Over the past few years, there have been some home run stories that have captivated fans, but nothing like what’s happening right now with Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals.
Judge has a chance to become the all-time American League leader in home runs during a season. Pujols might become only the fourth player in MLB history to hit 700 home runs in a career.
With a little less than a month to go in the regular season, the two are going to be in the limelight and headlines as they continue to pound the ball over the fence, working their way into the record books and reaching milestones few have. Unless you’re a Yankees or Cards fan (or a Judge or Pujols fan), you might not be fully up to date on the history they’re chasing and what lies ahead of them.
Here’s a look at their numbers as the season winds down.
AARON JUDGE: Keeping it in the family.
Seasons in MLB: 7
Home runs this season: 55
AL single-season home run record: 61, held by Roger Maris, Yankees, 1961
As of September 9, 2022, Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees has 55 home runs for the season. If he can hit six more before the regular season ends, he’ll tie Roger Maris for most home runs in a season by an American League player.
Huh? The record for a single season? Yes!
Anyone who follows the game remembers the exploits of the guys who broke the single-season record for home runs more than 20 years ago. But those players were all in the National League (Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire). And their achievements have left a bad taste for many baseball fans to this day.
The American League is a different story.
Sixty-one years ago in 1961, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees hit 61 home runs to set the American League record for a season, breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 60, which was set in 1927. Ruth, of course, was a Yankee for most of his career. That American League record has stood all this time. Now, Aaron Judge is hoping to catch and pass Maris’s mark as the season winds down.
Or does he?
To hear Judge himself say it, he isn’t chasing the record or chasing history. He simply wants to help his team win the division, and if hitting home runs (or singles) will ensure that, that’s all that matters.
Judge isn’t falling for being the main story of the Yankees and lets reporters know when they ask him about chasing Maris’s record. “I’ve got nothing for you,” he responds when they ask him about it. “I just try to do whatever I can to help us win. I show up and I am ready to go.”
According to Yankees manager Aaron Boone, Judge, who is 30 years old, isn’t putting on a fake front. He means it, and it’s why he’s staying focused at the plate. “He’s just so equipped for this,” says Boone. “It’s constant conversation and he’s equipped for all of it because he is just so focused on winning and doing his job.”
In 1961, the press mercilessly hounded Maris as he approached Ruth’s record. They almost despised Maris for challenging the record, and they were also rooting for Mickey Mantle, who was in a home run chase with Maris for most of that 1961 season. And if you didn’t know or recall, Ruth set his record in 1927 in a 154-game season. The ’61 season was 162 games long.
Maris played in 162 games in 1961 and was at 59 homers after game 154. He hit number 61 in the last game of the season. Even the commissioner of baseball suggested early in the season that breaking the record in a longer season wasn’t legitimate.
Maris, who wore number 9, was under so much stress chasing the record that his hair was falling out. Judge, who wears 99, is different, and perhaps so is the press 61 years later. “It’s just not important to me,” he says over and over. “It’s important that we win the division. The record is off-season talk.”
Besides, there aren’t many people, if any, rooting against Judge to break Maris’s record. Enough time has passed that people aren’t too worked up about it.
As of September 9th, Judge had 24 more games left in the season to hit 61 to tie the record, and 62 to set the new mark for the American League. The Yankees are five games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East.
ALBERT PUJOLS: A favorite son comes home.
Seasons in MLB: 22
Career home runs: 695
Players with at least 700 HRs: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth
Player ahead of Pujols: Alex Rodriguez (696)
From 2001 through 2011, Albert Pujols played for the St. Louis Cardinals and was a star from the start. He was Rookie of the Year, a nine-time All-Star, three-time MVP and a two-time World Series champion. Oh, and he also slugged 445 home runs over those years, just a smidge more than 40 per season. Mr. Consistent.
He then went to the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 at the age of 32, as a free agent, and played nine-and-a-half seasons in Anaheim.
It wasn’t the same. Over that time, he made the All-Star roster just once, and the Angels made it to the postseason just once, losing in the American League Division Series.
He hit 222 home runs with the Angels, mostly as a designated hitter. That comes out to an average of 22 a season, but being a DH gave him a chance to continue playing as he got older. He was traded to the Dodgers during the 2021 season, and although it was just a freeway drive away, the atmosphere was entirely different. As a pinch hitter, he hit 12 home runs and batted over .250, helping the Dodgers get to the National League Championship Series, where they lost to the Braves.
When that short single-season run with the Dodgers ended, Pujols home run count stood at 679. However, Albert wanted to show the world he still had life in his swing. Better still, the National League started using designated hitters (DH) in 2022 for the first time in history.
In 2022, he came back home to join his first team, the St. Louis Cardinals, who brought him back not simply for nostalgic reasons. They figured and hoped the slugger could fill the DH role and help the team compete for a pennant, and with good reason. He’d been a DH or pinch hitter for years already. And he’d rediscovered how it felt to play for a winning organization and be part of the team’s success. He was ready.
The Cardinals’ move paid off for them, the fans, and Pujols most of all. He’s as happy as can be this season, his last. As of September 9th, the Cardinals are on top of the NL Central Division, 9.5 games ahead of Milwaukee. In 86 games, Pujols has 16 home runs and 43 RBI.
He’s just one home run away from catching Alex Rodriguez at 696 homers. With five more dingers, he joins just three other players in the 700 club: Barry Bonds, the leader, Henry Aaron, and Babe Ruth.
And if he doesn’t reach 700 before the season ends, will he come back? Nope, he says.
“I’m still going to retire, no matter what, whether I end up hitting 693, 696, 700, whatever,” Pujols said recently. “I don’t get caught up in numbers. If you told me 22 years ago that I would be close, I would have told you that you were freakin’ crazy. My career has been amazing.”
Over the Cardinals’ final 24 games, he needs only two homers to pass A-Rod (not a fan favorite) and five to reach the 700 milestone. Whether he does or not, he’ll always be a respected player of the game.
Resources: cbssports.com/mlb/news/aaron-judge-home-runs; foxsports.com/stories/mlb/aaron-judges-chase-61; nypost.com/2022/09/05/aaron-judges-record-chase; cnn.com/2022/09/05/sport/albert-pujols-695; wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Maris; mlb.com/news/albert-pujols-hits-695