Here's the thing about Mark McGwire's rookie home run record: It was an impressive number. A lot of baseball records are kind of a manufactured manipulation of statistics, but McGwire's record was simple and straightforward: Most home runs by a rookie. His total of 49 was 11 more than any other rookie. Before this season, nobody else had come close.
It was even more impressive because McGwire didn't even start the season as a regular for the Oakland A's. He was platooning at first base with a guy named Rob Nelson and started only five of the team's first 13 games. But Nelson started 4-for-24 with 12 strikeouts and Tony La Russa finally gave the job to McGwire.
The point is this: Even though McGwire had been a first-round pick, the A's weren't exactly sure what they had in the big rookie slugger. He'd hit .189 in a September call-up in 1986, creating some doubts about his ability to hit major league pitching. Sound familiar?
Aaron Judge was also a first-round pick who had struggled in a cameo last season, hitting .179 with 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances. The Yankees had a plan, however: Put him in right field and let him play. And, man, has he played. In Monday's win, Judge slammed his 49th and 50th home runs to surpass McGwire. Here's the record-breaker:
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) September 25, 2017
We all know Judge struggled after the All-Star break in late July and all through August. His past 20 games provide ample reason the Yankees will be a scary postseason opponent if they escape the wild-card game: He has hit .328/.473/.970 with 13 home runs, including back-to-back two-homer games. There are various explanations for Judge's slump -- he was tired, he had a sore shoulder, the league had adjusted and so on. All that is probably part of it, but on the most basic level, he went back to swinging at strikes:
First half: 21.5 percent chase rate, 33.9 percent miss rate
July 14-Sept. 2: 28 percent chase rate, 38.6 percent miss rate
Sept. 3-25: 18 percent chase, 28.6 percent miss rate
He's even more locked in now than he was early in the season. The maturity he continues to show at the plate is what allows him to tap into that raw power -- and to eventually snap out of his slump.
His 120 walks is second in the majors to Joey Votto and the most by an American League hitter since Jose Bautista had 132 in 2011. He leads the AL in home runs, walks and strikeouts, which actually puts him in pretty good company: The only players to do that are Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, Mickey Mantle, Hack Wilson and Babe Ruth (who did it four times).
Anyway, one thing we haven't discussed is how Judge's season compares historically to other great rookie seasons -- beyond just the home runs. He obviously has a chance to join Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki as the only Rookie of the Year and MVP winners. Here are the top 10 rookie seasons for position players, via Baseball-Reference WAR:
1. Mike Trout, 2012 Angels: 10.8
2. Joe Jackson, 1911 Indians: 9.2
3. Dick Allen, 1964 Phillies: 8.8
4. Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners: 7.7
5. Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox: 7.4
6. Aaron Judge, 2017 Yankees: 7.3 (through Sunday)
7. Carlton Fisk, 1972 Red Sox: 7.3
8. Mike Piazza, 1993 Dodgers: 7.0
9. Troy Tulowitzki, 2006 Rockies: 6.8
10. Tony Oliva, 1964 Twins: 6.8
Judge was already sixth on the list and probably passed Lynn with Monday's game. (Cody Bellinger, who is now third on the rookie single-season home run list with 39, is at 4.2 WAR.)
Will Judge join Lynn and Suzuki? Three weeks ago the answer was no. A week ago, the answer was still no. Today the answer is "maybe." It seems like we're getting closer to a 50-50 proposition. With the Red Sox losing, the AL East gap is back down to four games, probably still too much for the Yankees to overcome. If that does happen, I think the MVP momentum shifts to Judge.
Speaking of that MVP race ... Jose Altuve was hit in his left forearm in the Astros' win over the Rangers, leaving the game, but X-rays revealed it was just a bone contusion. He got one hit to get to 199 as he tries for his fourth straight 200-hit season.
Jose Altuve is relieved injury not serious pic.twitter.com/4Xn1A7XWUH
— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) September 26, 2017
A.J. Hinch said after the game that Altuve was going to sit one of the next two games anyway, so look for him to get that day off on Tuesday. That gives Judge a chance to hit a couple more home runs and gain even more ground in that MVP race.
The Astros, meanwhile, moved two games back of the Indians for the AL's best record. The Indians won the season series, however, so they essentially hold a three-game lead.
It's also worth noting that the benches emptied in the second inning when Carlos Gomez had words with Collin McHugh and started walking toward the mound. Nothing happened, but with Altuve later being hit, don't be surprised if Gomez gets something a little inside on Tuesday.
The best nachos highlight of the season. The Cubs jumped all over Cardinals rookie starter Luke Weaver for four runs in the first and then four more in the next two innings. Kris Bryant and Javier Baez homered and the Cubs' magic number for clinching the division is down to one. We also had our favorite kind of highlight: Food disasters at the ballpark!
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 26, 2017
The one guy who didn't seem too amused by all this was Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. "A guy fell into him [Addison Russell] and got nacho cheese on his arm and now he's taking pictures and signing autographs so I guess that shows you where our society is at right now with all that stuff," Lester said after the game.
That gets us to the big takeaway from this game. I didn't think Lester was as impressive as his box-score line indicated, as he allowed just one run over six innings. Look, that's a huge improvement over his recent work, but he also scuffled with 55 pitches through three innings and 103 through six. He went to seven three-ball counts out of 25 batters faced, walking two and giving up a home run, but finished with two walks and four strikeouts. He hasn't really had a good strikeout-to-walk game since mid-August:
9/25: 6 IP, 2 BB, 4 SO
9/20: 4 ⅓ IP, 3 BB, 0 SO
9/13: 6 IP, 4 BB, 5 SO
9/7: 6 IP, 4 BB, 5 SO
9/2: 5 IP, 1 BB, 4 SO
8/17: 1 ⅔ IP, 1 BB, 0 SO
8/12: 6 IP, 2 BB, 9 SO
Before the game, Joe Maddon had said he wasn't thinking about his postseason rotation until the team had clinched a playoff spot. That's likely to happen in the next day or two and Lester is still scheduled for one more start. We all know Lester's postseason history: 2.63 ERA over 133 ⅔ innings. Which track record will Maddon trust in deciding whether Lester is his No. 1 starter in October? It's one of the more intriguing decisions heading into the postseason.
Dodgers get to 100 wins. Yu Darvish was much better with nine strikeouts, no walks and two hits in seven innings, but it was also done against the Padres, so who knows how much to read into his outing. The Dodgers get to 100 wins for the first time since 1974 and just the third time since the franchise moved to L.A. in 1958.
Both of those teams won 102, so they'll need three wins in their final five games to get 103. Austin Barnes hit a three-run homer and given his .408 OBP on the season, it will be interesting to see how Dave Roberts uses him in the postseason. He played second base on Monday and of course is the backup catcher to Yasmani Grandal.