By: Scott RossPublished: October 5, 2022

Aaron Judge's Strange Conundrum

Never before has a baseball player been so free to follow his bliss, while at the same time being caught in such a weird dilemma.

Never before has a player gone into the final day of the season with so much individual glory on the line as Aaron Judge will tonight against the Kansas City Royals. Not only is Judge chasing the ghost of Roger Maris, but he’s also in a fight to win just the 16th Triple Crown in Major League Baseball’s modern era, dating back to 1900.

Judge is wrapping up a season for the ages, as his 10.3 offensive wins above replacement (oWAR) is 22nd all time, and the highest in baseball since Barry Bonds posted 11.5 oWAR in 2004. As recently as September 20, when he hit his 60th home run of the season in a 9-8 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Judge was on pace for 68 taters, which would’ve been the third-highest single-season total ever, behind only Bonds’ 73 and Mark McGwire’s 72. But a funny thing happened on the way to immortality, as Judge went cold. In 12 games since then, Judge has gone 8 for 34 with just one homer and two RBI, though the Yankees have managed to go 9-3during that span. This marks the first time since April 9 that Judge has gone that long with just a single homer.

And while his home run total was stalling out, his batting average plummeted as well. His BA peaked at .317 after he went 2-for-4 in a 14-2 win over Pittsburgh September 21, putting him slightly ahead of Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and in the driver’s seat for the Triple Crown. Since then, however, Judge has fallen to .311, and though Bogaerts’ has dropped further, Minnesota Twins infielder Luis Arraez has taken pole position with a .315 average.

Heading into the final day, Judge is welcome to play as selfishly as he likes as the Yankees’ seeding in the playoffs is secure. He’s safely ahead of the rest of the league in homers and RBI, but he finds himself in a curious bind: does he swing for the fences and try to best Roger Maris’ 61 homers or does he shorten his swing and try to win the batting title and a Triple Crown?

If he’s smart, he’ll shorten up his swing and try to win himself a Triple Crown. Every guy that’s ever won a Triple Crown has gone on to be immortalized in the Baseball Hall of Fame, these are some of the greatest hitters who ever lived: Williams, Foxx, Hornsby, Cobb, Gehrig, Mantle, Robinson… the lone exception being Miguel Cabrera, who’s still playing and will surely get in on the first ballot.

Guys who’ve hit 62 or more homers? It’s McGwire, Bonds and Sammy Sosa, each of whom has been, wisely or not, rejected by Cooperstown. Hell, even Maris, whose Yankee record Judge is trying to break, couldn’t get into the Hall.

If Judge had a shot at breaking Bonds’ mark of 73 home runs, it might make sense to go for broke. But this imaginary chase he's been on all season has been a bit absurd. Can you ever remember a guy getting national press for breaking his team’s single season home run record? Do you remember Jimmy Foxx’s family being interviewed repeatedly in 2006 as David Ortiz approached the Red Sox seasonal record of 50 home runs? No, of course not, cuz it’s not a thing. As for this ridiculous “American League home run record,” yeah, it’s a thing-ish, but not really. Your average stat nerd knows that Jack Chesbro holds the Major League record with 41 wins in a single season, but only a shut-in incel knows that Christy Mathewson holds the National League record with 37.

The only other scenario in which Judge might sensibly opt for trying to go hard would be if he had reason to believe that society at large will go crazy enough in its retconning of American culture and history, that it could have Bonds, McGwire and Sosa’s home run totals expunged from the record books. But that ain’t ever gonna happen. Right? C’mon, right?

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