This week, the Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run of the season, and it’s triggered a ferocious debate that has a lot of people very worked up over a deceptively simple question: Who is baseball’s home run king?
In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs. In 2022, Judge hit 62 home runs. Seventy-three is more than 62. Those are facts.
But Barry Bonds used steroids. Other sports, like cycling, have stripped athletes of records and championships if they’re caught doping. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles but was stripped of all of them. So, what do we do about Bonds and his fellow dopers, like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? Do we consider their records illegitimate? If so, Aaron Judge is the single-season home run king. Or do we say, you can’t just selectively erase history? In which case, Judge doesn’t have any major record. He’s just a big, tall guy who had a very nice season.
You might think: OK, who cares what words we use to talk about baseball? The answer is: I care! There was a period in my life when debating baseball stats and baseball history was literally my favorite activity in the world. My identity as a fifth grader was being the baseball stats guy. And also, a lot of people care. This debate over who is the legitimate single-season home run king has been hands down the most fun baseball discourse I can remember in maybe 20 years.
Today’s guest is Bill Simmons. We talk about MLB history, the joy of debating records, how baseball ruined itself, and who’s really baseball’s home run king.
In the excerpt below, Derek Thompson and Bill Simmons share in the joy of a good, old-fashioned baseball debate and discuss how analytics changed the game.
Derek Thompson: So before we get into this and debate who the true home run king is, I do want to foreground this entire conversation by saying, this is fun. An actual emotional debate about baseball. This is fun. I feel like I’ve been reading takes about Bonds and Judge that are getting my blood boiling. And the most important thing here is not, in fact, the correctness of the takes. It might be the fact that baseball has for the first time in 20 years had an effect on my blood pressure, that it feels good to get emotionally invested in a baseball debate.
So, you’ve been watching the takes fly. Is Aaron Judge the single-season home run king? Is he the legitimate home run king? Is he the American League home run king, a new statistic or a new category that was basically just invented 30 minutes ago? The stage is yours. What do you make of this beautiful mess?
Bill Simmons: It is a beautiful mess. It is fun to hear people have actual baseball arguments. I think this really was what baseball was. Baseball’s pretty boring. Baseball was pretty stat-driven. Baseball was about just kind of arguing about stuff. What pitcher was better than what pitcher, could this pitcher have won in another era? Like the old—I always mention this, but [Derek] Jeter versus Nomar [Garciaparra] in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, when we didn’t have the stats yet. We used to really argue about that. And I think basketball has replaced a lot of that stuff with the arguments, because even though we have the stats in basketball, it’s only five people. You have an effect on your teammates and there’s stats that quantify it to some degree, but there’s no way to quantify some of the stuff that happens in basketball.
And baseball we can quantify every single little piece of it. And I think that’s made it less fun. It’s less fun because the games have gotten longer. I think kids have grown up to not be fans as adults because the games were not at the right time—we know all the reasons. But what is happening with this Judge thing was one of the things we loved about baseball. I remember being in cars with my friends and we would—one time, I was in the car going to a Mets–Red Sox game with my buddy Gus Ramsey and his dad, Wally, who used to be my English teacher. And my buddy Gus’s dad came up with the idea of the pyramid because we were trying to rank the greatest players and the next level. And I took it and wrote about it, and then that eventually became part of my book.
But it was the kind of thing you did with baseball. You were always comparing players to other players, and that’s been lost. Now you have the second piece that comes in, which is people have become moral arbiters, which ties in all the stuff you care about: the rise of social media, the rise of just people being online all day, the rise of take culture. So people come in now off the top rope and they’re like, “No, this is the real home run record. This is the non-steroid record.” First of all, we have no idea who’s using and not using in any sport that we’re watching now. And anytime somebody tests, like [Fernando] Tatis Jr., like, “Oh my God, Tatis, I can’t believe it.” Well, that was one of the best parts of baseball, and he tested positive. So for people to think this is a non-steroids era, or non-HGH era, or non-anything era—we don’t know.
We don’t know. We definitely don’t know in basketball. We know the guys in football and basketball are way more durable and they play way longer. And all of us are like, “Wow, amazing. They really work on their bodies.” We’re doing all the same stuff everyone did in the late ’90s with like, “Wow, these home runs, these are great. Nothing going on here.” But my big thing is that Bonds never actually cheated. He cheated, but he didn’t. There were no rules in place. So if you say, “I didn’t get a speeding ticket on the highway when I went 120, but I was speeding and I didn’t get a ticket and nobody caught me, I wasn’t speeding”—I know that’s a terrible argument, but it’s a fact. There were no rules in place. This was the whole problem with baseball. He cheated because [Mark] McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa became national heroes for cheating. And he was like, “Fuck this. I’m the best player in baseball and I have been the whole decade and nobody cares about me. They’re going to cheat? Watch this.” And there were no rules in place.
Thompson: You made two points that I want to dig into. The first is that I totally agree that statistics or analytics ruined baseball, and they ruined it maybe in two ways. One, they took away an aspect of that sort of impressionistic debate that you could have with people in a car coming up with things like pyramids, debating Nomar versus Jeter in a way that wasn’t just totally infused with a bunch of—
Simmons: You mean interacting with humans.
Thompson: Interacting with humans. But it also had this second-order effect, which is that I think analytics hurt baseball in a way that it didn’t necessarily hurt the experience of watching basketball and football, because the way that analytics impacted the way baseball was played is that it created a shift, which took away singles from a lot of hitters. That encouraged hitters to have more of an angle on their swing. People in charge of pitching said, “You know what, instead of having one pitcher go late into a game, let’s have seven different pitchers in a game throw 99 miles an hour.” So now batting averages plummet. And all the ways that little-bitty analytics and sabermetrics affected baseball reduced offensive firepower.
But you compare that to basketball and football—what did analytics do? It made the NBA a huge 3-point game, which increased the total number of points. In the NFL, it’s opened up the passing offense, so we’re seeing statistical performances among quarterbacks unlike anything we saw 20 years ago. So you’re right that, at the sort of conversational level, analytics was bad for baseball. But maybe even more importantly—and this is not necessarily the subject of this show, I just think it’s a great point—the injection of analytics into baseball made it more boring in a way that I don’t think it necessarily made basketball and football more boring.
Simmons: Well, baseball became math. And not in a fun way. It’s just like, “Who’s the best player? I will calculate his WAR. Oh, [Mike] Trout had the highest WAR by far. He’s the MVP.” It’s like, what’s fun about that?
This excerpt was edited for clarity. Click here to listen to the whole episode, and subscribe to the Plain English feed on Spotify.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Bill Simmons
Producer: Devon Manze