Something I’ve come around on in recent years is how significant the impact outside circumstances might have on a player’s performance. For example, moving to a new city across the country, pressure-filled spots at the end of a game or in the postseason, or perhaps a constant feeling of “all eyes on me.” Aaron Judge’s chase for 62 (or more) home runs has been the biggest story in baseball for a while now, even more so now that Albert Pujols notched his 700th last week. Pressure, and an ability to deal with it is part of being an athlete, but what Judge is up against seems extraordinary compared to almost anything else. There is a chance that it affects him very little, or less than it would others, but it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t at least float in the back of his head.
This attention is a regular part of record and milestone chasing for athletes, and it would seem to be a bit magnified in baseball, considering you have to wait your turn to be fully in the spotlight. This is especially the case when it’s an individual accomplishment.
ESPN has been cutting away from college football broadcasts to show Judge’s at-bats. He’s asked about his home runs virtually any time he’s interviewed. A camera operator follows him up to the plate every time he gets up. The crowd stands for the duration of his at-bats and collectively groans on basically any non-home run pitch. Even when Judge hits a 110 mph single, there is audible disappointment. These have to be difficult circumstances in which to hit, let alone hit home runs.
Roger Maris, who’s family has attended recent Yankees games to watch Judge, faced similar pressure and even scrutiny in his pursuit of 61. And it became evident that this affected him on and off the field. In the time between his 599th and 600th home run, Alex Rodriguez had this increased attention on him, and experienced a somewhat prolonged slump in that time. It is not all that surprising these things can happen.
Even Derek Jeter, seemingly as stoic as they come, admitted he felt pressure to get his 3000th hit, and particularly to get it in the Bronx. If it’s on the mind of someone like Jeter, one would have to imagine it’s at least in the back of Judge’s head too.
I don’t think Judge is “pressing” and he certainly isn’t crumbling under the pressure. In fact, he has a 180 wRC+ headed into Monday since his last game with a homer. But there must be some kind of effect having to hit in these conditions, even though he is doing just fine, the added difficulty should be acknowledged.
This attention is not a bad thing either, if anything, the added buzz of national attention has made this chase all the more enjoyable. Watching how exactly he handles it makes the process more interesting too.
It’s more likely than not, that at some point Judge hits his 61st, 62nd, or even more home runs before the conclusion of the regular season. Regardless, he is in the midst of one of the best seasons in the long history of this sport, in the biggest media market in the country. That’s going to garner some attention. Judge seems to be handling it well, certainly better than many others would, but the effect of such pressure seems impossible to ignore. The added difficulty of fans groaning at his every move, and every camera following him throughout the game only adds to the impressiveness of Judges 2022 season.