So, that Aaron Judge slump appears to be over.
The Yankees’ rookie right fielder, Home Run Derby champion, and Statcast deity looked decidedly mortal for a recent six-week stretch. Perhaps he was suffering from a post-Derby curse (which probably isn’t a thing); perhaps he was hurt; perhaps he was just caught up in the waves of adjustments that define any MLB player’s season, particularly a rookie’s. Regardless, he had fallen in the WAR leaderboards, the MVP race, and the home run chase; the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton became the dinger king worth watching.
And then, the calendar turned once more, and Judge not only returned to form but somehow found a new and better gear. After OPSing more than 1.000 in each of the season’s first three months, he’s nearing the end of his hottest month to date, slashing an absurd .307/.444/.893 in September. On Sunday, he blasted two home runs in Toronto, and on Monday, he added two more back home against Kansas City. The last of that quartet was no. 50 for the season, giving Judge the MLB rookie record, which Mark McGwire had held for three decades.
The only Yankees in history who had previously reached the 50-homer plateau were Babe Ruth (60, 59, and 54 twice), Mickey Mantle (54 and 52), Roger Maris (61), and Alex Rodriguez (54). Judge, again, did so as a rookie, and he has six games left to add to his accelerating total.
From a practical perspective, Judge’s attainment of the rookie record means little for the Yankees, who are essentially locked into the AL’s first wild-card spot. The season’s last week for New York is about setting up the rotation for a playoff run, figuring out the optimal lineup at the corner infield and DH slots, and ensuring player health heading into October. But for Judge in awards season, no. 50 could prove a vital narrative addition. Already a cinch to become the Yankees’ first Rookie of the Year since Derek Jeter, he had stumbled in the MVP race as Houston’s José Altuve—Judge’s aesthetic antithesis, yet his slugging compatriot—gained front-runner status.
Altuve leads the AL in hits, batting average, OPS+, and Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, and he’s maintained a consistently excellent profile all season. Judge, meanwhile, hit just .179/.346/.344 with seven home runs from the All-Star break through the end of August and set an ignominious record with a strikeout in 37 consecutive games, and that second-half swoon seemed to relegate him to second-tier MVP consideration. But now, with a scorching September and a slate of black-ink statistics of his own—he leads the league in homers, runs, and walks, and is tied with Altuve in FanGraphs WAR—he has transformed the award debate and perhaps re-assumed the top spot. Four homers in two games certainly helps, as does reaching a shiny round number and surpassing a 30-year-old record by besting McGwire in a home run feat.
And in a season defined by the long ball, it’s fitting that Judge would carry the national narrative from start to middle to finish. He scripted the most magical story line in April, when the titanic figure started to mash; he did the same at midseason, when he made the Derby fun again; and he’s cresting that wave again in September, when he’s exchanged strikeout records for home run marks. No player has ever looked or swung or hit the ball quite like Aaron Judge before. No player has ever reached 50 homers as a rookie, either.