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Aaron Judge needed No. 62 more than he realized

Judge surpassing Maris’ record is the best thing that could have happened for the Yankees as they enter the playoffs.

New York Yankees v Texas Rangers - Game Two Photo by Bailey Orr/Texas Rangers/Getty Images

It took until Game 161, but Aaron Judge blasted his 62nd home run of the season, breaking a tie with Roger Maris to surpass the 61-year-old record for most home runs in a single season in AL history. It’s a remarkable feat — the likes of which we may not see for a generation — and the perfect conclusion to one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. However, for Judge and the Yankees, that home run served a far more important purpose than putting him in the record books.

The plain truth is that Judge was pressing at the plate as soon as he hit number 60 to tie Babe Ruth and put him one away from Maris. We heard manager Aaron Boone repeat ad nauseam in the 14 games between home runs number 60 and 62 that Judge’s at-bat quality remained unchanged despite the pressure both internal and external for him to tie and break the record. I’d agree with that sentiment — despite seeing far fewer pitches in the zone (29.8 percent zone rate vs. 39.3 percent prior to hitting number 60), he did not expand the zone (25.5 percent chase rate, down from 27 percent prior) and as a result drew walks at a Bondsian clip (30 percent vs. 14.6 percent prior).

At the same time, I’d draw the distinction that Judge’s approach at the plate became demonstrably different in the final two-plus weeks of the regular season with home runs number 61 and 62 tantalizingly within reach. To my eye, it appeared he was in full-on pull mode, which caused him to foul off a lot of mistake pitches.

Here’s a look at every pitch he was thrown between hitting his 60th and 62nd home runs:

I see a cluster of pitches up and in hit into play, a ton of foul balls on pitches middle-middle, and very little meaningful contact on the outside half of the plate. One of the things that made Judge so dominant this year was his ability to impact pitches in all four quadrants and drive them with power. He was equally able to leave the park opposite field on a pitch away as he was to pull an inside pitch for a tank. He abandoned much of this ability as he pressed for home runs number 61 and 62.

And here’s a spray chart of every ball hit into play during that span:

It tells a similar story. I count only three batted balls truly hit to the opposite field while the majority are to the pull side. Indeed, his pull rate jumped almost ten percentage points once he hit number 60. It’s considerably easier to pull a ball for a home run than leave the yard oppo, which to me hints that he was selling out for a pulled home run with each swing.

Below are two swings against the Orioles on 10/2 that I feel best illustrated the subtle differences in Judge’s approach at the plate while stuck on 60 and then 61.

Here is his at-bat with the bases loaded in the second inning:

And here is his third at-bat of the day, again with a runner on and thus ostensibly no free base to give him.

These are both pitches that a fully locked-in Judge deposits in the bleachers 460 feet away. His swings usually look effortless, even when he hits the ball 115 mph, but these swings look like he’s putting a little extra juice when he doesn’t need to. I’d echo the observation Paul O’Neill made on the YES Network broadcast. It appears Judge was working underneath the baseball as he tried to manufacture loft. This combined with being stuck in a pull mindset caused his front side to leak. When this happens, the barrel of the bat is in the hitting zone for less time, giving him less margin for error for solid contact.

This is why I feel Judge finally hitting number 62 was the best thing that could have happened not only for the slugger but for his team. There is no player in baseball more valuable to his team’s success than Judge. It’s a stretch to call a 177 wRC+ over two weeks a slump, but it’s hard to argue that Judge wasn’t underperforming while stuck on 60 and 61. With the regular season behind him and the home run crown in his trophy case, Judge can take the next several days to get back to the hitting mechanics that made him the best hitter in baseball for most of the season.

Judge has always maintained that he was singularly fixated on doing whatever he could to help his team win each day. Having the home run chase behind him and refocusing on winning each pitch in the playoffs will hopefully get him back to the swings we’re used to seeing from him. The Yankees need their superstar to lead them by example through the postseason, and now that the pressure of 62 is no longer looming, I am confident he will do so.