“Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
—David Foster Wallace, “Roger Federer As Religious Experience” (2006)
Four months ago, I borrowed Wallace’s terminology to try to put into words just how spectacular Aaron Judge’s development has been over the course of his career. What could easily have been a career relegated to little more than Herculean power and gale force whiffs, based strictly on his intimidating physical presence and penchant to hit a ball further than most humans are capable of, turned instead into a genuinely excellent all-around ballplayer with a habit of producing jaw-dropping moments on both sides of the ball.
Two months after that article went live, Judge’s bat went ballistic and made us realize that his pursuit of the American League home run record — a record that has stood for 61 years, conveniently enough — wasn’t going to be a fluke. His run inspired me to return to the religious metaphor I borrowed from Wallace in my original article, despite originally having had no intention to do so, to explore why I found Judge’s talent so hard to capture in words. Much like Federer’s brilliance, Judge’s talent is not something that you watch, it’s something that you experience. His game is filled with otherworldly, surreal, improbable moments, where you will likely see something that you didn’t realize was humanly possible. A religious experience, if you will.
Now, some six weeks after publishing that essay, I’m back to talking about the religious experience of Aaron Judge and how his 2022 campaign has turned the modern game into a spectacle.
In his original essay from 2006, Wallace writes:
“In the same emphatic, empirical, dominating way that Lendl drove home his own lesson, Roger Federer is showing that the speed and strength of today’s pro game are merely its skeleton, not its flesh. He has, figuratively and literally, re-embodied men’s tennis, and for the first time in years the game’s future is unpredictable.”
This is precisely what Aaron Judge has done this season. In a three-true-outcome era of the game, where sluggers and teams alike are often content with high strikeout rates so long as they coincide with high on-base percentages and high power output, Judge has found a way to not only dominate that style of play, but to also transcend the perceived limitations of it, both technically and stylistically.
Entering the final stretch of what has been a remarkable season, Judge finds himself in prime position to be discussed amongst the most dominating seasons of all-time when all is said and done. Here are some of the statistics* that make that statement true: his 55 home runs lead the entire league, with Kyle Schwarber’s 37 a distant second place; his 120 runs batted in also lead the entire league, with Paul Goldschmidt, a likely MVP in his own right, 11 behind; his .410 on-base percentage trails Goldschmidt’s by a margin of just a single point for the league lead; and his .683 slugging percentage is 76 points higher than the next highest in the league. And that’s not even mentioning the advance stats, where he is well on his way to a 204 wRC+ season that would put him in truly elite company and where his 9.3 fWAR (through the start of play on Saturday) blows the competition out of the water.
But stating these facts without the context of these numbers doesn’t do Judge’s season justice. When I wrote the first two essays in this series, the Yankees were the best team in baseball by a fairly significant margin, thanks in large part to Judge’s first half. From Opening Day until July 31, when I published the second piece in this series, Judge slashed .297/.383/.671 with 42 home runs and a 194 wRC+. And somehow, despite the Yankees’ second-half collapse, he has actually played better since then. From the beginning of August until the first game in the Tampa Bay Rays series, he has slashed .325/.487/.718 with 13 home runs and a 231 wRC+, despite the fact that the vast majority of the lineup around him has either been injured or entirely ineffective. He’s also done this while swiping bases at a career high clip, playing outstanding defense, chasing a home run record, and, now, hunting down a potential triple crown.
Technical discussions of the game aside, though, Judge has also managed to overcome the stylistic limitations of the modern game that some fans, both traditional and analytically-inclined alike, struggle to reconcile. Three-true-outcome baseball has become a painstaking topic of conversation amongst fans in recent years, as some blame high strikeout rates and a lack of the ever-elusive “situational hitting” for the slide in popularity that baseball is experiencing while others extol the benefits of trading strikeouts for guys who hit the snot out of the baseball. Though I, admittedly, fall in the latter camp, even I have to admit that, at times, this type of strategy isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing on-field product.
But then there’s Judge, who has found a way to translate his game of high strikeouts — when Saturday began, he found himself 21st in the majors with a 25.5 percent strikeout rate — physics-defying strength, and a preternatural ability to work a walk into spectacle. Since the middle of April, every Aaron Judge at-bat has been must-see television, even when the Yankees were beating up on their opponents at a historic rate or, later, when they found themselves collapsing at a historic rate. It’s become commonplace to wait with bated breath for Judge’s spot in the lineup to come up, no matter the game situation, and you can almost feel a palpable energy through the television when his 6-foot-7, 282-pound frame steps up to the plate, as if something magical is guaranteed to happen.
I genuinely cannot remember the last time a spectacle of this nature existed in Yankee Stadium, the hallowed grounds of arguably the most storied sport in North America.
I’m way over my word count, unfortunately, but I want to return to Wallace’s words just once more. Genius of Aaron Judge’s caliber is simply not replicable. He has turned himself into a one-of-one talent, a one-man wrecking crew capable of feats I didn’t think that I would ever see again in my lifetime, who knows the game on such an intricate level that his utter domination of it becomes so much more than simple entertainment. To watch Aaron Judge step up to the plate in 2022 is to see, up close, the game of baseball reconciling with itself and, in turn, the best player in the game re-define our experience of it.