Aaron Judge’s reign as AL home run king faces threat, his record at risk

Matthew Maybloom
Thursday July 6, 2023

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With record 62 homers in 2022, AL MVP and Yankees captain Aaron Judge remains the home run king in the American League. However, this season, while he is struggling to return from a toe injury, his home run record faces the risk of being eclipsed. The strongest contender to dethrone him as the HR record holder is Shohei Ohtani.

During the previous season, Shohei Ohtani delivered a performance that could be considered one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Yet, he was unable to secure the MVP award. Unfortunately for Shohei Ohtani, he faced tough competition in 2022. Aaron Judge, known primarily for his outstanding offensive skills, had an extraordinary season with a 207 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) and 11.5 WAR (wins above replacement), even without the added advantage of pitching abilities. 

Despite the fact that many writers do not base their votes solely on advanced metrics like WAR, Aaron Judge’s ability to set a new American League single-season home run record with 62 homers undoubtedly worked in his favor. A toe injury, however, has severely hampered Aaron Judge’s chances of repeating his MVP performance in the upcoming 2023 season. 

Nevertheless, Shohei Ohtani has been putting forth tremendous efforts to ensure that even if Aaron Judge were healthy, he would have faced a difficult challenge in securing the MVP title. Ohtani’s performance so far has been nothing short of impressive and has solidified his candidacy for the prestigious award.

Shohei Ohtani’s 2023 betters Aaron Judge’s 2022 so far

Shohei Ohtani has always been a solid hitter, maintaining a batting line of .265/.364/.554, a wRC+ of 146, and hitting 80 home runs over the past two seasons. These numbers have established him as a star player in the league, but they haven’t been considered historic. However, this year is a different story altogether. Shohei Ohtani has taken his performance to a whole new level, currently boasting a remarkable .306/.390/.670 batting line with 31 home runs as the Angels have surpassed the halfway mark of the 2023 season. 

According to Emma Baccellieri from Sports Illustrated, there is a strong argument that Shohei Ohtani had the best month by an individual player in the history of Major League Baseball. In June, he displayed an incredible performance by hitting 10 home runs in just 16 games. As a result, Shohei Ohtani currently holds the top spot for the most home runs in the entire league, with three more than Matt Olson from the Atlanta team.

Except for a few notable records, like Chief Wilson’s 36 triples and the astonishing 131 stolen bases, Shohei Ohtani’s exceptional performances are threatening to surpass achievements from the past. With his recent surge in power numbers, Ohtani is now getting closer to breaking Aaron Judge’s American League home run record. This remarkable record has been associated with the New York Yankees since 1920, when Babe Ruth, who had previously played for the Boston Red Sox, broke his own record while wearing the Yankees’ iconic pinstripes. 

The AL MVP race is a two-man contest between Aaron Judge and Ohtani.

Can Ohtani beat Aaron Judge’s 62 HRs?

There is a projection system that can provide some insights into this question, and it would be a missed opportunity not to demand an answer from it.

According to the comprehensive ZiPS in-season model, Shohei Ohtani is projected to hit 53 home runs by the end of the season. This projection is based on the assumption that he will hit home runs in approximately 7.3% of his projected plate appearances, which amounts to 22 home runs out of 303 plate appearances. It’s important to note that while this rate alone may not guarantee to break the record, it’s difficult to determine the exact underlying probability without hindsight and the actual results.

The uncertainty surrounding Shohei Ohtani’s home run probabilities is what makes it possible for him to break some records. According to the ZiPS model, there’s a 95% confidence interval that the true probability of Ohtani hitting a home run over a half-season lies between 5.5% and 9.6%. In certain scenarios, when the model underestimates his abilities and luck is on his side, he may achieve even higher rates. By running a million simulations, ZiPS can provide an estimate of Ohtani’s overall performance outlook for the season.

ZiP’s projection of Shohei Ohtani’s 2023 Homers (Source: FanGraphs)

While Shohei Ohtani still has a long way to go to surpass the impressive home run records set by baseball legends like Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, as well as Aaron Judge, the projections suggest he has a decent chance. According to ZiPS, Ohtani has a 15% probability of matching Ruth’s 60 home runs, an 11% chance of catching Maris at 61, an 8% possibility of tying Aaron Judge’s record, and a 5.5% shot at claiming the American League record while wearing the Angels’ uniform. 

Catching the all-time major league record for home runs is quite a difficult task, and Shohei Ohtani currently finds himself a bit behind the pace. While reaching Sammy Sosa’s mark of 66 home runs is still within reach with a 1.5% probability, the chances decrease rapidly after that. ZiPS projections indicate that Ohtani is unlikely to surpass Mark McGwire’s record of 70 home runs, which occurred once in about 10,000 seasons. To match Barry Bonds’ record, Shohei Ohtani would need to replicate his June performance of 15 home runs in each of the remaining three months of the season, something that only occurred nine times in a million simulations. 

Ohtani is on a roll this year but may not win Triple Crown

Shohei Ohtani’s incredible performance extends beyond just home run records. Another notable achievement within his reach is winning the Triple Crown, although it hasn’t received as much attention. The home run component of the Triple Crown seems attainable, with ZiPS projecting Shohei Ohtani to have a 16-homer advantage over Luis Robert Jr. In terms of RBI, the projections place him in third place, trailing Rafael Devers and Adolis García by a margin of fewer than five runs each. However, the toughest aspect of the Triple Crown for Ohtani appears to be batting average, as it presents a greater challenge compared to the other two categories.

According to ZiPS, Corey Seager poses a significant challenge to Shohei Ohtani in the batting average race. Seager currently boasts a.351 average, which is impressive, but he doesn’t appear on the leaderboards because he falls 23 plate appearances short of the minimum requirement. If we add 23 hitless at-bats to Seager’s record, his average would drop to.317. However, if he remains healthy, he is expected to accumulate enough plate appearances to qualify or come very close to the required 502, which would not affect his batting average. In ZiPS’ projections, Shohei Ohtani is predicted to finish ninth in batting average, but with Luis Arraez playing for Miami, no one is projected to significantly surpass the competition.

According to ZiPS, there is a 2.3% chance that Shohei Ohtani will win the batting average title in the American League by the end of the season. In the scenarios where he finishes with a high batting average, he is also expected to exceed expectations in terms of home runs and RBI. This brings his chances of winning the Triple Crown very close to his chances of winning the batting average title, with an overall projected probability of 2.1%.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that Shohei Ohtani will be able to achieve the major league Triple Crown. While Arraez’s batting average has dropped slightly in the past week, he still holds a significant lead in the race. Barring any injuries, it is almost certain that Arraez or Ronald Acuña Jr. will be the favorites to win the batting average title.

Perhaps Shohei Ohtani will surprise MLB fans in the closing days of the season. Given his remarkable performances in recent years, it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility. Ohtani has consistently defied expectations, and it would be presumptuous to claim that such an extraordinary feat is beyond his reach. Still, Aaron Judge’s record sets a benchmark to follow.

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