By: Albert Carreno and Anish Deshpande
Let’s be honest: when people go to baseball games, they are anticipating action mostly in the form of home runs. These exciting incidents of baseballs being seemingly sent to outer space sometimes by these muscular, powerful hitters are what make baseball exciting and worth watching to most people. 100 mile per hour fastballs, diving catches, and headfirst slides are entertaining too, but home runs simply cannot be beat. In the 2022 season of Major League Baseball, a very special record was finally broken after standing the test of time these last 61 years — the single season home run record for a player from a team in the American League. The record up until now was held by New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris who crushed 61 home runs in his 1961 season. However, this season, current Yankee star Aaron Judge managed to hit 62 home runs over the course of the regular season, topping Maris and solidifying himself as one of the best players, if not the best player, in the game today. As we are sure you have noticed, both of these players are Yankees. That knowledge alone should make this next question easy: before Maris, who held the single season home run record for the American League? If you guessed another Yankee, you would be correct. It was none other than the legendary Babe Ruth. He hit 60 home runs in 1927 and led the Yankees to a world series victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clearly, all three of these players had outstanding seasons when they each set the single season home run record. Still, it begs the question: which of these three Yankees put up the best offensive season in breaking the record?
Well, that is exactly what this article aims to tackle. To do so, we will be considering several factors for each player including competition faced, a comparison of offensive metrics, how remarkable that season’s performance was for the specific player in the context of league and previous performance, ballpark dimensions, and games played. We will first be taking a look at how the rate at which home runs are being hit has changed over the years.
There is an increasing trend of HR/game per team over the last century. There are big variances by season, but we can use the average HR/game of a certain season as a way to standardize how “hard” it was for a typical batter to hit a home run in that season. For example, Aaron Judge hit his 62 home runs in 2022, a season which had a much higher HR/game at 1.07 than the 60 home run season by Babe Ruth in 1927, where the HR/game was a mere 0.40. It is seen that it was in some sense “easier” for Judge to hit a home run than it was for Babe Ruth. This is likely because of better bats and more aerodynamic balls which help the ball travel much farther and faster upon contact.
The plots above further confirm the fact that the average MLB player has been hitting more home runs in recent years. As years progress, the distribution becomes less and less right skewed. The peak of the distribution slowly creeps to the right. In all seasons, however, there are multiple high outliers, showing that there are consistently batters who outperform the rest of the competition. The median of the distribution increases from 2 to 8 to 9 home runs from 1927 to 2001 to 2022.
As time has progressed and so has technology. People have been able to create bats which are sturdier and allow the ball to rebound faster after contact. In addition, balls have been made more aerodynamic by having a more symmetric mass distribution about its center. The MLB has never allowed aluminum bats, which let the ball travel further than any wooden bat would. As these effects have been seen over the decades, nothing much has been done to stop them.
There is little objection to the increase in high powered offenses and scoring in the modern era. Major sports leagues revolve a lot around money and profit these days, and they will do what it takes to bring in higher viewership and better quality baseball. In this case, most people would rather come to a baseball game to see home run fireworks rather than a good quality pitchers’ duel, because it is more exciting to watch. Similar effects are being seen in other sports such as cricket, where shorter, fast-paced, batter friendly formats (t20s, t10s) are drawing in more viewers than longer formats (ODIs, Tests).
Here is a graphic that shows the year by year home runs hit by Judge, Maris, and Ruth over their careers. The plot for Judge will continue to grow since his career is nowhere close to over, though the other plots are final. In the plots for Ruth and Maris, we can see an upward trend followed by a peak and then a downward trend. This is expected from great players, as we see them rise to their prime and then decline towards the end of their careers.
An important point to note is exactly which year of their careers each of these players managed to hit more than 60 home runs. For Judge, he achieved this feat in his 7th season. Ruth managed to hit just under 60 in his 8th season followed by his best HR season in his 14th year. Maris hit his most HRs during his 5th season. It is also important to note that the 2020 season can be disregarded, because it was a much shorter regular season due to the pandemic, resulting in fewer home runs by Judge.
Judge did hit his 60+ HR season relatively “early” in his career, just 2 years after Maris. Is this trend concerning for Aaron Judge? For both Ruth and Maris, a steady decline began after their 60+ home run season. Could the same be true for Judge? After all, he did not have a particularly great postseason following that phenomenal regular reason. Could this be a sign of the start of a slow decline beginning next year? It is impossible to tell because we really do not know if Judge has reached that “peak” yet.
They may not be able to accurately paint the entire picture, but checking out players’ offensive metrics can still provide a good snapshot of how they performed overall, especially when compared to the league averages. Further below is a set of graphs for Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, and Aaron Judge showcasing their offensive statistics along with those of an average hitter for that particular year. The statistics used in these graphs are batting average (number of hits divided by total at bats), on base percentage (number of times the batter has reached base divided by total plate appearances), slugging percentage (total bases added where a single is worth one base, a double is worth two, a triple is worth three, and a home run is worth four divided by total at bats), and weighted on base average (wOBA). That last metric is more advanced and does not have as simple of a formula, but for our sakes and purposes, all that needs to be understood is that wOBA measures a player’s ability to get on base frequently the way on base percentage does, but instead of treating every method of reaching base equally, its formula assigns higher weights to more valuable ways of reaching base(i.e. a triple is given greater weight than a single).
Now that the meaning of these offensive statistics are clear, let’s have a look at these graphs and see what we can infer from them. First, let’s look at Aaron Judge’s graph. Right off the bat(no pun intended), what jumps out is that he is outperforming the average hitter in all the statistically relevant categories depicted here. What’s more, he is doing so by a wide margin. Judge is at least 25% better than the average hitter in each statistic and even attained a slugging percentage a whopping 74% higher than that of a league average batter. There is no doubt he had an incredible offensive season when taking all this into account. The kinds of metrics we are talking about here are Hall of Fame level, even beyond that. The average Hall of Famer has a career .303 batting average, .376 on base percentage, .462 slugging percentage and .387 wOBA. Judge has far exceeded that with his numbers this season. His metrics indicate that he logged extra base hits at a higher rate, drew more walks, and overall had a higher impact on his team’s offense. To add to the sheer incredulity of his performance, there is also the fact that he posted a 211 OPS+ (a metric that measures on base plus slugging percentage and is normalized across the league so the average is 100). Essentially then, Judge was twice as good as your ordinary hitter. In light of these facts, Babe Ruth has a tough act to follow, but let’s see how he fared in his illustrious 1927 season.
Now as good as Aaron Judge was in 2022, Babe Ruth seems to have been just as good in 1927, if not just slightly better according to these graphs. And these initial impressions are proven correct as the numbers do not lie: Ruth does best Judge in every statistic and is proportionately better compared to the league average in everything except for batting average (Judge is 28% better than the league average, while Ruth is only 26% better). The most striking things to note start with his slugging percentage, which is nearly twice as good as your average 1927 batter, coming at a .774. That is 97% better than the league average. There is also his wOBA that is 60% better than the average and is the seventh highest figure recorded in baseball history for a single season. However, if you are still not convinced, Ruth also put up a higher OPS+ than Judge with a stunning 225 mark, meaning he was over twice as good as the league average batter. Ruth is commonly known throughout the baseball world as one of the greatest to ever play the game, and the proof is in the pudding. His 1927 season definitely stands out as one of the best in the sport, and at least on the surface, seems to outdo Judge’s efforts. Ruth’s slugging and wOBA are considerably higher than Judge’s, which does make sense as he recorded 18 more singles, 1 more double, 8 more triples, and drew 26 more walks than Judge. However, there is definitely more to consider as we will later see. For now, let’s see if Roger Maris gives these two any competition based on his numbers.
Looking at Maris’s graph, it immediately comes off as less impressive than Judge or Ruth’s graphs. In terms of batting average and on base percentage, Maris is hardly lighting the world on fire, only beating the average hitter in 1961 by 10% and 13% in those categories, respectively. He does better in slugging percentage and wOBA though, posting a wOBA that is about 30% better than the average hitter, and a slugging percentage that is 55% better. That said, while it is obvious that Maris still had an excellent season comparatively speaking, the truth is that it does not seem like his season belongs with the likes of Judge and Ruth’s seasons. Both of those players did better than Maris in every single offensive category considered here. Maris’s batting average in particular is especially low at .269. That said, Maris’s statistics likely suffered due to his abysmal luck in 1961.
One of baseball’s most simple barometers for measuring a batter’s luck in a given season is his BABIP (batting average on balls in play). The formula for BABIP is fairly straightforward: (hits - home runs)/(total at bats - home runs - strikeouts + sacrifice flies). The simple design of this metric does the equivalent of what batting average does, but does not consider outcomes of at bats that result in the ball being out of play(home runs) or never being put into play at all(strikeouts). The league average for BABIP is generally around .300. In 1961 though, Roger Maris had a BABIP of .209, which is demonstrative of very poor luck. It is considered pretty unlucky to just have a BABIP below .270, so when a batter is nearly below .200, you know not everything has been entirely fair. That being so, even if Roger Maris had better luck, it does not change much. Most base hits that do not go a batter’s way and are turned into outs are usually ground balls, which are almost always singles if they become hits. So we can say pretty confidently that Maris deserved a higher batting average and possibly on base percentage too, but his slugging percentage, OPS+, and wOBA would have all remained fairly similar even with luck on his side as his extra base hit total would have most likely barely increased.
The next factor to consider is the difficulty of competition in terms of pitchers these players faced and particularly how they performed against the most difficult pitchers. It takes an immense amount of talent no matter what to do what any of these guys did, but the fact remains that not all offensive metrics are created equal. Sometimes, a player may benefit from facing easier pitching, and other times, a player may face harder pitching more often than usual, causing his performance to take a hit. In order to properly evaluate how our three sluggers did against stiff competition, we rummaged through hundreds of box scores and compiled all of their results(the offensive metrics used earlier) against starting pitchers that posted an ERA(earned run average) of 3.30, which simply means these pitchers allowed roughly three runs or less on average per start, a very respectable mark that when attained leads to the pitcher being considered among the best of the best. Ideally, I would have used more advanced metrics to more accurately evaluate how well these hitters performed, but tracking advanced baseball metrics was not exactly commonplace in 1927 or 1961 when Ruth and Maris played. Regardless, even by just using a statistic as basic as ERA, we can still get a solid enough understanding of whether or not the competition faced was elite or not. Below is a graph that details how Ruth, Maris, and Judge all did against pitchers with a sub 3.30 ERA.
Just like when comparing general offensive metrics for the season, Ruth seems to stand out as performing the best out of these three. Even against tough pitchers, he did not lose a beat, posting an even higher slugging percentage and on base percentage against difficult pitching than against all other pitching. All things considered, it is not a stretch to say that Ruth was virtually unbeatable at the plate. Meanwhile, Maris seems to fall in the middle of the pack. His statistics against difficult pitching are less impressive than Ruth’s, but it is fairly close in everything other than slugging percentage. It is also worth considering that Maris suffered from awful luck in 1961, so he may have performed at least slightly better with average luck. That said, Ruth still takes the cake for best performance here. On the other end of the spectrum though, you have got Judge. Compared to Ruth and Maris, Judge’s performance seems like child’s play. His .241 batting average, .351 on base percentage, and .446 slugging percentage are only slightly above average performance compared to a league average batter. That said, before you write him off entirely, there are a few extra variables that must be considered.
Firstly, as previously stated, all three of our players (Ruth, Maris, and Judge) were on the Yankees for each of their 60+ home run seasons. And to properly analyze the difficulties of home run hitting for each of these athletes, not only does pitching quality, quality of bats, and the aerodynamics of baseballs matter, but so does the location where they played, specifically ballpark dimensions. To include ballpark dimensions as a factor which determines the number of home runs hit, we should try to find differences in ballpark dimensions.
However, you might be thinking…Didn’t all these players play their home games (approximately half of their games) at the same stadium (Yankee Stadium)? So in that case, wouldn’t they face the same difficulty in hitting a home run?
The answer is actually “no”, and that is because the dimensions of Yankee stadium have changed over the years. Let’s look at this in further detail and check out the dimensions and when they changed.
A long time ago, baseball stadiums tended to have dimensions similar to the stadium shown above, however over time, this has changed as the left and right field has increased in length, while center field has dramatically decreased in length.
Today’s Yankee Stadium shows this drastic difference between baseball being played in Ruth’s time as compared to the modern era.
Yankee Stadium officially opened on Wednesday, April 18th, 1923. Since then, it has undergone a series of reconstructions and renovations. The changes in 1937 and 1976 involved the bringing in of the fence in the “Death Valley” region of the ballpark in left center field.
Let’s look at each hitter and the dimensions they were faced with at Yankee Stadium
Ruth’s best year came in 1927, when the left and right field lines were quite short at 86 meters and 90 meters respectively. While straightaway left and right field were a good distance from home plate, center field was a monstrous 150 meters away. Being a lefty hitter, Ruth found that short right field line advantageous to hit homers to. On the other hand, it was near impossible to hit home runs dead center, so it was in the batter’s best interest to pull the ball whenever possible.
Maris’s best year came in 1961. He, just like Ruth, was a lefty hitter, so he also benefited from the famous short right porch at Yankee Stadium, sitting at just 296 feet. While the left field line distance increased by about 6 meters, the center field region was pulled in by about 30 feet, making it more possible to hit a home run in that area if the ball was perfectly barrelled. Because for the most part, the dimensions of the ballpark were decreased from Ruth’s to Maris’s time, Maris had a greater advantage when it came to ballpark factors when hitting a home run at Yankee Stadium.
Judge’s best year came in 2022. Unlike the other two, Judge is a righty batter, so that “short right porch” did not play into his advantage as much as it did for the others. While the left and right field lines increased marginally in distance (312 and 310 feet, respectively), the center field area was pulled in significantly to just 408 feet, making it much easier to hit a home run in that direction. In this sense, it was easier for Judge to hit home runs all across the ballpark, whereas Maris and Ruth were limited to just right field and perhaps left field at times, with center field being completely out of the question.
It would be very interesting to compare each of the home runs and their distances for all three batters. Unfortunately, we only have this sort of data available for Aaron Judge, so we cannot accurately compare home runs between all three hitters.
Statcast defines a “doubter” as a home run that would be gone at 7 or fewer of the 30 MLB stadiums. A “mostly gone” is defined as a home run that would be gone at 8 to 29 stadiums. A “no-doubter” is a HR that would be gone in all 30 ballparks.
Looking specifically at Judge, out of all his 64 HRs (regular season + postseason), 57.8% were no-doubters (37 no-doubters). This is a wildly impressive stat, as the graphic below will show. The data for this graphic was collected from Baseball Savant.
Judge’s stats stand out a lot in this visualization. What is impressive is how Judge has a high no doubter percentage for his Home Runs even though he has hit a lot more home runs than any other player in the league. It shows that his HRs did not come by primarily due to luck. He really did hit a lot of long distance home runs.
A simple way to look at this graphic is that points towards the top right were caused by a player hitting more, longer home runs (more skill). The points on the bottom left were caused by a hitter hitting fewer, shorter home runs (more luck). Therefore, we can conclude that Judge’s 60+ home run season was largely skill based and would probably remain a 60+ HR season regardless of the ballparks he was playing in.
Though Judge does seem to have an advantage when it comes to no doubt home runs and performance against difficult pitching, Babe Ruth and Roger Maris had their 60+ HR seasons when the regular season lasted only 154 games. This means that Judge had an extra eight games to reach this 60+ total. We can cancel out for that effect by seeing how many HRs Judge had 154 games into the 2022 season, which is 60 HRs. So even by subtracting 8 games, Judge was still able to hit that 60+ home run mark and tie with Ruth. Though it is impressive that Maris was able to hit one additional home run than Judge by the 154th game, it is quite negligible, as one game here and there could have altered the results. We can assume that the home runs hit by Maris, Ruth, and Judge by the 154th game were pretty much the same at around 60.
It is also imperative to consider the different times these guys were playing in. Baseball was a very different game in 1927 and 1961 compared to how it is now. One of the biggest differences is how starting pitchers are used today compared to back then. Nowadays, your average starting pitcher throws five innings per start, or barely half of the game. He is then often strategically replaced by relievers that are handpicked by the manager and brought in to face batters they have an advantage against. Before, starting pitchers were often pitching the entire game. As the graph below shows, starting pitchers were throwing around 310 innings per season in 1927 and 1961.
Assuming most pitchers started a game roughly 35-40 times a season, that works out to about 8 innings a start, or almost the entire game. By the time pitchers are reaching those later innings, it is fair to say that they are tiring and do not have much left in the tank. And considering this was the standard practice over the course of the entire season, pitchers were likely especially tired towards the end of the season due to being overworked and not rested as much. It is this kind of workload that often led pitchers to flame out and retire early due to injuries. A prime example of this is the great Sandy Koufax, a hall of fame pitcher who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 50s and 60s. He only pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues, retiring early due to injury and he threw over 250 innings per season in his last five seasons. What this all means is that Ruth and Maris benefitted from facing pitchers that were tired far more often than Judge did. Tired pitchers equal tired arms which result in slower pitches with less movement. It is common sense, but it is important to take into account. That being said, there is unfortunately no real simple way to quantify how this affected Judge’s performance, but it is still definitely arguable that he may have put up even better numbers had he played in an earlier era based on these facts alone.
There is also pitch velocity to consider. Pitchers now are throwing harder than ever before. As the graph below shows, average fastball velocity has steadily increased over two miles per hour for starters since 2008 and a little less than two miles per hour for relievers. There is no available data for average fastball velocity that dates back to 1961 and 1927, but if we are following the logic of the graph, fastball velocity has been climbing over the years, so therefore, pitchers were probably throwing slower pitches when Ruth and Maris played compared to today. This is another point in Judge’s favor because hitting against faster pitches is obviously more difficult. The batter has less time to react and make a decision on whether or not to swing and hitting the baseball with the barrel of the bat is tougher since the batter has to swing faster to get the bathead around and catch up with the speed of the pitch.
So, when we take a step back and look at the big picture, we see Ruth has the statistics and data in support of him, Judge has circumstances and external factors in his favor, and Maris was negatively impacted by poor luck. However, a winner must be determined. Right away, we can rule out Maris as the best because although he was unlucky, his offensive numbers are just too low to match his competitors. That leaves Judge and Ruth, and although it is close, it is undeniable that Ruth had the superior offensive performance in an era in which home runs were hard to come by, and this is clearly reflected in the metrics. Despite Judge’s standout season, he struggled against difficult pitching quite a bit. It is true that he faced a tougher level of competition compared to Ruth, but he just did not perform to a high enough level to be considered as good as him. And there is also the fact that Judge plays in an era of baseball where home runs are fairly common, so his home runs do not hold as much significance compared to Ruth’s. In light of these facts, we believe that Ruth had the best 60 home run season in Yankees history. Still, Judge has plenty of years left to play, so only time will tell if Ruth holds on to this title for good.