Game Day: The magic of Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols

Editor’s note: This is the Tuesday Sept. 20 edition of the “Game Day with Kevin Modesti” newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Good morning. Baseball fans are talking about home runs again this week. Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols could hit magical milestones any day. Let’s consider why that magic endures.

In other news:

Clayton Kershaw pitched the Dodgers to their 102nd win, clinching a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Another loss mathematically eliminated the Angels from postseason play for the eighth year in a row.
Matthew Stafford explained his fourth and fifth interceptions in two games, which nearly cost the Rams on Sunday.
And Jim Alexander’s column looks at the challenges facing the United States men’s World Cup soccer team as the roster is pieced together.

Back (back, back) to home runs.

Judge, the Yankees’ right fielder, goes into a series against the Pirates starting tonight in New York one home run away from Babe Ruth’s 60 homers in a season and two away from Roger Maris’ Yankee and American League record 61.

This year’s performance by Judge, who’s from the San Joaquin Valley town of Linden and Fresno State, is the talk of the sport and likely to win him the league MVP Award despite the singularly, doubly historic feats of the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani.

“The idea of Aaron Judge, a New York Yankee challenging Roger Maris’ 61-homer 1961 season, challenges the metaphor of Ohtani-as-Ruth in a way that few can,” our J.P. Hoornstra wrote in analyzing the MVP race.

With 16 games left in the Yankees’ season, Fangraphs projects Judge to finish with 64 homers, so he’s not going to match Barry Bonds’ major-league record of 73.

But Associated Press writer Noah Trister pointed out: “There’s one way in which Judge likely will surpass both Bonds and Maris, no matter how many more homers he hits. Right now, he has an incredible 20-homer lead over Kyle Schwarber, who is second in the majors. Nobody has led baseball in homers by at least 20 since Babe Ruth finished with 54 in 1928 and nobody else had more than 31. Maris led the majors by only seven when he hit 61, and Bonds led by nine when he hit 73.”

The home-run milestones Judge is challenging – 60 and 61 – might even make this more magical than if he were approaching Bonds’ 73 or Mark McGwire’s 70, given the doping allegations that taint those numbers.

Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark wrote about his excitement when he watched Ken Burns’ “Baseball” and, for the first time, saw film of Ruth hitting his 60th homer in 1927.

“That was what the number, 60, used to mean,” Stark wrote for The Athletic. “The performance-enhancing drugs era has done its best to pulverize that meaning. But it hasn’t quite finished the job. We know that now because we get to watch Aaron Judge chase that number, 60, all over again, in a different time, in a different world.”

Adding to the celebration of home-run milestones is the fact that Pujols, the 42-year-old former Angel and Dodger, is two homers away from being the fourth player with 700 in a career. The Cardinals begin a series with the Padres in San Diego tonight. They play at Dodger Stadium Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Books have been written about the history and mythology of home runs, and I won’t do that this morning, but Judge and Pujols got me thinking about why that remains the stat for individual athletes in American team sports.

Most of baseball’s other standard stats have been discredited in the analytics era. Batting average is superseded by stats that factor in extra bases and walks, and runs batted in are understood to depend too much on the player’s teammates. Wins are seen as a poor measure of a pitcher’s performance, and even ERA – earned run average – has tobe checked against FIP – fielding independent pitching.

The change has happened because technology allows better understanding of the game and more data to be processed, and, crucially, because the rise of fantasy leagues and sports betting gives fans a need for stats that assess and help to forecast performance.

Fine, but there are two kinds of statistics. There are the ones that assess performance. And the ones that tell stories.

A hitter with a .300 average or 100 RBI might not be a great hitter, but he’ll pack up when the season ends secure in knowing he did good things (hit the ball and reach base, drive in runs) more than most. A pitcher who earns a win tonight might not have outperformed a pitcher who gets a loss, but he’ll go home satisfied that he contributed to the team’s success; Jacob deGrom’s mere 10 and 11 wins didn’t measure his performance in his Cy Young Award seasons of 2018 and 2019, but they helped to tell the story of years in which his ERAs were 1.70 and 2.43.

Why have home runs, among all the fundamental numbers, remained magical in the new era? Because they assess performance and they tell stories.

Home runs don’t depend on teammates; Judge has demonstrated that for stretches this season when the rest of the Yankees lineup was struggling. And home runs drive baseball history; try telling the stories of Dodgers and Angels highs and lows over the decades without them.

As Judge challenges Maris and Ruth – while Pujols joins Bonds, Hank Aaron and Ruth – we’re seeing great performances and history in the making.

It’s a week to watch.

TODAY

Dodgers and Diamondbacks play a day-night doubleheader at Dodger Stadium (12:10 p.m.,7:10 p.m., SNLA), including a game postponed from the delayed start of the season.

Angels have Patrick Sandoval (5-9 despite a 2.99 ERA) going against the Rangers (5:05 p.m., BSW) to open a six-game trip to Texas and Minnesota.

READERS REACT

In answer to my question about why UCLA football games are drawing such small crowds this season, reader Pete Morales suggested a factor beyond the quality of the Bruins andtheir opponents: “I think another reason for the small crowds is that two of the three games started at 11 and 11:30 a.m. That time is reserved for tailgating.”

NEXT QUESTION

Which single-season home-run mark do you respect the most: Barry Bonds’ 73, Mark McGwire’s 70, Roger Maris’ 61, Babe Ruth’s 60, or whatever Aaron Judge ends up with? Email your answer to KModesti@scng.com.

280 CHARACTERS

<p”>“The Angels are about to board a flight for Dallas. The last time they did that was in May, after improving to 11 games over .500 with a win at Oakland. Today — 110 games later — they’re 19 games under. They were just mathematically eliminated. Quite a season.” – Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) after the Angels’ loss to the Mariners yesterday.

1,000 WORDS

Man of the people: Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano, center, celebrates with teammates and fans after returning an interception for a touchdown in the second half of the Bills’ 41-7 rout of the Tennessee Titans last night in Orchard Park, N.Y.(AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

 

TALK TO ME

Thanks for reading the newsletter. Send suggestions, comments and questions by email at KModesti@scng.com and via Twitter @KevinModesti.

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