It’s going to be a month of this. Aaron Judge has 50+ homers by Sept. 1, one of the very few to accomplish said feat. And with all baseball records, there are going to be self-appointed gatekeepers who have decided it is their purpose to keep the hordes at bay from sullying something sacred. There is no righteousness like that of the baseball writer. Billy Crystal made a fucking movie about it, though Crystal is no less of a righteous Yankee asswipe gatekeeper than John Heyman.
We can be sure if Judge was a Milwaukee Brewer, Jon Heyman would give less than 1/8th of a shit. But he’s a Yankee, and so not only should be he recognized as the one true king, but it also helps that under Heyman’s parameters, he’d be breaking the record of yet another Yankee, thereby sanctioning the record as truly hallowed. We know how New York works.
The reason that baseball records, and only baseball records matter — no matter how many ribs ESPN has removed so it can contort itself to blow whatever record some QB is setting on Monday Night Football as IMPORTANT — and carry through time is there’s a feeling that baseball hasn’t fundamentally changed throughout pretty much its entire existence. Even in our lifetimes, you only have to watch a current football or hockey or basketball game for about five to 10 seconds to know it looks radically different than the sport did during our childhoods, much less decades ago. The environment in those sports where records were set simply does not exist now. It’s why Wayne Gretzky’s 92 goals will never be touched, but prime Gretzky would certainly struggle to get to 60 or 65 goals now, given that no goalie is acting like a drunk squid in the crease (and they weren’t acting drunk).
Turn on a baseball game though, and it still looks pretty similar to the game you watched as a kid, and even before that. At least on the surface, it does. But like everything with baseball, the difference and the answers are in the nuance. While Babe Ruth’s record of hitting more home runs than entire teams is certainly impressive and unmatched, we also know that he only faced white guys who had a face like an old heavy bag — and conditioning to match — and that The Babe would assuredly shit himself at the sight of a 98 MPH fastball that is commonplace now.
The idea that every era of baseball is comparable is simply not true, even though one of the game’s charms is our former ability but still current need to connect it to its entire history. It’s the one sport that’s supposed to be a constant through line, but it isn’t. The differences are just harder to see because on your TV, ignoring that your TV is now hi-def or 4K and it wasn’t when you were a child, the game still looks kinda the same. And certainly, there has been a ton of ink spilled on the charm of baseball connecting generations. They made a fucking movie about it that they now play a game in a cornfield to pay homage.
While Heyman’s point is certainly not that Bonds or Sosa or McGwire played in a different atmosphere, it is that they bent the atmosphere to them. Maybe, maybe not. Certainly, at the time no one thought they were doing much illegal, and even if they were they did not work for Bud Selig’s MLB, who was only too happy to cash the greater checks that the greater exposure brought thanks to those players. Simply in the environment, yes, Bonds and McGwire and whoever else played in a different time. And we don’t need to judge it as right or wrong that they did. The game was just different, and we certainly don’t bat an eye at any other sport that had a wildly different atmosphere than the one we watch now. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is. Baseball fandom, and especially baseball punditry, has always been laced with misplaced morality, which really should stop.
But whatever total Judge ends up with, it can be easily stated that he’s in an environment where it’s just harder to hit home runs than it was even last year. Not because he’s a saint for not taking the things that Bonds did, but because the rules are simply different. And the ball is different. And pitchers are different. And strategy is different. Judge will face far more different pitchers than Bonds did 21 years ago, and he’ll face fewer pitchers who are tired from working longer.
More importantly, Judge is doing this with a deadened baseball. I have no idea how it compares to the ball used in 2001, but we know it’s far different from the one from the past few seasons, and no one in those seasons came close to getting into Bonds territory.
Judge’s StatCast numbers lord over the rest of baseball in a way that we haven’t seen, albeit admittedly in just seven seasons that StatCast has been around. Judge’s Barrels Per Plate Appearance Percentage, 15.3, is three points higher than Yordan Alvarez in second, and two points higher than anyone has managed ever. His Barrels per Balls Put In Play percentage, 25.3, is four points higher than second-placed Kyle Schwarber, the same distance between Schwarber and ninth place. Judge is hitting the ball harder, more often, in an age where that’s harder than it’s ever been to do. The only other player in the history of StatCast to clear 25 percent on Barrels per Balls In Play is…Judge, in 2017.
And these are the fancy numbers, which you don’t even need. You can just look at how far in front Judge is in homers to Schwarber in second — 15 — and now that he’s lapping the field in a way we just haven’t seen recently. And as Joe Sheehan pointed out in his newsletter today, Judge isn’t facing an expansion watered-down league as Maris and McGwire did.
We know there’s been a dropoff in how far flyballs fly this year. The league as a whole is only slugging .643 on flies this year, a nearly 80-point drop from 2021. Judge is slugging 1.632 on them, nearly three times the league average. While we can’t get numbers like this for Bonds, it’s a safe bet he wasn’t close to tripling the league rate. As close as we can get is 2002, when Bonds had a meager 46 homers, and he slugged 1.168 on fly balls.
Judge can stand alone, but only because he plays in an environment that he didn’t create (though some would argue he helped as MLB deflated the baseballs in part out of fear of what his ilk of hitter was doing, but that’s some serious wheel-posing). Bonds didn’t face nearly the amount of velocity that Judge does (average velocity in 2001: 88 MPH). Nor the spin.
Whatever the reasons are that the time Judge plays now and when Bonds played then, Judge’s accomplishments already are probably greater. His 51 homers now mean something different than whenever Bonds got to 51 in 2001. Just like Alex Ovechkin’s or Steven Stamkos’s or Auston Matthews’s recent 60-goal seasons mean something very different than the 60-goal seasons of the 80s. It’s not bad, it’s not mad, it’s not sad, it just is. Baseball changes too, for a variety of reasons, and players’ stats should be viewed in the same context.