On April 29, after hitting his 10th home run in his 21st game of the season, Aaron Judge was asked what he thought about hitting 60 this year. “Anything’s possible,’’ he said.
Judge, who had 30 home runs before the All-Star break, said this past week that he hasn’t given Mark McGwire’s rookie record of 49 homers (with the 1987 Oakland A’s) a thought.
“No. My main concern is to keep getting wins in that column. That’s the main thing.,” said Judge, who hit his 33rd home run Friday night. “All the other stuff will take care of itself. I focus on my job, which is to drive people in who are on base and get on base for people behind me. If I do that, I think everything else will take care of itself.”
Judge should finish with at least the second-highest home run total by a rookie. Wally Berger (1930 Boston Braves) and Frank Robinson (1956 Cincinnati Reds) each finished with 38. That, however, might not satisfy the ravenous appetite of the homer-hungry fan base that the 6-7, 282-pound Judge established with his huge first half and his colossal display in winning the Home Run Derby.
Are the expectations too weighty? Fans expect a long ball every at-bat. “They can’t wait to see what’s possible,’’ Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s very grounded and he understands that great hitters hit .300 and you’re going to make outs and you’re going to strike out.
“When he goes through a hard time, people are like, ‘Uh- oh, uh-oh,’ but what I’ve seen so far [is] he’s built to handle it.’’
Girardi thinks McGwire’s record is within reach. “I think it’s definitely possible,” he said. “It’s not something that’s really entered my mind, but I think it’s possible, yeah.’’
Before the All-Star break, Judge had a .329/.448/.691 slash line with 30 homers and 66 RBIs in 84 games. He had struck out 109 times in 301 at-bats.
After going 0-for-3 with three strikeouts Saturday, he was hitting .170 with three home runs and eight RBIs in 15 games since the break. He had struck out 23 times in 53 at-bats.
The operative theory for Judge’s reduced numbers since the break is that pitchers are figuring out how to throw to him. Judge disagrees.
“No, it’s been about the same, to be honest,’’ he said. “They’re still trying to do the same kind of thing. It’s a chess match out there. Sometimes, the first at-bat, they’re going to try to come in on you. Maybe the next at-bat, they’re going to go off-speed. Third at-bat, they’ll try to go away.
“It’s about making adjustments. They’ve been pitching me all sorts of different ways, in the first half and the second half. It’s my job to keep adjusting, sticking to my plan, sticking to my strengths and try to execute it.”
Retired Yankee Alex Rod riguez, who is fourth on the all-time home run list with 696, was asked if power hitters carry an extra burden because pitchers are either trying to pitch around them or give them little to hit.
“Yes, but Aaron can use that to his advantage,’’ Rodriguez said in an email. “Patience and discipline will be one of the keys for him to continue to dominate . . . The biggest difference is from now on, he is the focal point of every team and pitcher he faces.’’
Judge became only the second rookie to hit at least 30 homers before the All-Star break (McGwire had 33). Mc Gwire had 37 homers by July 30 in 1987.
Former Yankee John Habyan, who lives in Nesconset and is an assistant coach at Hofstra, was pitching for the Orioles when he gave up McGwire’s 42nd homer that season. “When you have a rookie sometimes, you don’t know what his weakness is,’’ he said. “You’re kind of just going after a guy until you figure it out.’’
In 1987, McGwire hit 15 homers in May but only three in August. He came back with nine in September.
“It was a mixture of, I think, [pitchers adjusting] and playing at the big-league level on an everyday basis,’’ said McGwire, now the Padres’ bench coach. “It’s not easy. The travel, the wear and tear. Somewhere, somehow, in these six months, you’re going to have a down time where things aren’t going to go well for you. That’s everybody who’s ever played this game. I think back 30 years ago, that’s a long time ago.”
McGwire said he did undergo the same scrutiny that Judge and Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger, who had 28 homers through Friday, are facing now.
“Obviously, today, people pay attention to things on so much of a greater scale,’’ McGwire said. “Back then, it’s definitely not as big as what they’re going through right now as far as a chance of breaking it, and probably shattering it. Judge and Bellinger are set up perfectly to break it, and we’ll see what happens. They’re really fun to watch.
“It’s just ironic how it took 31 years [for McGwire to break the rookie record that Robinson tied in 1956] and now at 30 years, they’re doing it. I’ve always been one of those guys that thinks that records are meant to be broken. And if it happens this year, I’d be happy to hand it off to either one of them.”
Rene Lachemann was a coach with the A’s when McGwire set the rookie record. McGwire, who played in 151 games, averaged one home run every 3.08 games.
“You saw the power and it was evident he was going to [break the record] unless he was involved in any kind of an injury,’’ Lachemann, 72, said from Scottsdale, Arizona. “It’s a game of adjustments, and right now Judge is getting some people to make adjustments to him. Nowadays, especially with guys throwing 95 to 100 miles an hour and all the relievers you got coming in and you only see them once.”
McGwire, who hit 583 homers in a 16-year career from 1986 to 2001, said in a published statement in 2010 that he used steroids in 1998 when he hit 70 homers, breaking Roger Maris’ record of 61 set in 1961. Mc Gwire said he first used steroids in the 1989-90 offseason.
Rodriguez has said he used steroids for a three-year period beginning in 2001 when he was with the Rangers. He was suspended for the 2014 season as a result of the Biogenesis probe into performance-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball recognizes all records set in the so-called Steroid Era.
Jose Abreu, the American League Rookie of the Year for the White Sox in 2014, had 29 homers before the All-Star break that year despite missing 14 games with left ankle tendinitis. He totaled 36 in 145 games.
White Sox hitting instructor Todd Steverson said Abreu was content to hit for a high average in the second half after pitchers didn’t give him much to hit.
“If you look back at the history of homers, everybody gets all hyped up about first-half home runs,’’ Steverson said. “The second half of the season when you’re playing contending teams, they’re not going to let you beat them. They’re just not going to offer you much. ‘I’m going to see if I can get you to chase a pitch. If you don’t, you walk and I’ll deal with the next guy.’ Judge is going to run up against that.’’
HR DROUGHTS ARE EXPECTED
Lee Elia was Rodriguez’s hitting coach for his first five years with the Mariners. The true home run hitter, Elia, 80, said from Odessa, Florida, “understands that when he comes up, he’s not going to get anything to hit. When you’re out there in front of 50,000 people, it gets tougher and tougher and the pressure starts to build within your body.’’
Jim Thome, 46, who hit 612 homers in a 22-year career that ended in 2012, said of Judge, “From a fundamental end, where he’s at the plate, it’s all great stuff.’’
Thome, who will be on the ballot for the Hall of Fame in 2018, is a special assistant to the general manager of the White Sox and an analyst for the MLB Network. “Every player, no matter if you have one to 15 or 20 years’ experience, goes through slides during the course of the year,’’ Thome said from Chicago. “I think when you get a big guy in the lineup, I think these guys are always looking like ‘don’t let him beat you.’ A guy gets 30 homers and the league goes, ‘Wait a minute, now let’s really dissect this.’ ’’
Then-Tigers rookie catcher Matt Nokes hit 32 homers in 1987, the same year McGwire set the record. “I think the more you play, the better the pitchers get to know you,’’ Nokes, 53, said from San Diego. “I want to know what Aaron Judge’s nitro zone is. When pitchers get to know where your bread and butter is, it does become more difficult.’’
Former pitcher Dan Plesac gave up McGwire’s 33rd homer in 1987. “McGwire was a notoriously low-ball hitter,’’ said Plesac, 55, a studio analyst for the MLB Network. “You couldn’t throw it too low or too hard that he won’t hit it. Aaron Judge is a much better hitter right now than Mark McGwire was at this stage if he continues to lay off the bad breaking pitches particularly from righties, the sliders and balls down and away. He’s going to strike out, but I’ve been unbelievably impressed with his discipline.’’
NO MORE DRILLING
In years past, rookies who showed home run power early on were dealt with from the mound, said Ron Kittle, 59, who lives in Mokena, Illinois, and was reached during a vacation in Alaska.
Kittle, who hit 35 for the 1983 White Sox, said he fell short of the then-record 38 because “my elbows, wrist and shoulders couldn’t hold up to getting drilled. Nowadays, it’s like more of a free swing. You can’t pitch hardly anybody inside. Somebody asked me what pitches I got and I said fastball at my face and changeups and sliders away.’’
Rookie records were not highly publicized when Berger hit his 38 for the 1930 Braves. Seven years later, the Tigers’ Rudy York challenged with 35. “He talked more about his 18 home runs in one month that broke Babe Ruth’s record of 17,’’ York’s son Joseph said from Jackson, Mississippi. “He was hitting home runs at a pace faster than Babe Ruth at that time.’’
In 1963, Jimmie Hall hit 33 for the Twins, and for him, it was more about overtaking the 31 hit by future Hall of Famer Ted Williams for the Red Sox in 1939. “I was just like any other rookie they were trying to figure out,’’ Hall, 79, said from Wilson, North Carolina. “Now Judge, he’s something else. He’s as big as a stadium.’’
With Marc Carig and Sal Cacciatore