Aaron Judge bet on himself, and it appears he is ready to cash in — if he can stay healthy.
After going deep twice in a loss on Monday to Baltimore, Judge, 30, the Yankees’ right fielder, had a major-league-leading 17 home runs. That was five more than any other player this season through Monday, but things get truly impressive when you compare his season so far to great seasons of the past.
He had more home runs than Babe Ruth had through 40 games in 1927 (13). He had more than Roger Maris had through 40 in 1961 (11). He outdid Sammy Sosa’s 40-game totals in 1998 (7), 1999 (13) and 2001 (14). He had the same number as Mark McGwire had in 1998, and more than McGwire had in 1999 (12). He was only five short of how many Barry Bonds had in 2001.
Those years should sound familiar: They are the eight seasons in which a player has hit 60 or more home runs.
“It’s really special,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said Monday. “I sometimes take it for granted, but not right now. He’s a really special player and obviously really carrying us offensively.”
Being the best hitter on the best team in the majors is certainly an argument for a bigger contract than the seven-year, $213.5 million deal Judge rejected in the off-season. But if he wants to join the rarefied air of 60-homer sluggers, and if he wants to persuade his team to guarantee even more money to a player his age, he will need to keep himself on the field.
Unusually large for a baseball player, Judge is 6 feet 7 inches and 282 pounds. While that has led to tape measure power, surprisingly fast base running and superb defense, it has also resulted in a spotty injury history. In his four full seasons, he missed a combined 131 games. He also missed 32 of the Yankees’ 60 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He has made it to 150 games just once.
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To join the 60-homer club, he most likely needs to match, or even exceed, his career high of 155 games played: In Major League Baseball’s eight 60-homer seasons, the players averaged 156.8 games.
It is a feat that requires remarkable durability and consistency, a reality emphasized by the fact that in six of the eight instances, the player was later connected to performance-enhancing drugs. And because of injuries and regression to the mean, even players who got off to hotter starts than Judge cooled off as the season chugged along.
McGwire was well on his way to a third straight 60-homer season in 2000, with 20 through 40 games, but injuries limited him to 89 games and 32 homers. Albert Pujols had 20 through his first 40 games in 2006, but finished with 49. Luis Gonzalez had 20 through 40 games in 2001, but fell short of 60, hitting 57. He recovered well enough, looping an RBI single off Mariano Rivera to clinch Game 7 of that year’s World Series for Arizona.
Three players (Mickey Mantle, Bonds and José Bautista) had 19 through their first 40 games of a season, and they finished with 52, 49 and 43 home runs. Ten have had 18, and only two of those reached 50 for the season. Because of injuries, Gary Sánchez (2019) and Eric Davis (1987) did not even reach 40.
Judge is likely to cool off even if he stays healthy. Many batters find that the ball carries better as the weather warms, but Judge has typically done most of his damage in April, May and September, averaging a homer every 11.6, 11.4 and 11.1 at-bats in those months. In June, July and August, when he has frequently dealt with nagging injuries, he has homered every 14.5 at-bats.
For now, the Yankees are enjoying the show. Next month, the team is expected to find out how much they have to pay him this season — The New York Post reported his long-delayed arbitration hearing is scheduled for June 22 — and after the season, it will find out how much he is worth on the open market.
If he stays mostly healthy and tops 50 homers for the second time in his career — or if things go perfectly and he gets to 60 — that may lead to a deal with a total value of $300 million or more. If such a dream season also includes leading the Yankees to their 28th World Series title, they may be happy to pay him that much.