By Mike Ursery
Do you remember the 1998 Major League Baseball season?
Do you remember the home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa? Two players were on pace to break Roger Maris’ season home run record, when he hit 61 home runs in 1961. It was only a matter of who would get there first, and what the new record would become when the regular season ended.
That event isn’t celebrated anymore, due to the circumstances behind McGwire and Sosa. They used performance-enhancing drugs. But, that’s in the past now and not worth revisiting. No sense going into a rage over it.
If you’ve been watching MLB this season, you may have noticed that another home run chase is heating up. It won’t be for the season record, currently held by Barry Bonds (73). It’s not likely any player this season will finish anywhere near that number.
The race that’s heating up is between two rookies — Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge. The rookie home run record currently is at 49, set by Mark McGwire in 1987.
At the time this piece was written, Judge had 29 home runs through 86 games, putting him on pace to finish with 55 home runs. That’s not bad for a guy who hit his first home run in the Yankees’ sixth game of the season.
Judge’s home run pace isn’t the only eye-popping stat associated with him. Through 81 games he has appeared in, he’s slugging .697 and has a 1.145 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez finished the 2016 season with a .670 slugging percentage, the current record set by a rookie. Sitting at .697, Judge is on pace to surpass that mark at season’s end.
Judge hit his MLB-leading 29th home run on July 5, tying Joe DiMaggio’s franchise rookie record. He’s at 29 home runs, and we haven’t even reached the All-Star break. Speaking of the All-Star break, you’ll be able to watch Judge on two consecutive nights during the break. He’ll be in the 2017 T-Mobile Home Run Derby on July 10, and again in the All-Star Game on July 11. Both events will be held at Marlins Park in Miami.
Another AL record Judge could break is on-base percentage, set by Ted Williams (.434) in 1939. Judge currently has a .447 OBP.
Another rookie sensation going to Miami for All-Star festivities is Cody Bellinger. The Los Angeles Dodgers rookie didn’t make an appearance in the majors until April 25. He was at Triple-A Oklahoma City before being called up to Los Angeles.
Bellinger’s first home run didn’t come until April 29, which actually was the day he hit his first two. Since then, he went on a historic pace, reaching 22 home runs in his first 52 games. He missed the first 20 games of the season, but still sits at 24 ahead of the All-Star break.
Bellinger currently is on pace to finish the season with 45 home runs, putting him four short of reaching McGwire. But, he did hit 22 in 52 games, so take that into consideration.
Like Judge, Bellinger has put up impressive slugging and OPS numbers. He’s slugging .613 and has a .949 OPS, both well above the league average.
In McGwire’s rookie season in 1987, he had 33 home runs at the All-Star break. Judge is the closest with 29.
While both of these players aren’t on the exact same pace as McGwire, it doesn’t mean they won’t keep up as the season goes along. As we move deeper into the summer season, temperatures around the country will get warmer. It’s a known fact that baseballs travel farther in warmer temperatures. (Disclaimer: This statement has nothing to do with the current debate surrounding climate change. This is simply stating a scientific fact. For reference, see the study by the Department of Math and Science at the University of Nevada-Reno entitled “The Impact of Temperature on Major League Baseball.”)
We talk about this home run pace, and use it to project how many dingers each of these players will have at the end of the regular season. However, other factors still have to be considered.
The season is 162 games. It’s still a long way to the end of September. I already mentioned that we’re heading into warmer temperatures as we move into July and August.
Players will be playing in these warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures increase fatigue. Fatigue increases the potential for injuries sustained. I’m not saying injuries will happen. I’m only saying that there is a possibility. The Major League Baseball season is unpredictable.
Take away the injury factor, and the fatigue is still there. Judge and Bellinger both will be given days off from their respective managers the rest of the way. These guys are still going to feel the effect of a long season.
Even if neither of them reaches 49 home runs, the chase will be fun to watch. This season, by itself, has been. A new MLB record for total home runs hit could be set before the season ends. The current record is 5,693, set in 2000. As of July 6, 3,193 have been hit this season.
Tied for the ballpark lead as of July 6 are Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, and Miller Park in Milwaukee. Speaking of Milwaukee, Eric Thames returned to MLB from Korea, and he’s swatted 23 homers so far this season. His career-high before this season was 12, which he set in 2011 while with Toronto.
This season has offered plenty of surprises so far. The Houston Astros are the best team in baseball. The two teams in the 2016 World Series, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, aren’t performing like they did last season. The Cubs are below .500, far behind what they were expected to be when the season began.
The New York Yankees are contenders in the AL East, which wasn’t expected. We might see three teams from the NL West make the postseason, those being the Dodgers, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies. The Diamondbacks finished one game above the NL West cellar last season.
The second half of the season should offer plenty more excitement like what we’ve seen so far. The trade deadline is fast approaching, and contenders will start making deals to fill areas of need. Pennant chases will start heating up.
This rookie home run chase will be at the forefront the rest of the way, but it’s only one aspect of this unpredictable season. Enjoy the ride.
By Mike Ursery