Two of baseball’s great hitters move toward remarkable batting records

It's turning into a historic September for Major League Baseball. Two of the game's great hitters, Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols, are moving toward remarkable batting records. Judge hit his 61st home run of the season, tying the American League record, while Pujols hit his 700th career home run. ESPN's Jeff Passan joined William Brangham to discuss the milestones.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is turning into a historic September for Major League Baseball, as two of the game's great hitters, Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols, are moving toward remarkable batting records.

    William Brangham catches us up.

  • William Brangham:

    Amna, this baseball season is going to be one for the record books.

    Yesterday, New York Yankee Aaron Judge hit his 61st home run of the season, tying the American League record set in 1961 by another Yankee, Roger Maris. Only five other players have hit the 60-homer mark, and Judge has six more regular season games to break Maris' his record.

    And St. Louis Cardinal Albert Pujols in what seemed to be the very twilight of his career reached another rarefied milestone this week, hitting his 700th career home run. Only three other sluggers have ever reached that mark. And he's the only Latino player to do so.

    For more on these two remarkable talents, we turn to Jeff Passan, who covers baseball for ESPN.

    Jeff, thank you so much for being here.

    To Aaron Judge first. For those who don't follow baseball that closely, can you just put his accomplishments in perspective for us?

  • Jeff Passan, ESPN:

    Aaron Judge first on the scene with a 52-home run rookie season.

    And, since then, he has been among the most tantalizing talents in the sport. He just hasn't been able to stay healthy for a full season. Well, he's healthy this year. And what he's doing is magnificent. When you watch Aaron Judge, you see a 6'7" 280-pound man who looks like he should be a defensive end in the NFL or a power forward in the NBA, rather than roaming center field at Yankee Stadium.

    But he has tuned his swing to the point where all of that weight, all of that size translates to power. And he is the foremost and eminent power hitter in Major League Baseball these days. And because he's been on the field this year, he's been able to put together this year that's among the greatest in baseball history.

  • William Brangham:

    And he's not one of those sort of old-school sluggers who hits a lot of home runs, but also strikes out a lot. I mean, this is a guy that's got average, homers, RBIs, I mean, just remarkable package.

  • Jeff Passan:

    Yes, and you just put out the three Triple Crown categories.

    Aaron Judge has a chance to win the Triple Crown this season. And to compound that with this American league record that he set this year and to do all of this on the verge of reaching free agency, which he will do this off-season, it's one of the more remarkable years we have seen in Major League Baseball in a long time.

  • William Brangham:

    Some of our viewers are going to remember, wait a minute, didn't Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit more than 60? We know that some of those guys, there were a lot of allegations and one admission of using performance-enhancing drugs in those gentleman's career.

    How do we measure those men's accomplishments with what Judge is doing?

  • Jeff Passan:

    There are a few different ways you can look at it.

    Roger Maris Jr., the son of Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs in 1961, believes that 61 is the record. And the problem with that thought, of course, is, if you take it out logically and you start erasing records that Major League Baseball has in its record books, like Barry Bonds' 73 home runs, all of a sudden, the last time the Yankees won a World Series without a player who's been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs was 1978.

    So it's a Pandora's box that gets opened. And maybe it's an easier thing to do to just say that Barry Bonds hit a baseball over a fence 73 times in the 2001 season, but that's a fact. And that fact is irrefutable, and you end up with, I guess, warring factions of baseball purists who want to look at the record back when Roger Maris said it and say he did it clean, and baseball fans now who understand that sports is complicated and that, depending on the era, there is always something different or something objectionable, and that Barry Bonds in the end is the one who's recognized by the league as being a single season and lifetime home run champion.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's turn then to Albert Pujols. He's a Hall of Fame, legendary hitter.

    But a lot of baseball writers were really writing his baseball obituary, dropped by two teams, and then resigned by his old longtime team, the Cardinals, and now has this tremendous end of a career.

  • Jeff Passan:

    It's really a tremendous story.

    I think all of us in the industry, not just the baseball writing industry, but in front offices as well, saw this is a swan song for Albert Pujols, as a nice, tidy ending to a story of a career that started in St. Louis when he was 20 years old and went beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

    A kid who was a 13th round pick out of a junior college in Missouri turns into arguably the greatest right-handed hitter of all time. But the last decade or so of his career, after he left St. Louis and went to the Los Angeles Angels, wasn't particularly productive, a lot of injuries, a lot of problems.

    And they figured, this is a nice, tidy ending. Well, it turns out he's been one of the best hitters in the National League in the second half this season, helped to give St. Louis the Central Division Championship in the National League. And now he's going to be playing in the playoffs as he waltzes his off into retirement with that beautiful round number of 700 in his baseball reference page.

  • William Brangham:

    And I think it is worth reminding people, again, who don't follow baseball that closely that hitters today are facing a very different set of pitchers then the Ruths and Marises of the world.

  • Jeff Passan:

    Yes, I was talking with someone earlier today, and I said, Babe Ruth's performance-enhancing drug was 85 mile-an-hour fastballs.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeff Passan:

    Right now, what they're facing is, the average fastball is 94 miles per hour. You regularly face 100-plus-mile-per-hour fastballs, and you see sliders that are going 93, 94, 95 miles per hour.

    The optimization of pitching is really a remarkable thing. And the fact that these hitters, Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols especially among them, continue to do what they do in spite of that is one of the more beautiful things that we see in baseball on a daily basis these days.

  • William Brangham:

    Jeff Passan of ESPN, thank you so much for being here.

  • Jeff Passan:

    Thank you, William.

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