In a year that has featured a record number of home runs, no player has symbolized the surge quite like Aaron Judge. Built like a super-sized version of Giancarlo Stanton, the 6' 7", 282-pound behemoth owns the longest (495 feet) and hardest-hit (121.1 mph) home runs of 2017 according to Statcast. As of Monday afternoon, he now owns the rookie record for home runs in a season as well as the AL lead. In an afternoon makeup game against the Royals at Yankee Stadium, the 25-year-old rightfielder mashed a pair of homers, giving him 50 for the season, one more than the A’s Mark McGwire in 1987.
As with Judge and this year’s MLB-record number of home runs, the 1987 season that served as a backdrop to McGwire was a longball-saturated one. The total of 4,458 smashed the record of 3,813 set the year before and the per-team, per game average of 1.06 was the only time before 1994 that teams broke the 1.0 mark. Big Mac obliterated the previous rookie record of 38 shared by the Reds' Frank Robinson (1956) and the Braves' Wally Berger (1938).
Judge, who homered in his first major league plate appearance last August 13 but hit just .179/.263/.345 in a 27-game cup of coffee, didn't hit his first homer of the 2017 season until April 9, the Yankees sixth game, but a 13-homer flurry over a 20-game span landed him on the cover of the May 15 issue of Sports Illustrated. He hit 30 homers prior to the All-Star break, putting him on pace for 57, and produced an AL-best 5.3 Wins Above Replacement, catapulting him into the conversation for MVP. What's more, he also won the Home Run Derby in Miami.
A second-half slump took the wind out of Judge's sails; he hit just .185/.353/.326 with three homers and 41 strikeouts in 116 plate appearances in August. Whether it was a flaw in his mechanics, a failure to adjust to the adjustments made by pitchers or a bothersome left shoulder, he was a shadow of his first-half self for several weeks, and the Yankees’ offense suffered because of it.
Since the calendar turned to September, it's been another story. Judge's home run on September 3 against the Red Sox, his 38th of the year, ended a season-high 15-game drought. He's hit 12 since then, including seven in his last six games, capped by back-to-back two-homer games against the Blue Jays on Sunday and the Royals on Monday. In Monday’s third inning, he tied McGwire's record with a 389-footer to right centerfield off Jakob Junis, and then in the seventh, he broke it via a 408-footer to left center off Trevor Cahill. For the month, he’s now hitting .307/.444/.893 with 13 homers and 26 RBIs.
The rookie home run leaderboard also features a new NL record-holder in the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger, who despite not debuting until April 25 has 39 homers; he surpassed Robinson and Berger on Friday night. Here's the new top 12:
2014 White Sox
1983 White Sox
The players with asterisks all won their league Rookie of the Year awards, which weren’t given out prior to 1947, hence no hardware for Berger, Trotsky or York. Both Judge and Bellinger are likely to join the ranks with Rookie of the Year awards of their own.
It’s no longer out of the question that Judge could win the MVP award, either. For the season, he's at .283/.418/.620, leading the league not only in homers but also runs (124), walks (120) and strikeouts (202). Entering Monday, he ranked second to Jose Altuve in both OPS+ (164 to 168) and WAR (7.3 to 8.2). At the very least, he's closed the gap on Altuve, though others such as Mike Trout and Corey Kluber could be in the picture as well.
Regardless of whether Judge wins MVP honors, he’s got the new record to top what’s already been a fantastic season. He’s a big reason the Yankees will be playing in the AL Wild Card game next week.