Home run milestones create a stage for some of baseball’s most memorable moments, spanning the breadth of the sport’s history. Just as Barry Bonds took the single-season home run record from Mark McGwire, who took it from Roger Maris, who took it from Babe Ruth, who took it from — um … Ned Williamson?! — generations of baseball fans can tap into the excitement of watching one of the sport’s key numbers move with the times.
Aaron Judge now stands on the brink of breaking a home run record. After smashing a solo shot to spark a five-run Yankees rally Tuesday night in the Bronx, the towering New York slugger stands one shy of tying Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs.
With 14 games remaining in the Yankees’ season, and Judge’s pace of hitting a home run every 8.8 at-bats, it seems a matter of when, not if, Judge pushes the record forward, keeping it in the Yankees family. But exactly when and where will it happen?
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The Pursuit of 62: Upcoming Schedule
Major League Baseball couldn’t have scripted this one better if it had hired Martin Scorsese. After the Yankees polish up a quick two-game interleague series with the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday evening, they play their next four games at home against the archrival Boston Red Sox. Could it get any sweeter for Yankees fans than Judge breaking the record at the expense of some hapless Boston pitcher, whose name will forever be linked to the accomplishment?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Remarkably, Judge has hit multiple home runs in 11 games this season, most recently on Monday night, so it’s not impossible he wraps this thing up before the Red Sox even get to the Bronx. Let’s take a look at the next few games to get a handle on when this 61-year-old record, set in 1961 with 61 home runs, might fall.
The first thing to know about this week is that it’s not a bad thing the Yankees are home even though Yankee Stadium famously favors left-handed hitters and Judge bats right-handed. The only venues where Judge has a higher expected home run total, according to Baseball Savant, are in Colorado, Cincinnati, Arizona, Milwaukee, and the south side of Chicago. Judge has hit exactly half his 60 long balls this season at Yankee Stadium.
Judge has never faced Pittsburgh’s rookie right-hander Roansy Contreras. That’s because the 6-foot-tall hurler will be making just his 17th major league start. He’s one of the Pirates’ top prospects for good reason, with a fastball that has averaged 95.8 mph this season, a slider he throws nearly one-third of the time, and a couple of other off-speed pitches he’ll sprinkle in. Contreras’ high-spin fastball and slider aren’t easy to square up, with opposing hitters managing an average exit velocity ranking in the bottom 14% and a hard-hit rate ranking in the bottom 3%.
The opportunity may come later in the game. Contreras is averaging fewer than five innings per outing this season and the Pirates have the 21st-best bullpen in MLB by fWAR. While Judge’s exploits this season mean you can never count him out, tying or surpassing Maris Wednesday would be an appropriately impressive way to do it.
It doesn’t get much easier against Boston’s announced starter, Michael Wacha. The former All-Star has this season reversed his career decline largely by cutting down on the number of home runs he has allowed. After giving up 24 homers in 124⅔ innings last year in Tampa Bay, Wacha has yielded just 11 in 114 innings for the Red Sox.
Wacha can’t match Contreras’ velocity, but he tries to keep his sinkers low in the zone and he has long had one of the best changeups in the game. Judge is hitless in 14 career at-bats vs. Wacha with a walk, but bear in mind that hitter-vs.-pitcher matchups can be notoriously misleading due to their small sample sizes and the fact that they are often distributed over years. The Boston bullpen is mediocre, part of the reason the Sox are 17 games behind the Yankees to begin with.
The opportunity gets a little more interesting against 42-year-old left-hander Rich Hill, who is having his worst season since 2009, when Judge was in high school. While Judge has never faced Hill, who spent most of the last six years in the National League, he’s well set up to do a little damage here. His slugging percentage against lefties is a robust .619 and he is comfortable hitting curveballs, Hill’s bread-and-butter. Judge’s expected slugging on breaking balls, per Baseball Savant, is .731.
The opportunities continue to present themselves. Nick Pivetta has always been a bit home run-prone, though he has made strides lately, cutting down his HR/9 from 2.30 in 2020 to 1.25 this season. He’s not going to be overly comfortable facing Judge — not that any pitcher is. Judge has faced him 15 times and reached base in nine of those plate appearances, including two home runs.
If Judge makes it to Sunday without having broken the record, he’ll get his next crack against another rookie in 23-year-old right-hander Brayan Bello, who has made all of 11 career starts with a 4.65 ERA. After that, the Yankees embark on a three-game trip to Toronto, an excellent hitting venue with a Blue Jays staff that has been a bit of a disappointment this season. But the way Judge has been going, don’t count on it getting that far.
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