Oct 7, 2022 - Sports

Why Aaron Judge could have hit 81 home runs

Photo Illustration of Aaron Judge swinging at bat with a grid behind him.

Photo illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Texas Rangers/Getty Images

The six highest single-season HR marks in MLB history came from players believed to be juicing. The seventh — Aaron Judge's 62 — came in spite of the ball itself being de-juiced.

Why it matters: If the balls used this season behaved like the oft-juiced balls used over the previous six, Judge would have hit 81 dingers, per BallparkPal.com. That would have eclipsed Barry Bonds' record by eight.

Between the lines: Ballpark Pal assigned a HR probability to every fly ball hit this year based on exit velocity, launch angle, direction, stadium and weather. It then determined whether those would have been homers if the ball were still juiced.

  • Example A: Judge hit a 111.8-mph double to left-center last month against the Brewers with a 19-degree launch angle. In 2018, Ryan Braun hit a nearly identical shot — same ballpark, same launch angle, same location, slightly lower exit velocity — that cleared the fence.
  • Example B: Judge hit a 100-mph opposite-field line drive in May with a 27-degree launch angle that was an easy out for the right fielder. In 2017, Whit Merrifield hit a 100-mph liner with a 27-degree launch angle that went four rows deep — over Judge's head, no less.

By the numbers: All told, Judge hit 23% fewer HR (62) than he would have if the ball looked more like it did from 2016 to 2021 (80.6), per Ballpark Pal, which uses Statcast data. The league as a whole hit 25% fewer.

The backdrop: It's become common knowledge that MLB baseballs aren't the same every year. While steroids helped inflate HR totals at the turn of the century, the ball's composition was the culprit when they began booming again in 2016.

  • In 2019, the league-wide HR record was broken by such an astonishing degree that the league "de-juiced" its balls entering 2021, though it later came out that both old (juiced) and new (de-juiced) balls were used last year.
  • This year, only the new balls were used, and the result was the fewest long balls since 2015. That makes Judge's feat even more impressive: Only three other players eclipsed 40.

The bottom line: Some argue that Judge is the HR king because he's hit the most among "clean" players. If MLB hadn't deadened the ball this season, perhaps no caveat would even be necessary.

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