Going Like Sixty?

If you now consider a 60-home run season the Promised Land for a power hitter, Aaron Judge awoke Monday morning one bomb from crossing the Jordan River. And yet ... and yet ... the philistine contingencies continue asking the wrong questions about whether Judge will have done it, ahem, "legitimately."

The Leaning Tower of 161st Street parked number 58 deep the other way to right field, with one out in the top of the third in Miller Park Sunday, cutting a Yankee deficit to two runs. Then, after Aaron Hicks homered to pad a Yankee lead to 5 runs in the top of the seventh, he turned on a 1-2 pitch and yanked number 59 to the same real estate. The Yankees went on to win 12-6, with Judge taking care of the final two runs with a top of the ninth two-run double.

"Sorry to repeat the same line," said Yankee starting pitcher Gerrit Cole postgame, "but it's historical. I got nothing else for you. It's the greatest offensive season that I've personally ever witnessed. I don't know what else to say. I mean, it's wonderful. I'm riding it, dude. It's amazing."

With those two blasts, Judge became the single-season home run champion among American League right-handed hitters, passing Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg (58 in 1938) and Jimmie Foxx (58 in 1932). He also tied the single-season record for multiple-homer games Greenberg set in 1938 and Sammy Sosa equaled in 1998. And he couldn't care less about it in one way.

"I focus on doing what I can to be a good teammate, help the team win," he told reporters postgame. "If that means hitting a homer, then it means hitting a homer, but it's never been my focus, never been my main objective." Don't let him fool you. When he passes Roger Maris for the undisputed American League single-season home run championship, that snaggle-toothed smile of his is going to blast brighter than an atomic bomb.

If the only thing impressing you about what Judge is trying to accomplish is getting to 60 faster than Babe Ruth and 61 faster than Maris, so be it. If those are second to whether Judge hits 60+ by game 154, since Ruth did that in 1927, so be it, too. The length of season factor was settled long enough ago. It remains far less relevant than other things.

Some of those things have been broken down and analysed splendidly by an MLB.com writer, Mike Petriello. After Judge proved that, unlike Sammy Hagar, he could drive 55 in game 136, Petriello had the audacity to look at the deepest data possible. Like me, he refuses to accept that the thinking person's sport, which is also the deepest sport, should be allergic to thinking and depth.

Petriello went above and beyond the primary truth that still discomfits enough even today, Ruth never having faced the truly best available competition in official league play, through no fault of his own and all fault of (ahem) Organized Baseball of the era. (The biracial Judge would have been persona non grata in Ruth's game.) But Petriello made the parallel note that in 1927 only five players were born outside the United States, while 2022 includes 418 such players.

The Babe also didn't face a third of the volume of pitchers Judge has faced, fresh or otherwise. In 1927, Ruth faced 67 pitchers all season long; Maris in 1961 faced 101. Judge faced 224 entering game 136 and 232 by the time that day's doubleheader ended. On a day when Twins rookie Louie Varland pitched a splendid debut game otherwise, the poor guy had the honor of being welcomed rather rudely to the majors by a seven-year veteran advancing upon history with a roundhouse punch into the left field seats.

"With series remaining against two teams he's not seen yet (Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) and the usual September roster shenanigans," Petriello wrote then, "Judge might get up to around 240 or so pitchers faced, all with their own arm slots, repertoires and approaches. It will be nearly four times what Ruth saw, and more than twice what Maris saw." Variety is the life of spice, and a challenge to the bombardier.

In Ruth's day, too, the idea of relief pitching as we came to know it barely took hold, if at all, above and beyond the Washington Senators' Firpo Marberry and maybe one or two more. That was then: most relievers not named Marberry were brought in only upon injury or disaster. (Sometimes both.) This is now: relief pitching is a long-sanctioned, time-enough-honored element in baseball's art and craft.

Ruth got to enjoy a privilege about which Judge can only fantasize now, seeing a pitcher for a third or even fourth time in a game. Petrillo then sees and raises himself: Ruth got to face a pitcher for a third time or more 35 percent of the time in 1927; Maris, 30 percent in 1961. Judge? Seventeen percent.

Even Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds among the 60+ home run club got to face pitchers a third time around more often, from Sosa's 20 percent in 2001 to his (1998), Bonds (2001), and McGwire's (1998) 22 percent, then to McGwire's and Sosa's 24 percent (1999).

It gets a little more bizarre, Petriello noted: Judge has seen only one starter a fourth time around this year, twice--and both times, it was Max Scherzer. Judge does have one bomb off Scherzer, a third-inning blast on 22 August, but he flied out the third time he faced Scherzer that day. Almost a month earlier, Judge faced Scherzer in a 6-3 Yankee loss, and Max the Knife struck him out thrice after surrendering a first inning fly out.

Petriello's deep dive also exhumed that Ruth in 1927 hit nine home runs off relievers he got to see a second time in a game, and over half his home runs came at the expense of either starters he saw a third time or more or relievers he saw a second time around or more. Judge should be so lucky: it's only happened to him 19 percent of the time this year.

"If [Judge] saw starters being used the same way the Babe did," Petriello wrote dryly, "he might be looking at an 80-homer season at this point." The flip side to the coin is that if Ruth saw the volume of quality pitching Judge sees, he might have been lucky to break his own original record of 29 in 1919. (For all you 154-game season chauvinists, 1919 was a 140-game season. Shall we declare Ruth the original "illegitimate" record-breaker because he had a 154-game season to hit 54 for a new record in 1920?)

Judge season's average is one bomb every 2.5 games. If he stays on the pace, he might hit 65 at minimum. That would be 1 short of Sosa's best, 5 short of McGwire's, and 8 shy of Bonds, not to mention all alone atop Yankee history. For now, the Leaning Tower of 161st Street is the most prolific single-season right-handed home run hitter ever to wear the Yankee pinstripes.

"The baseball world has changed considerably since 2001, or 1961, or 1927," Petriello wrote, blissfully unconcerned for the philistine contingency which persists in thinking that the game had no business changing at all, never mind that some changes over all those decades have been nothing but beneficial to baseball's health while others amount to calling repairmen to fix what wasn't actually broken.

Almost all of it has changed in a way to make hitting more difficult, for any number of reasons, most revolving around velocity, pitch movement, and the endless streams of high-octane arms who don't worry about pacing themselves to go deep into games. This, above all else, is why the strikeout rate keeps going up; the next time a batter from a half-century ago complains about today's hitters, remember that their task is immeasurably more difficult than his was. (Emphasis added.)

Remember, too, that Judge is playing in a season in which nobody's still really dead certain whether he'll get to swing on a rabbit ball or a miniature medicine ball on any given day. But it almost doesn't matter. (Almost.) You can throw Judge a ball of seaweed, and he can hit it into the upper deck.

But he might hit more than ten more homers, too. Continuing to put the lie to manager Trey Wilson (in Bull Durham) telling his stumbling team, "This ... is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball." If it was that simple, Judge's 6'7" height would be the only large thing about him.

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