Aaron Judge, Colossus of Clout

© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For a moment, it seemed like Aaron Judge might not reach 62 home runs. After hitting his 61st in Toronto last Wednesday, he fell into what counts as a slump for him these days: four games, two hits, and a handful of walks. After feeling inevitable for most of September, 62 suddenly felt tenuous.

What a foolish sentiment. Judge, as we’ve seen all year, is a home run machine. He’s an offensive machine, in fact, blowing away the rest of the league with the kind of performance not seen since Barry Bonds in his prime. Unlike most single-season home run chases, Judge’s season isn’t defined by a single round number. His offensive greatness is so robust, so all-encompassing, that treating this accomplishment as the crowning achievement of his season is unfair.

The single-season home run record in major league baseball is 73. It was set in 2001, by Barry Bonds. Sixty-one has a ring to it, of course, because it was the record for so long. It was also the American League and Yankee record, two marks that feel weighty even if they aren’t quite as impressive as “best of all time.” Plenty of the fanfare around Judge comes from the sheer rarity of seeing so many homers, but plenty also comes from the fact that some fans would prefer to ignore everything that happened from 1998 to 2001 and make the record 61 again.

I’m giving you permission to tune all of that out. Sixty-two home runs is cool regardless of what the all-time record is. Only six players have ever accomplished the feat of hitting 60 home runs, and you know all of their names: Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, and now Judge. That alone is mind-blowing; baseball has been around an impossibly long time, through periods of high and low scoring, and yet only six players have ever cracked 60 home runs in a year throughout it all.

Does that mean hitting 62 is anti-climactic? I’ll leave that interpretation up to you. But more so than any one increment – would it be special at 63? 65? – I’m impressed by how handily Judge has lapped the league today. Is it cool to pass Maris? Undoubtedly. If nothing else, now Judge’s future offspring can traipse around the country and opine about someone else’s homers hit in the far-off future. More pressingly, though, Judge has left the rest of baseball behind in a way not seen for many years.

Home runs aren’t hit in a vacuum. The majors go through home run droughts and booms for myriad reasons, including pitcher talent, park dimensions, pitching style, and baseball composition. It’s hard to say whether 2022 Judge or 1961 Maris hit under easier conditions, but one way to look at it is to consider how many home runs separate the major league leader from their closest challenger at the end of each season. By that standard, Judge is in impressive company. Here are the top 11 seasons (including a 10th place tie) by home run gap since the dawn of the 20th century:

Home Run Gap between 1st and 2nd
Year Gap Leader Runner-Up
1921 35 Babe Ruth Bob Meusel
1920 35 Babe Ruth George Sisler
1926 26 Babe Ruth Hack Wilson
1928 23 Babe Ruth Jim Bottomley
1924 19 Babe Ruth Jack Fournier
1932 17 Jimmie Foxx Babe Ruth
1919 17 Babe Ruth Gavvy Cravath
2022 16 Aaron Judge Kyle Schwarber
1933 14 Jimmie Foxx Babe Ruth
1965 13 Willie Mays Willie McCovey
1927 13 Babe Ruth Lou Gehrig

First, yeah, that Babe Ruth guy was pretty good. Since the 1920s and ’30s, though, no one has done what Judge is doing. The only player to come close was Willie Mays, not exactly shabby company. Last year, Shohei Ohtani won an MVP by playing the way people think Babe Ruth did – pitching and hitting. This year, Judge is likely going to win an MVP by playing like Ruth actually did: with a ludicrous string of home runs that makes everyone else playing look like a weakling by comparison.

Even without that gap between Judge and Kyle Schwarber, though, this season would be an all-timer. The great arrow of baseball time points inexorably towards more uniformity and more talent. It’s a professional game; even the up-and-down bullpen arms and utility infielders of today work year-round at their craft, honing their bodies and minds in pursuit of fame and riches. In a sport where we measure success relative to a league baseline, that means it’s harder than ever to stand out.

This arc of progress isn’t some new phenomenon. Stephen Jay Gould, the late and celebrated biologist, wrote about it in 1986, though he framed it in terms of the extinction of .400 hitters. Standing out from the field simply gets harder with every generation because even the lesser lights of baseball now search for every possible edge.

To wit: wRC+, our marquee offensive statistic here at FanGraphs, considers a player’s production relative to his peers. A 150 wRC+ has no fixed statistical translation. It merely means that a player’s overall batting line is 50% better than the league as a whole. Judge’s mark – 208 heading into today’s action – means that he’s 108% better than the overall league.

In Ruth’s day, when dinosaurs walked the earth and many of baseball’s best players weren’t allowed to play in the same league as him, a 200 wRC+ wasn’t particularly uncommon. But as competition increased, players lapped the rest of the field less often. Ruth and Ted Williams each had career wRC+ marks that approached 200. Since 1972, though, there have only been nine individual seasons that eclipsed 200:

Highest Single-Season wRC+, 1972-2022
Year Player wRC+
2002 Barry Bonds 244
2001 Barry Bonds 235
2004 Barry Bonds 233
2003 Barry Bonds 212
2022 Aaron Judge 208
1994 Jeff Bagwell 205
1994 Frank Thomas 205
1998 Mark McGwire 205
2020 Juan Soto 202

Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Juan Soto all accomplished their feats in shortened seasons. Bonds – well, he’s Barry Bonds. That just leaves Judge and McGwire out of the last half-century. Heck, order every season by wRC+ and exclude Bonds, and that gives Judge the best single season relative to his peers since Williams (223) and Mickey Mantle (217) posted similarly absurd seasons in 1957.

If I had my druthers, that’s how Judge’s season would be remembered. Sixty-two home runs is neat, and I’m glad he got there. A 16-homer lead on the field is spectacular, the stuff that only long-forgotten icons of the game have ever even dreamed of. But putting together an offensive season that blows away the rest of the league to this degree, at a time when his peers are as good as they are? Goodness gracious. We probably won’t see another season like Aaron Judge’s 2022 in our lifetimes. Let’s appreciate it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

11.4 WAR tho. I did not ever expect to see that, from a pitcher because of workloads and from a hitter because pitchers are just so good. Anyone who had a chance would get a ton of value from defense like Betts and Trout (not that they aren’t fantastic hitters, but lotta dWAR in their biggest years of value thus far). Judge is a very good defender too but he really slugged his way to this. He hit a pace and he just kept going.

1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

At the very least, he’s average defensively and on the base paths which makes him the uncommon slugger who doesn’t give runs back to WAR with the glove or his legs.

Thomas in 1994 was -16.3 RAR on defense and baserunning (113 games)
McGwire in 1998 was -24.9
Soto in 2020 was -4.4 (47 games)

Bonds and Bagwell were pretty close to neutral in the years listed, like Judge this year.

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

Right, he has 16 steals too, somehow.

1 year ago
Reply to  MikeS

Judge has basically had the age-30 season that many of us had expecting from Mike Trout before he kept losing big chunks of time to injuries.

Last edited 1 year ago by tz
Pepper Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  JustinPBG

Interesting list of players who’ve hit 50+ homers more than once:

Babe Ruth
Jimmie Foxx
Ralph Kiner
Mickey Mantle
Willie Mays
Ken Griffey Jr.
Mark McGwire
Sammy Sosa
Alex Rodriguez
Aaron Judge

Of these, Kiner is probably the closest offensive comparison to Judge — he was an absolutely atrocious fielder which brought his overall value down, but when you lead your league in home runs in your first 7 years in the majors and have a career walk rate over 16%, you’re going to be a valuable player. As a short career player, Kiner is also probably a pretty good comparison for what Judge’s Hall of Fame case might end up looking like. It took Kiner 15 years on the ballot to get elected, and that was at least partly due to his becoming a beloved tv broadcaster. We’ll have to see where Judge’s career goes from here — it’s possible that he gets the Barry Bonds treatment going forward and puts up some absolutely insane OBP’s; it’s possible he gets hurt, who knows? But I can’t wait to see it, hopefully in pinstripes.

Nick Smithmember
1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

The odd thing about Kiner is how durable he was, averaging 147 games/yr. Considering that his career was notoriously cut short by injury, this always blows my mind.

1 year ago
Reply to  Nick Smith

Not counting 2020, Albert Pujols has averaged 145 games/season in his career. Only once in 22 seasons has he spent more than 20 days on the DL/IL.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lanidrac
1 year ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Sort of like Ripken, Albert probably should have taken more time off as he aged with his foot issues.

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

It’s funny. At a glance, I was thinking how much Judge’s offensive season looks like Hank Greenberg’s 1938.

Hank Greenberg 1938: 58 HR, .315/.438/.683
Aaron Judge 2022: 62 HR, .311/.425/.686

1 year ago
Reply to  sugarberg

Except Greenberg’s OPS+ is 169, Judge’s is 208!

Greenberg’s an interesting guy though. He missed most of his age 25 season due to injury. Then missed 4 1/2( years (!!) due to WWII- registered for the draft in late 1940 or a little over 1 year before Pearl Harbor..was initally ruled 4F, asked to be rexamined & was found eligible & was inducted into the Army almost immediately. He ended up serving until after V-E day in 1945.

Last edited 1 year ago by PC1970
1 year ago
Reply to  PC1970

Sure, I wasn’t proposing that their seasons were equally valuable. OPS+ and WAR clearly favor Judge. You make a good point, though. Greenberg would be more of a household name if he hadn’t missed virtually his entire prime to military service.

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

The words “atrocious fielder” should never be used when when speaking of Judge.

Pepper Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  sbf21

I mean, yeah, that’s one of the reasons he’s a way better player than Kiner.

1 year ago
Reply to  Pepper Martin

I find it interesting that 2 of the 4 players with 700+ career home runs (Aaron and Pujols) never hit 50+ in a season.

1 year ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

It’s also interesting that Bonds only hit over 50 once. high 40s multiple times, than suddenly 73 bombs

1 year ago
Reply to  GTOBalance

It’s almost like he was a different player.

Zachary Kahla
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He also dropped back down the next year, it was an outlier for him even in those years.

Last edited 1 year ago by Zachary Kahla
1 year ago
Reply to  Zachary Kahla

To be fair, that was mostly because teams stopped pitching to him for the next 3 years.