He can drive 55

Aaron Judge

Judge runs it out after driving 55 at Twins rookie Louie Varland’s expense Wednesday.

If you consider a sixty home run season the Promised Land for a power hitter, Aaron Judge awoke Thursday morning five bombs from crossing the Jordan River. And yet . . . and yet . . . the philistine contingencies continue asking the wrong questions about whether Judge will have done it, ahem, “legitimately.”

The Leaning Tower of 161st Street parked number 55—a fourth inning, leadoff blast off Twins starter Louie Varland—in the first game of a Yankee doubleheader sweep of the Twins Wednesday. Among the first notes on the blast was that it gave Judge two more homers after 136 games than Roger Maris in 1961.

If that’s among the only thing that impresses you about what Judge is trying to accomplish, so be it. If it’s second to whether and if Judge hits 60 or more by game 154, since Babe Ruth did that in 1927, so be it, too. The length of season factor was settled long enough ago. It remains far less relevant than other things.

Some of those things have been broken down and analysed splendidly by an MLB.com writer, Mike Petriello. Like me, Petriello has the audacity to look at the deepest data available, refusing to accept that the thinking person’s sport, which is also the deepest sport, should be allergic to thinking and depth.

Petriello goes above and beyond the primary truth that still discomfits enough even today,  Ruth never having faced the truly best available competition in official league play, through no fault of his own and all fault of (ahem) Organised Baseball of the era. (The biracial Judge would have been persona non grata in Ruth’s game.) But Petriello makes the parallel note that in 1927 only five players were born outside the United States, while 2022 includes 418 such players.

The Babe also didn’t face a third of the volume of pitchers Judge has faced, fresh or otherwise. In 1927, Ruth faced 67 pitchers all season long; Maris in 1961 faced 101. Judge faced 224 entering Wednesday and 232 by the time the twin bill ended. The rookie Varland was 225. The poor guy had the honour of being welcomed rather rudely to the majors by a seven-year veteran advancing upon history with a roundhouse punch into the left field seats.

“With series remaining against two teams he’s not seen yet (Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) and the usual September roster shenanigans,” Petriello writes, “Judge might get up to around 240 or so pitchers faced, all with their own arm slots, repertoires and approaches. It will be nearly four times what Ruth saw, and more than twice what Maris saw.” Variety is the life of spice, and a challenge to the bombardier.

In Ruth’s day, too, the idea of relief pitching as we came to know it barely took hold, if at all, above and beyond the Washington Senators’ Firpo Marberry and maybe one or two more. That was then: most relievers not named Marberry were brought in only upon injury or disaster. (Sometimes both.) This is now: relief pitching is a long-sanctioned, time-enough-honoured element in baseball’s art and craft.

Ruth got to enjoy a privilege about which Judge can only fantasise now, seeing a pitcher for a third or even fourth time in a game. Petrillo then sees and raises himself: Ruth got to face a pitcher for a third time or more 35 percent of the time in 1927; Maris, 30 percent in 1961. Judge? Seventeen percent.

Even Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds among the 60+ home run club got to face pitchers a third time around more often, from Sosa’s 20 percent in 2001 to his (1998), Bonds (2001), and McGwire’s (1998) 22 percent, then to McGwire’s and Sosa’s 24 percent (1999).

It gets a little more bizarre, Petriello notes: Judge has seen only one starter a fourth time around this year, twice—and both times, it was Max Scherzer. Judge does have one bomb off Scherzer, a third-inning blast on 22 August, but he flied out the third time he faced Scherzer that day. Almost a month earlier, Judge faced Scherzer in a 6-3 Yankee loss, and Max the Knife struck him out thrice after surrendering a first inning fly out.

Petriello’s deep dive also exhumed that Ruth in 1927 hit nine home runs off relievers he got to see a second time in a game, and over half his home runs came at the expense of either starters he saw a third time or more or relievers he saw a second time around or more. Judge should be so lucky: it’s only happened to him 19 percent of the time this year.

“If [Judge] saw starters being used the same way the Babe did,” Petriello writes dryly, “he might be looking at an 80-homer season at this point.” The flip side to the coin is that if Ruth saw the volume of quality pitching Judge sees, he might have been lucky to break his own original record of 29 in 1919. (For all you 154-game season chauvinists, 1919 was a 140-game season. Shall we declare Ruth the original “illegitimate” record-breaker because he had a 154-game season to hit 54 for a new record in 1920?)

Judge has 25 games to go to pass Ruth, Maris, and the rest. His season’s average is one bomb every 2.5 games. If he stays on the pace, he might hit 65. It would be one short of Sosa’s best, five short of McGwire’s, eight shy of Bonds, and all alone atop Yankee history. For now, the Leaning Tower of 161st Street is the most prolific single-season righthanded home run hitter ever to wear the Yankee pinstripes.

“The baseball world has changed considerably since 2001, or 1961, or 1927,” Petriello writes, blissfully unconcerned for the philistine contingency which persists in thinking that the game had no business changing at all, never mind that some changes over all those decades have been nothing but beneficial to baseball’s health while others amount to calling repairmen to fix what wasn’t actually broken.

Almost all of it has changed in a way to make hitting more difficult, for any number of reasons, most revolving around velocity, pitch movement, and the endless streams of high-octane arms who don’t worry about pacing themselves to go deep into games. This, above all else, is why the strikeout rate keeps going up; the next time a batter from a half-century ago complains about today’s hitters, remember that their task is immeasurably more difficult than his was. (Emphasis added.)

Remember, too, that Judge is playing in a season in which nobody’s still really dead certain whether he’ll get to swing on a rabbit ball or a miniature medicine ball. But it almost doesn’t matter. (Almost.) You can throw Judge a ball of seaweed, and he can hit it into the upper deck.

But he might hit more than ten more homers, too. Continuing to put the lie to manager Trey Wilson (in Bull Durham) telling his stumbling team, “This—is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.” If it was that simple, Judge’s height would be the only large thing about him.

“I can’t drive 55,” rocker Sammy Hagar once sang for a top-thirty hit. Judge can drive 55, and maybe a lot more before the regular season ends. There won’t be a traffic cop or highway patrolman alive who can stop him.

2 thoughts on “He can drive 55

  1. Twins rookie Louis Varland (a homegrown kid who pitched for North St. Paul High School and Concordia University in St. Paul) pitched a marvelous game, giving up one run (Judge’s homer) into the 6th. He got yanked after giving up a single to open the 6th, and a Twins reliever gave up a two-run homer to tie the game at 3-3. Tough break for the kid, who threw 55 strikes in 80 pitches, gave up 3 hits, struck out 7, and walked only one batter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unfortunately, Varland got spoiled by Judge. He did pitch a terrific game otherwise, and if he keeps that up he’s got a nice future ahead of him.

      But you and I both know that’s not even close to what people will remember if a certain Yankee ends up in the 60+ club when the season ends. Which is kind of sad because Varland did pitch so well otherwise.


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