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Chasing Ghosts II: Aaron Judge’s Final Month

Checking in at the doorstep of history.

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It’s been three months and two days since I first wrote about Aaron Judge hunting 62 home runs. At the time, I knew it was a risk to talk about the chase — Judge had “just” 21 long balls at the time, a third of the way to Roger Maris’ 61, and so much baseball left to play. Judge has a history of injuries, the math was against him staying so hot, he was doomed to fall off his pace.

He has 27 games left to hit seven home runs, 90 percent of the way to passing Maris with 83 percent of the season played. Both Steamer and ZiPS, the projection systems FanGraphs relies on, have Judge finishing at 62 exactly. He’s blown past all his projections this season already, and its the last time I’ll mention FanGraphs in this post, because what matters about Aaron Judge in 2022 is how he makes us feel, and less about the final number.

The Yankee season has been divided, almost perfectly in half, by unprecedented dominance followed by hair-pulling frustration. At the time that first post on the chase for 62 came out, the Yankees were 39-15, a .722 win percentage that had them on pace for the greatest regular season of all-time. Aaron Judge was, by a nose, the second-best player in baseball, 0.1 fWAR behind Mookie Betts, leading the home run table by five. He felt like the lead bull at Pamplona, and the rest of baseball would have been best served by getting out of the way. Since that post went up, the Yankees are 42-39, an average baseball team. Aaron Judge has 11 more home runs than the next closest guy in that span. He’s no longer the lead bull, and much closer to the only force pulling an entire 26-man roster toward respectability.

And now we’re in the final month of the season, two dozen odd games for the Yankees to secure a playoff spot that once looked inevitable, and for Judge to pass a record that’s stood for 60 years. The dominant debate in baseball circles today is whether Judge’s outright dominance is more valuable than Shohei Ohtani’s two-way performance in end of season award talk, but Judge’s year goes so far beyond MVP talk in my opinion.

The last time we had a real chase for 60 homers was Giancarlo Stanton’s attempt in 2017, which was an extraordinary, MVP season ... but it happened while he played for the Marlins. I’m not the biggest fan of “playing in New Yawk is different, bro” kind of analysis, but the differences between the two franchises, the attention and pressure, are real. The Marlins in 2017 won 77 games, finishing 20 behind the Nationals in the NL East. For Stanton, he could pretty much take daddy swings all summer.

Judge is the face of baseball, the best player on the most popular team, a team that everyone in the league is gunning for. The lack of production behind him, combined with with team’s front running status, means Judge has seen fewer pitches in the zone — albeit by just a single percentage point — and fewer fastballs, by six points, than Stanton did in his 59-home run season. Every time that Judge gets a fastball in the zone registers a slight surprise, as the season has gone on we’ve seen many teams adopt a near-Bondsian strategy of Don’t Let This Guy Beat You.

And yet, This Guy Has Beaten You. Yes, he leads baseball in WAR, yes, he leads baseball in WPA, but what really stands out about his season is how you count off how many batters until his spot in the order again. In a close game, you think “just get it to Judge,” and in a blowout, he’s often the only thing worth watching. His plate appearances have become must-see television, and that will only grow as his inches closer and closer to Maris.

I still don’t think that baseball is quite prepared for this. As I said above, we have had an “asterisk-free” chase for 60 just a few years ago, but it is and will be different when its a Yankee, when the Yankees are in a pennant race, and when the player in question is about to become a free agent. He’s one step ahead of history with every possible narrative that could be written already in draft form — greatest walk year of all time, single-handedly delivered a playoff berth, the rebirth of Mystique and Aura in a building across the street from their old home.

If I were to bet today, I’d bet that Judge passes Maris, and passes his projected 62 count as well. His cold streaks, when they happen, have lasted about a week, and his hot streaks are as hot as any player in baseball history. The pressure is turning up, but he’s shown that he can handle any kind of pressure the media or fanbase throws at him already. He is seven home runs away from history, and I’m not sure there’s anyone who is more destined to make it.