Aaron Judge passed Roger Maris on Tuesday night to set the American League record for home runs in a season two weeks after becoming just the sixth player ever to reach 60. And while he’s well behind Barry Bonds’s Major League record of 73, he is now, for those who care about such things, the all-time leader among players whose career wasn’t tainted during the steroid era.
Judge had gone seven games without a homer between his 60th and 61st, then another five games without one before hitting number 62 tonight in Texas. Judge finally connected on a 1-1 slider off pitcher Jesus Tinoco to lead off the Yankees’ next-to-last game of the season. Judge was greeted by his teammates at home plate as his parents looked on from the stands. (Maris’s children, who’d followed the Yankees from New York to Toronto and back to New York as Judge approached number 62, didn’t make the trip to Texas.)
Merely counting Judge’s home runs doesn’t do justice (sorry) to the remarkable season he’s having. Through Monday’s games, he was leading the majors in home runs, yes, but also in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, and total bases. To look at things through a more sabermetric lens: Judge’s OPS+, a number used to compare a player’s OPS (slugging percentage plus on-base percentage) with others’ in the league in a given season, was at 212; if he finishes the year with that number, it will be the highest in a 162-game season since Bonds in 2004. Another eye-opening stat: Judge passed the ten wins-above-replacement mark on September 20 with 15 games left in the season; only two other active players have turned in a ten-WAR season.
Almost as a side note, Judge has also been chasing the American League Triple Crown, having raised his batting average a preposterous 20 points between September 2 and September 30, even if it looks now like he might fall just short. It’s as if Judge heard there was, for some silly reason, a debate over who should win the AL MVP award and decided to try and pad his résumé even further.
He’s doing all of this in a season with a less lively baseball, which is driving down home-run totals across the league. Through Monday’s games, Judge had 15 more homers than any other player; if he finishes with that lead, it would be the biggest margin between the home-run leader and the runner-up since Jimmie Foxx finished 17 ahead of anyone else in 1932.
In April, the Yankees offered Judge a new contract worth $230 million to play for them through 2029. His average annual salary would have become higher than any outfielder not named Mike Trout when the extension kicked in. It was the sort of life-changing money that ballplayers, who are hugely underpaid in the early part of their careers, wait their entire professional lives for. But Judge turned the contract down, betting he’d have a good season and positioning himself to make even more money as a free agent in the off-season. It appears he made the right call, to say the least.
In rejecting the Yankees’ offer, Judge was betting not only that he’d avoid a catastrophic injury in the final year before he became eligible for free agency, but that he’d perform so well he’d get a bigger offer after the season — if not from the Yankees, then from some other team (perhaps one in nearby Queens with a heptadecabillionaire owner who’d love to steal the city’s best, most marketable hitter).
It was far from clear if Judge would be able to do so. The Yankees were so confident that their offer was fair — that they hadn’t lowballed their most popular player since Derek Jeter — that they publicly revealed the details of it, claiming they knew the figure would leak anyway but also doing more than a little to win the PR battle. Judge, after all, was nearly 30 at the time, relatively old for a first-time free agent. The Yankees’ offer also took into account Judge’s not-insignificant injury history: Between 2018 and 2020, he played in fewer than two-thirds of the team’s games. And while he had a strong and healthy season in 2021, his best year remained his first one, in 2017, when he hit a then-rookie-record 52 home runs.
That monster rookie performance always meant a season like this was possible if Judge could stay healthy and locked in for a full year. Now it’s not only happening, but Judge has turned on the afterburners in the past month. Judge had a fine first half, entering the All-Star break with 33 home runs, a .284 batting average, and a .983 OPS. He hit an especially hot streak in late July and early August, at one point homering 12 times in 14 games. But his September was on another level, even despite cooling off after hitting his 60th homer. In 25 games, he hit ten home runs, batted .417, and posted a 1.434 OPS. For context, the highest September OPS ever is the the 1.565 Bonds posted in 2001, when he set the single-season homer record.
It all adds up to a mind-boggling second half. Through Monday, he was hitting .351 and had posted a 1.293 OPS in the 66 games since the All-Star break. Until just a couple weeks ago, when teams started pitching him very carefully, he was averaging a home run every other game he played in the second half.
Judge has said he won’t negotiate his next contract during the season. But when the time comes, he (or, more accurately, his agent) has the Yankees right where he wants them. Judge is the face of the organization, and he’ll be coming off one of the most exciting offensive seasons in the history of the sport. The Yankees’ up-and-down season has drawn only more attention to how vital Judge is to the lineup, to say nothing of his immense popularity with fans. The team simply can’t afford to lose him.
The Yankees will likely have to give Judge a longer contract worth more money than they would like. There’s a good chance his megacontract will be a burden on their payroll before it’s over. And there’s still no guarantee Judge will stay healthy in future seasons. But the Yankees know that losing him would be a disaster. They also took a risk by making their offer and not budging from it. They’ll pay for that soon, one way or the other.