Whatever number he settles on — 62? 65? 70? — Aaron Judge will be feted most loudly, and forevermore, for all of those clouts that cleared distant fences. You can apply as many logarithms as you like to baseball, flood it with decimal points and calculators, and there will always be three essential baseball truths:
1. The unfiltered joy of a team winning a World Series.
2. The sheer wonder of a kid with a big arm throwing gas.
3. Home runs. Home runs will always be the most glorious thing about baseball: how far they are hit, how many are hit, the clutch ones that win games. This is inarguable. It isn’t just chicks that dig the long ball, as a long-ago commercial insisted. We all do. Wide-eyed kids attending their first game. Grizzled baseball lifers working their 10,000th. Everyone.
So Judge will always have that.
But we may come to realize, if things work out across the next couple of weeks, that Aaron Judge might also be responsible for something even more remarkable: reviving the Triple Crown. It is clear that he will at least be neck-and-neck with Minnesota’s Luis Arraez and Boston’s Xander Bogaerts for the batting crown even as he sprints through the tape chasing Roger Maris.
If he prevails, he will win the Triple Crown.
And the Triple Crown is, in many ways, the most underrated and underappreciated achievement in all of sports. Part of that is how infrequently it happens: only Miguel Cabrera, in 2012, has earned one in either league going back 55 years. For years, we’ve simply assumed the Triple Crown — like the .400 hitter, like the 300-game winner — was something destined to belong to a separate, and sealed off, chapter of baseball history.
Part of it, too, is how diminished two-thirds of the Triple Crown has become over time. Home runs still are, and forever will be, a baseball staple. But RBIs have come under fire in recent years by the analytic crowd who believe them — like pitcher wins — to be far more a product of random baseball chance than a reflection of individual brilliance. You have to rely on your teammates to get on base for you. Some teams are better at it than others.
So goes the thinking among baseball’s deep thinkers, anyway.
But even batting average has become a target for the sport’s mathematicians, who have fallen in love with on-base percentage as a better indicator of offensive accomplishment, who rhapsodize about OPS and OPS+ and all the other products of New Age Ball. Maybe Aaron Judge won’t halt that revolution.
But if he wins the Triple Crown, he ought to give them pause.
He ought to give everyone pause.
The Triple Crown is only partly a magnificent prize because of who’s won it. Go back to 1901 and read the roster of those who have done it: Cabrera. Carl Yastrzemski (1967). Frank Robinson (1966). Mickey Mantle (1956). Ted Williams (1942 and ’47). Joe Medwick (1937). Lou Gehrig (1934). Jimmie Foxx (1933). Chuck Klein (1933). Rogers Hornsby (1922 and ’25). Heinie Zimmerman (1912). Ty Cobb (1909). Nap Lajoie (1901).
Only Zimmerman (besides future shoo-in Cabrera) isn’t a Hall of Famer (and you could certainly argue that he may be the most deserving player not in Cooperstown). It is not a club easily joined, and it is not a party crashed by pretenders. Not one asterisk, real or imagined, in the bunch, either.
Everything to know about Aaron Judge and his chase for the home run record:
(And the same applies for those who won Triple Crowns in the Negro Leagues. Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Mule Suttles and Willie Wells are Hall of Famers; Ted Strong, Lennie Pearson and Heavy Johnson ought to be.)
And yet …
Take another look at the list. Now think of all the names that aren’t on it. You can start with a pretty good outfield of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Ken Griffey Jr. and Stan Musial aren’t on the list. Joe DiMaggio, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Albert Pujols, Hank Greenberg …
None of them on the list.
Aaron Judge probably needs to hit around .325 or so across his final 16 games to give himself a fighting chance at the crown. If he falls short, he will still have had a magnificent year.
If he gets there?
It will be one of the storybook seasons ever crafted. He has already assured himself a place on the penthouse level of the baseball pantheon. What’s after that, if he can make the Triple Crown matter again in a way it hasn’t mattered in years? We may be about to find out.