The biggest obstacle to Aaron Judge challenging Barry Bonds’ home run record

The biggest obstacle to Aaron Judge challenging Barry Bonds’ home run record
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New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge entered baseball’s record books Tuesday by smashing his 62nd home run — the most long balls ever hit in a single season by an American League player (outside of baseball’s steroid era).

It’s a huge, historic accomplishment, a level of smashing we haven’t experienced in decades. But he coulda, shoulda, woulda hit a lot more if not for the “dead” baseball being used across Major League Baseball this season.

What Judge is doing is incredible, and he should be paid very handsomely for his efforts when he becomes a free agent this offseason. But no matter how you spin it, Bonds remains the true home run champ.

The so-called dead balls are the result of changes in the manufacturing or storage of baseballs. The game has experienced dead-ball periods in the past, most notably during the early 1900s. This year’s baseballs have had more drag, meaning the ball wasn’t flying through the air quite the same way as it has in prior seasons. Thus, more outs and fewer home runs.

Despite lots of attention and scrutiny, MLB has been coy about changes with the baseballs and the way those changes have impacted on-field play.

MLB’s use of a deadened baseball — not steroids-aided records — has posed the biggest obstacle to Judge challenging the single-season home run record, which, regardless of your feelings on the matter, continues to be Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001.

The statistics website Ballpark Pal estimates that Judge would be on pace for nearly 80 home runs this year if not for the dead ball.

One of the most egregious examples of a non-home-run came in a Sept. 22 game against the Red Sox. After Judge smashed a ball to center field, fans erupted, the pitcher sulked and the TV camera operator zoomed out to show the area beyond the outfield wall, trying to track the flight of the ball. Where would it land? Would a fan catch it?

The ball didn’t land right away, and the camera operator tilted downward to show the ball instead nestling into the outfielder’s glove in front of the wall for a 403-foot out.

According to Ballpark Pal, the ball’s exit velocity (113 mph) and launch angle (35 degrees) off of Judge’s bat would have resulted in a home run more than 90% of the time compared to recent seasons.

Ballpark Pal research suggests that Judge has hit 12 balls this season with an 80% or higher home run likelihood that instead turned into doubles or outs.

Those long outs have been happening a lot across the league. Home runs are down this year by about 25%, according to Ballpark Pal.

Judge’s dominance has been even more notable because his historic season has come while other hitters have struggled. At points throughout the season, he led all other players by 20 home runs, a margin that hasn’t been achieved since Babe Ruth smashed through his own dead-ball era during the 1920s.

It’s fitting since Ruth and Judge represent baseball bookends as the first and latest players to hit 60 home runs in a season.

After Ruth achieved the mark in 1927, it took 34 seasons — until 1961 — for another player and another Yankees star, Roger Maris, to reach that mythical milestone.

The home run totals by Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were diminished — in perception, not in actuality — in the years ahead over the players’ links to performance-enhancing drugs.

Ruth’s 60 came in 154 games. Because the American League expanded its season to 162 games in 1961, baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, a longtime friend of Ruth’s, stated that any player would have to reach the mark in 154 games in order to establish a new record. Otherwise, the total for the 162-game schedule would be listed separately in the record books.

Maris found himself stuck on 59 home runs after 154 games and hit two more in the season’s final eight games. But from 1961 on forward, there was an informal asterisk affixed to Maris’ record — it wasn’t seen as the true record.

Thirty-seven years after that, in the magical season of 1998, sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chewed up the record books, smashing 70 and 66 home runs, respectively.

They were seen as baseball’s saviors, pulling the game out of the abyss following a season-ending strike four years earlier that eroded fan support.

Sports Illustrated posed the duo in togas and laurel wreaths on its cover, godlike, lauding them for going “to such lengths to conduct the great home run race with dignity and sportsmanship, with a sense of joy and openness.” Yeesh.

Only three years after the long-ball summer, Bonds — some say fueled in part by jealousy over the adoration heaped upon McGwire’s and Sosa’s semi-truck shoulders — put on a power display of his own, giving us the current record of 73 taters.

The home run totals by Bonds, McGwire and Sosa were diminished — in perception, not in actuality — in the years ahead over the players’ links to performance-enhancing drugs. At the time of their record seasons, the league had no drug-testing policies in place, and MLB has made no efforts to remove their statistics from the record books.

Since the league began testing players for PEDs, no one has hit 60 home runs in a season, let alone come close to challenging Bonds’ record.

Since the league began testing players for PEDs, no one has hit 60 home runs in a season, let alone come close to challenging Bonds’ record.

Then along came Aaron James Judge this season, pulverizing baseballs at a record rate while representing everything good and right in the game. A gentle giant. A Yankees star. A fan favorite.

The Maris family, as it did for McGwire in 1998, attended Judge’s games in support while serving as torchbearers for their father’s legacy. The relatives endured weeks of interviews, rain delays and trips across North America while waiting for Judge to match their father’s mark. It all may have been settled so much sooner if the baseballs had been flying properly.

Roger Maris Jr. spoke to reporters after Judge’s 61st home run on Sept. 28 and suggested that the true record would be reached with Judge’s next blast.

“He should be revered for being the actual single-season home run champ,” Maris Jr. told reporters. “That’s really who he is if he hits 62.” Maris Jr. later added that he believes McGwire’s and Bonds’ home run marks are illegitimate.

It’s understandable for a son to want to uphold his father’s legacy, and Maris was a great, underappreciated player. Many have argued that Maris should be viewed as the true record-holder in an attempt to whitewash the “steroids era,” but doing so only reinforces the same gatekeeping that Maris himself faced during his season in the spotlight, an imaginary asterisk.

What Judge is doing is incredible, and he should be paid very handsomely for his efforts when he becomes a free agent this offseason. But no matter how you spin it, Bonds remains the true home run champ, with or — in the case of this year’s baseballs — without juice.

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