It could be argued that Aaron Judge capitalized on a breakout season more than any other player in major league history.
Judge turned down a $213.5 million contract extension with the Yankees just before the 2022 season began and proceeded to hit 62 home runs, win the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award, sign a nine-year, $360 million contract to stay in New York and be named the team’s 16th captain.
The big question is what comes next. Judge, who set career highs in numerous categories last season, is not ruling out another run at 62 home runs.
“You never know,” Judge told reporters after the Yankees’ first full-squad workout on Monday. “I don’t really like putting a number on it. I just kind of like going out there and trying to control what I can control, but you never know what could happen. So we’ll see about 62.”
Judge said it was fun “chasing history,” and while he is no stranger to defying expectations, getting to that level again would involve breaking all precedent. In baseball’s history of 60-homer seasons, there has been one constant: decline.
Babe Ruth hit 60 homers for the 1927 Yankees and followed with 54 in 1928. Roger Maris hit 61 in 1961 and had 33 in 1962. Then came the triumvirate of tainted sluggers, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, who managed to combine for six seasons of 60 or more homers in a four-year span, yet each saw his home run total decline in the season after the season with 60 or more.
In all, the eight 60-homer seasons before Judge have resulted in an average decline the next season of 16.3 home runs, which is hardly surprising considering their anomalous nature in baseball history.
The steepest of the drops came from McGwire, who hit 70 in 1998 and 65 in 1999 but dropped to 32 in 2000 because of health issues. Maris’s 28-homer decline from 1961 to 1962 was the second largest of the group, while Bonds’s total dropped by 27 after his record-setting 73-homer season in 2001, mostly because opposing pitchers gave him few quality pitches to hit.
The smallest decline was recorded by Sosa, who hit 66 in 1998 and came back with 63 in 1999. He dropped to 50 in 2000 but was back to 64 in 2001, making him the only player with three 60-homer seasons.
Whether Judge can break the streak of constant decline will come down to multiple factors including his health and how opposing teams pitch to him.
Judge has long had a reputation for injury issues, and his height and weight for a position player have led to questions about whether there is such a thing as being too big for baseball. But after missing significant parts of three consecutive seasons from 2018 to 2020, he has been a rock for the Yankees for the last two. He played in 305 of the team’s 324 games and piled up 1,329 plate appearances, which ranks 12th among major leaguers in that span. He even increased his versatility, starting 74 games in center field in 2022 after having spent the vast majority of his career before then as the team’s starting right fielder.
If Judge stays healthy and shows the power and pitch recognition he did in 2022, the question will be whether teams will keep pitching to him.
Down the stretch, as the Yankees nearly gave up an enormous division lead over the Tampa Bay Rays, Judge often felt like a one-man offense. Regardless, he continued to see pitches to hit for the most part, with his .380 batting average from Sept. 1 forward representing his best stretch of the year in that regard. But pitchers clearly started to work around him once he got to 60 home runs, and he proceeded to draw 18 walks and hit only two home runs over his final 14 games.
He then slumped in the playoffs, going 5 for 36 in nine games with two homers and 15 strikeouts.
A short slump after six months of domination is hardly anything to worry about, but teams forcing other Yankees batters to beat them, as they did in those final weeks of the season and as they did with Bonds in the years after his 73-homer outburst, could make it hard for Judge to drive balls in bulk. That would make another run at 60 home runs nearly impossible as the rare feat requires a combination of opportunity, consistency and success that few players have ever approached, let alone seen in consecutive seasons.
For Judge, in his first season as the team captain, a decline in his own production would be mitigated by the team doing the one thing it has yet to accomplish in his career: win a World Series.
“It bothers me, and I think it bothers the group as well,” Judge said of the Yankees having not won a championship since 2009. “Every year we don’t finish what we started it wears on us in different ways. I think every failure pushes you toward that ultimate goal.”