Spin Cycle: Which home run race has been most impressive? 

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St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols (5) watches after hitting a home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman also scored. It was Pujols’ 700th career home run. AP Photo/Ashley Landis

What a season it has been for the home run ball. 

While there is still a week and a half remaining in the 2022 Major League Baseball regular season, baseball fans have already been treated to two of the great home run races of all-time. St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols cranked his 700th career home run off of his former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, last Friday, becoming just the fourth player in MLB history to reach 700 career homers. Meanwhile, New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge has raised eyebrows all season with his torrid home run pace, becoming just the sixth player in Major League history to record 60 round-trippers in a single season with the signature blast coming last Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. On the verge of home run number 61, Judge’s next bomb will tie him with Yankee legend Roger Maris for the most home runs in American League history, a record that hasn’t been grazed since 1961.  

Though fans have had the luxury of watching Pujols and Judge chase home run history all year, few to none have compared the two and their respective home run races to determine which has been the more monumental accomplishment. The records that both have pursued are each equally parts impressive and difficult to accomplish, though the nature of the two records are quite different. Pujols’ 700 homers are the culmination of years of domination at the plate; Judge’s 60 this season has been one of the greatest power displays in a calendar year ever. Despite both record’s various attributes, a deeper dive into baseball history could answer a question that few people realized they’d had: which of Pujols’ 700th home run or Judge’s (eventual) 61st is the more impressive feat? 

While Judge’s home run chase has been a story for a single season, Pujols’ chase for 700 home runs has been a work in progress. One of only 11 players in MLB history to be awarded Most Valuable Player honors three times, Pujols was the face of baseball and a staple in St. Louis’ lineup throughout the 2000s. After becoming a free agent following the 2011 season, Pujols left the Cardinals for the Los Angeles Angels, though he could never completely replicate his success in his new city. Pujols continued to smack long balls at a high rate, but his declining batting average and home run pace as his age reached the late 30s led most to think that his chances of reaching 700 career homers were slim-to-none. He rejoined St. Louis for the final season of his big-league career, though with two months remaining in the season, Pujols still found himself 14 home runs shy of 700. Inexplicably, the future Hall-of-Famer has returned to his old form, batting .306 with those 14 dingers in 43 games (that’s a pace of almost 53 home runs over a full 162 games). 

New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge runs after hitting his 60th home run of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the ninth of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in New York. AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh

Though always a power threat when he stepped to the plate, Pujols never eclipsed 50 home runs in his 22 years as a pro; his career-high home runs for a single season is 49 (2006). He was able to climb so high up the home run leaderboard thanks largely to his ability to hit home runs consistently over a long period of time. Excluding the 2020 campaign shortened by COVID-19, he’s hit under 20 home runs only three times and hit at least 30 home runs an incredible 12 years in a row to start his career. With 14 seasons of 30 or more long balls under his belt, only Alex Rodriguez and Hank Aaron have more 30+ home runs seasons (15) than the veteran. He has recorded 18 seasons of 20+ dingers, only behind Aaron (20) and Barry Bonds (19). Pujols was able to accomplish these feats in an era of baseball where pitchers have shown tremendous upgrades in their ability to throw various pitches. Most of Aaron’s home runs came during the live-ball era when offensive stats rose drastically between the late 1950s and early 1970s, and while that’s no knock on Aaron, it’s more a commendation to Pujols. He’s stood the test of time, facing pitches like Randy Johnson in the early 2000s to Jacob DeGrom in the 2020s, resulting in him being one of only 17 players to hit a home run in 22 Major League seasons. 

There are exactly four players that have swatted more homers in a single campaign than Judge in 2022: Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Maris. Though, as many journalists and baseball historians noted as Judge’s home run total continued to rise, we are in the midst of an age in baseball history where baseball players are penalized extensively for using performance-enhancing drugs. At one point, however, this was not the case: players would utilize steroids and other PEDs without much risk of being caught or facing an extensive penalty. Perhaps the two most famous players to take advantage of PEDs, Bonds and McGwire have had their tremendous careers soured by their utilization of foreign substances. Sosa, too, has been accused of steroid use during his career, though he never admitted to using it while playing. All three of Bonds, McGwire and Sosa are amongst the most statistically-superb players to grace the baseball diamond, which resulted in a total of 33 combined All-Star appearances on top of their individual accolades. Even so, the trio were denied entry into the MLB Hall of Fame as a result of their involvement in the illegal activity. That means that if we’re looking at an even playing field where PEDs are a non-factor, then Judge trails only Maris for the most home runs hit in one season. 

Were Judge to pass Maris’ mark of 61 home runs, then he’d break the American League (AL) home run record (the players ahead of Maris all played for National League (NL) teams) as well as the Yankees all-time single season record — two titles that have been carefully preserved for 61 years. His 60 home runs through 147 games is the third-fastest rate for any player who hit 60 in a single campaign, behind Bonds (141) and McGwire (142). Though he’s opened eyes with his otherworldly home run total and pace, he’s proven to be an all-around contributor for a budding New York squad. Through Monday afternoon, Judge is tied for the lead in batting average in the AL (.314) while leading all of MLB in RBIs (128) and homers. If he finishes the regular season still atop all three batting categories, then he’ll be the first player to claim the Triple Crown title for either the AL or NL since Miguel Cabrera’s magical 2012 season with the Detroit Tigers. Before Cabrera, the last Triple Crown honoree was Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 for the Boston Red Sox, so the title is more exclusive than many think. From 1878 to 1967, there were 26 Triple Crown winners. Since then, there’s been only Cabrera, though Judge has a very real chance of securing the 28th Triple Crown in MLB history. 

New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge looks out after the New York Yankees defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates during a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in New York. AP Photo/Jessie Alcheh

At 6’7” and 282 pounds, Judge has been a known power threat ever since he hit his first career home run in his first career at-bat back in 2016. Since becoming a full-time player the following year, the Yankee outfielder has whacked 214 baseballs over the outfield fence, the most over that span and 26 more than second place, St. Louis third baseman Nolan Arenado (188). Over that timeframe up until Monday afternoon, Arenado played in 818 games to reach his home run total. Judge, who was plagued by injuries at various times from 2018 to 2020, has played in 693 since then, a whopping 125 less games than Arenado. That means that Arenado averages one homer every 4.35 games that he plays. Almost remarkably, Judge’s home run average is over a full game less, as he’s averaged a round-tripper every 3.24 games. That’s truly an elite pace and is a credit to Judge’s improved contact and pitch recognition as he’s gotten used to Major League pitching. Had Pujols, who’s played in 3,074 career games, homered at the same pace as Judge since he became a starter, then he’d have 948 home runs over 22 seasons. For reference, no one in MLB history has eclipsed 800 homers. Had Judge been able to elongate his career, as he was already 25 years old when he became a starter on top of his injury history, he would’ve been the best power hitter in modern baseball. 

While we’ve seen glimpses of home run prowess in the past, it’s hard to think of a campaign as dominant as the one that Aaron Judge has led in 2022. The last time that a player hit over 60 round-trippers, Apple had just announced the iPod, Wikipedia was just launched and Pujols was in the process of claiming the National League Rookie of the Year award. Despite the impressive showing we’ve seen from Judge, it’s hard to ignore the overall impact that Pujols had on the sport of baseball. Turning in one MVP-caliber season after another, Pujols led his league in homers a grand total of two times. Though he didn’t post “video game” numbers in the home run department, Pujols’ ability to crank long balls over the course of two decades has been matched only by the consensus greatest players in baseball history. As one of only four to ever eclipse 700 homers, it seems that Pujols’ milestone is slightly more impressive than that of Judge, though few would be surprised to see the latter slugger continue to climb up the home run list as his career continues. 

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