NEW YORK — To some, Aaron Judge‘s season has a special sheen because he appears to be Mr. Clean.
They would consider Judge the record-holder if he surpasses Roger Maris’ 61 homers, absent the steroids stain sticking to the tainted trio of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
“To me, the holder of the record for home runs in a season is Roger Maris,” author George Will said. “There’s no hint of suspicion that we’re seeing better baseball than better chemistry in the case of Judge. He’s clean. He’s not doing something that forces other players to jeopardize their health.”
Bonds’ 73 and other Steroids Era peaks are viewed by critics as phantoms, totals as inflated as the biceps of those bulked up hitters.
Judge entered Monday with 55 homers through the New York Yankees’ first 141 games, leaving 21 games to go. Judge towers over everyone else, and not just because he is 6-foot-7: Kyle Schwarber is second in homers with 37 for Philadelphia.
Judge has hit 22,676 feet of home runs this year – 4.29 miles – with an average distance of 412 feet, according to MLB Statcast.
“Judge is like Secretariat in the Belmont,” broadcaster Bob Costas said, thinking back to the Triple Crown-winning 31-length victory in 1973. “He’s percentages above everyone else. It’s downplayed now – he’s hitting .300, so he’s a classic great player. The great players have power and average. Well, he’s doing that. And in the context of this season and in this era, that’s really something. And he certainly should have in any reasonable person’s mind put the most valuable argument for this year to bed.”
With his black matte Chandler model maple bat, Judge is hitting .307 with 121 RBIs – 12 more than anyone else.
Up until the 1990s, baseball’s great debate was whether whether Maris’ 1961 season should count as the record because he played more games.
Ruth’s 60 in 1927 stood as the standard for 34 years. Maris’ mark lasted 37 until Mark McGwire hit 70 in 1998, part of an apparently juiced jolt that saw Sammy Sosa hit 66. McGwire followed with 65 the next year as Sosa hit 63. Power peaked in 2001, when Barry Bonds hit a previously unfathomable 73 and Sosa 64.
“Personally, I think that those records are tainted, and therefore I’m rooting very much for Judge,” former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent said. “I think he’s absolutely clean. I don’t think there’s any performance-enhancing drug involvement or taint with Judge. And so I think one of the reasons his performance is so illuminating and so compelling is that it’s totally clean.”
Since drug testing with penalties started in 2004, the highest total has been Giancarlo Stanton‘s 59 for Miami in 2017.
“Fans, writers, Hall of Fame voters, all those groups that matter are going to make their own judgments about how his accomplishments should be weighed against other players who may have been disclosed as using performance-enhancing drugs,” current Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “They’re going to place appropriate weight on those performances. I have found Judge’s performance to be as compelling and captivating as any as I’ve ever seen.”
Maris’ legitimacy was debated because the American League schedule increased to 162 games in 1961 following expansion. With Maris at 35 homers, then-Commissioner Ford Frick decided that July 17 that if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”
That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record-holder.
At 30, Judge has an impeccable reputation in an era during which each player is tested for performance-enhancing drugs during spring training and is subject to random tests during the season and offseason.
McGwire admitted in 2010 he used steroids while breaking Maris’ record. Bonds and Sosa maintain they never knowingly used banned substances.
“Nobody thought that when Hank Aaron hit 715 that he was a better home run hitter than Babe Ruth, but he had surpassed Ruth’s record. No one thinks that Pete Rose in his time was a better hitter than Ty Cobb, but he passed Cobb’s record – authentically,” Costas said. “People put the steroid stuff in a different category because it’s obvious, it’s a cluster of half a decade that this stuff happens. And it isn’t just the three of them. You’ve got other guys hitting 50 homers or guys hitting 45 homers who previously hit 18. Everyone understands that, at least everyone who pays attention. And so if Judge winds up hitting 65, that’s different than McGwire or Sosa hitting 65.”
Changes in the sport mean players faced different conditions. Ruth started in the dead ball era, Maris played at the dawn of expansion, Judge faces pitchers throwing harder than ever before.
“It’s a dead end, it seems to me, to keep comparing eras,” Will said. “Ruth didn’t play against African-Americans. Ruth didn’t play night games and have transcontinental travel and all the rest. Judge is a lot bigger, then pitchers are a lot bigger. … You judge people against what they do against their peers.”