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Aaron Judge Restores the Feeling

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Baseball is a sport of accumulation, a procession of small events that compound into a larger story. Whereas football demands hyper-vigilance, baseball rewards vegging out and focusing on the macro view while the daily micros wash over you. Until the impossibly tense crucible of the postseason, no one game—let alone at-bat, let alone pitch—really matters that much. Aaron Judge has the power to change that. 

Through 147 games, Judge has clobbered 60 home runs, equalling Babe Ruth’s best campaign. By any standard, hitting 60 homers is insanely impressive and cool, but it’s still all been prelude up to this point. Having already matched Ruth, Judge should equal and then surpass Roger Maris’s American League record of 61 homers some time over the next two weeks. At the risk of saying the quiet part out loud, Judge’s eventual total will probably be more than anybody has ever hit without being geared out of their mind. Amongst a certain subsect of fans, Judge will become the new One True Dinger King. 

But more than his capacity to populate his Baseball Reference page with bolded, italicized numbers, the most remarkable thing about Judge’s season is that he makes baseball barely feel like baseball. Over the last few months, every one of Judge’s at-bats has been an event. When Judge is up, the game assumes a fundamentally different tenor and tone than when, say, Kyle Higashioka is at the plate. For the first time since Barry Bonds, baseball has a truly grand spectacle, the kind of demographic-spanning attraction that compels tens of thousands of Brewers fans to ooh and ahh when a New York Yankee takes their favorite team yard. 

If part of the beauty of baseball is its democracy, the idea that even a team with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani can be butt, Aaron Judge is reimagining the game as an exercise in extreme self-reliance. During the Yankees’ second-half fall from grace, Judge has single-handedly accounted for more than a third of the Yankees’ homers and driven in more than a quarter of their runs. On the year, he’s produced a league-leading 7.3 WPA (win probability added) and 9.7 WAR (wins above replacement). In the most reductive, simplified understanding of how these stats work, Judge is essentially responsible for why the Yankees are winning the AL East rather than scrapping for the final Wild Card.

In this sense, Judge’s legacy won’t be whatever record he ends up setting or if he completes the triple crown or even if the Yankees succeed in the postseason. Instead, it’ll be how he turned sleepy September baseball into something so urgent and immediate. His home run chase is ultimately immaterial—he’s in pursuit of a lesser, lower number because it’s basically impossible to hit 73 homers in one season unless you’re the greatest hitter of all-time who’s also on the Mr. Universe workout/pharmaceutical plan.

But in a sport that’s been so thoroughly colonized by the tyranny and accuracy of analytics, Judge has restored baseball’s connection to the giddy buzz of its romanticized past. To watch Aaron Judge in 2022 is to watch Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 is to watch Roger Maris in 1961 is to watch Babe Ruth in 1927. It’s to hope that he can do it once—or twice or 15 times—more, with feeling. 

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