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Aaron Judge’s Roger Maris chase a uniquely modern challenge

In Wednesday’s edition of The New York Post my column colleagues and friends Mike Vaccaro and Jon Heyman wrote opposing pieces — Vaccaro holding his nose to call Barry Bonds the single-season homer champ, Heyman offering the reverse, that Roger Maris and his 61 homers remain the standard over the dubious 73 of Bonds…and 70 of Mark McGwire…and 66 of Sammy Sosa…and 65 of McGwire…and 64 and 63 of Sosa.

Jon would make that rogues’ gallery of juice-tainted homer hitters going, going, gone from the single-season record list. Vac cited that we cannot unsee what we saw and that the record book has Bonds first at 73 — asterisk free.

Both made fine arguments. If I had to pick one side or the other, I would go with Vac. I might not like the juiced-stained record book. But it is the record book.

But I don’t have to pick a polarized side. I can defy hot-take America by suggesting the world is often gray and not black and white and that — if we chose — we can hold more than one idea in our heads at a time.

San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds and Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Paul LoDuca (l) watch as Bonds' second home run of the game clears the right field fence in the seventh inning of their season opener April 2, 2002 in Los Angeles.
Barry Bonds’ 73 homers in 2001 may be a dubious all-time single-season record to some, but not according to the official records of Major League Baseball.

So, in my view, Bonds is the single-season homer champ, but a tainted one. Then again, everything is tainted by what existed at that time. After all, what is more shameful to baseball (and country): that Bonds played with the presence of steroids in the game or Ruth played in the absence of players of color. Would Ruth have hit 60 homers in 1927 if the competition was against every deserving player? Might Josh Gibson have broken that record given access to MLB?

Maris hit 61 homers in 1961 in a watered-down AL that had just added two expansion teams — 13 of Maris’ homers that year were against the newly created Senators and Angels — and added eight games (from 154 to 162).

Both Ruth and Maris had the advantage of the short right field porch at home at Yankee Stadium. That matters. The fields/courts/rinks are all the same size in the NFL, NBA and NHL. But the dimensions are different in every baseball stadium. A homer in one stadium can be a flyout in another.

Consider that Aaron Judge had 51 homers at midweek — but only 31 of them would have cleared the fence in all 30 stadiums, according to Statcast.

Roger Maris, New York Yankees' slugging outfielder, follows through on his swing as he hits his record-breaking 61st home run on the last day of the season, October 1, 1961 at Yankee Stadium.
Roger Maris’ 61 homers in 1961 came in a newly expanded season, a fact that prompted MLB to add an asterisk to his record for years.

Where you play matters. When you play matters. Judge gets all the modern conveniences offered by better travel, better equipment and better information on how to eat and work out. Conversely, in a smaller league when tiring starters were left in and one relief stud after another with viscous stuff was not entering the game, Ruth got the familiarity (and exhaustion level) of facing just 64 different pitchers in 1927. Maris faced 101 different pitchers in 1961. Through 131 Yankees games in 2022, Judge had seen 223 different pitchers — most throwing with a velocity and a movement not seen in 1927 or 1961, when there also were not computerized hot and cold zones to pinpoint exact areas of weakness.

The length of the schedule (remember that Maris toted around an asterisk for a while because 1961 did have 162 games), the size of the parks, the permission slip for who is allowed to play, the speed of the pitches and dozens of other factors all impact how many homers are hit in a season or by each individual.

When it comes to Bonds and steroids, sure, I believe he was greatly aided by illegal substances. But what no one knows is how much? Or how many pitchers he faced were juicing? And just how juiced (or un-juiced) the ball was in that season or any given season.

It is why the record book, to me, is the record book; you live with it because the seasons are played and we recognize those seasons — flaws and all. But there is no reason not to understand the implications of when a player performs his feats. So if Judge gets to 62, I will know how I feel about that (his advantages and disadvantages), just like I know how I feel about Bonds and Maris and Ruth.

Babe Ruth during the Yankees' season opener at Yankee Stadium. ca. April 1932 Bronx, New York, New York, USA
Babe Ruth thrived in an era without relief specialists and the contributions of African-American players.

Judge’s year is so impressive because home runs are being hit at the lowest rate since 2015 across the sport — be that because some air has been taken out of the baseball and/or the pitching lab era has given greater velocity and movement than ever to pitchers. Judge is defying this. He is having a Ruthian year in separating himself from the field.

Yes, just 31 of his homers would have been out in every stadium, but the next most was 18 by Atlanta’s Austin Riley and Arizona’s Christian Walker. Judge had 15 more overall homers than the runner-up, Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber. No player has won the major league homer title by 15 or more since Jimmie Foxx did so by 17 in 1932 over Ruth (58-41). The other six times the separation was 17 or more were all by Ruth:

By 35 in 1920 (54-19 over George Sisler).
By 35 in 1921 (59-24 over Ken Williams)
By 26 in 1926 (47-21 over Hack Wilson)
By 23 in 1928 (44-31 over Wilson)
By 19 in 1924 (46-27 over Jack Fournier)
By 17 in 1919 (29-12 over Gavvy Cravath)

Ruth essentially made the home run an American institution. But he did so with all kinds of time-related advantages and disadvantages. His separation from the field, though — to me — makes him the greatest homer hitter ever, even if Bonds and Hank Aaron eventually topped Ruth’s total number of homers. Again, this is about holding more than one thought — Bonds and Aaron have more homers, but Ruth’s distinction from the field makes him the greatest homer hitter. No one separated themselves in their real-time environment when it came to homers like Ruth.

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge hits a solo home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, in Anaheim, Calif. This was Judge's 50th home run of the season.
Aaron Judge is outhomering the anyone else in baseball by a margin unseen since 1932.

If Judge gets to, say, 63 homers and wins the MLB home run crown by, say, 20, in an era when players are, by rule, supposed to be regularly (and at times randomly) drug tested, we will understand the total meaning of the accomplishment — even if it does not move to the top of the record book.

For 3Up, let’s take a look at a few other unique stats you might be unaware of from this year:

1.  Anthony Rizzo has 10 homers vs. lefty pitching.

That is the second most by a lefty hitter this year to the 11 of Rangers shortstop Corey Seager. It also is the most by a Yankee since Curtis Granderson had 14 in 2012. The Yankees record is 19 by Ruth in 1927 and Reggie Jackson in 1980.

By the way, one of those left-on-left homers hit by Granderson in 2012 was off of a 24-year-old starting pitcher named Zack Britton.

2. Since his promotion to the majors, Gleyber Torres has seven walk-off hits, which are the most in the majors in that timeframe.

So, clutch, right?

Except Torres has been among the majors’ worst hitters this year with runners in scoring position. He has a .558 OPS in those spots. That would be the worst by a Yankee with 100 plate appearances with runners in scoring position since Raul Mondesi had a .526 mark in 2003.

New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres #25 game-ending walkout solo home run during the ninth inning when the New York Yankees played the Texas Rangers in the first game of their Mother’s Day double-header Sunday, May 8, 2022, at Yankee Stadium in Bronx.
Gleyber Torres’ knack for walk-off hits has overshadowed his struggle to hit with runners in scoring position this season.
for the NY POST

Conversely, Judge has a 1.284 OPS with runners in scoring position. That currently is eighth best in Yankee history. Here are the seven in front of him:

1. Ruth, 1923 — 1.554
2. Mickey Mantle, 1956 — 1.443
3. Ruth, 1.426 — 1924
4. Mantle, 1.396 — 1961
5. Ruth, 1.342 — 1929
6. Mantle, 1.306 — 1964
7. Gehrig, 1.295 — 1927

So you see the company Judge might be joining. To go deeper, going into this season, the top 17 in this category were essentially the hitting Mount Rushmore of the Yankees: eight seasons by Ruth, three by Gehrig, three by Mantle and three by Joe DiMaggio.

3. If it seems like the Mets core players have been relatively both healthy and productive, you are on to something.

They have six players who qualify for the batting title and had an OPS-plus of 120 or better heading into Thursday’s game against the Dodgers.That means their combined on-base and slugging percentages were at least 20 percent better than MLB average, factoring ballpark and league.

Pete Alonso was at 142, Jeff McNeil at 135, Starling Marte at 132, Mark Canha at 128, Francisco Lindor at 124 and Brandon Nimmo at 121.

The six are the most by any team this year. The Blue Jays and Dodgers have five each. But it goes further. This would be the most in Mets’ history. They had five twice previously. In 2020, Alonso, McNeil, Nimmo, Michael Conforto and Dom Smith did it. And in 1999, Edgardo Alfonso, Rickey Henderson, John Olerud, Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura accomplished the feat.

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