position and an impressive .259/.411/.635 with nine home runs in 85 at-bats in “late and close” moments, when he’s facing the best relievers in the business.

Mark McGwire, 1998

Why it’s the most iconic season ever: We all loved it as he chased down Maris and finished with 70 home runs.

Why it’s not: ‘Roids.

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: MANY players put up unheard of numbers in this era — not just McGwire, Sosa and Bonds. From 1995 to 2007, there were 23 50-homer seasons and another 41 of 45 or more. It was the best era aside from the 1920s and ’30s to put up big numbers. Judge is doing it in a season where it is decidedly not easy to do it.

Barry Bonds, 2001-2004

Why it’s the most iconic season(s) ever: From 2001 to 2004, Bonds perfected the art of hitting like no batter before him. He hit 73 home runs and slugged .863 in 2001. He hit .349 over the four seasons. By 2004, pitchers were simply tired of even pitching to him, intentionally walking Bonds 120 times. He hit .362/.609/.812. This was grown-man baseball, and Bonds got on base more than 60% of the time. We will never see the likes of these numbers again.

Why it’s not: Umm …

Why Judge’s season is more impressive: Can we just settle this with a Home Run Derby against a time-traveling Bonds?

So where does this leave Judge?

Objectively, Judge appears to be headed for a top-30 season in history. He looks like he’ll likely pass Ruth and Maris, which certainly will make it an iconic season beyond wherever his OPS+ lands. Subjective evaluation is a little more difficult. There are those who will simply dismiss what Ruth did or what Williams did due to not facing all the best pitchers of their generation; not to mention that we haven’t even mentioned Josh Gibson, who might have been every bit their equal as a hitter.

At the same time, I’m confident Ruth or Williams would have made the adjustments to modern pitching to remain the best in the game. Imagine Teddy Ballgame with video!

I used the word “impressive” above because I think that’s a good way to put it: What seasons simply impress you the most? There’s a reason we still remember Ruth’s 60 home runs and Williams’ .406 average and Mantle’s Triple Crown and Bonds’ .863 slugging. These are the greatest seasons of all time. If Judge doesn’t fade these final three weeks and finishes with 64 home runs and a 206 OPS+ or wRC+ then, yes, he fits in alongside those legends — a top-10 all-time season in my book.

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