Opening Day evinced the notion that Giancarlo Stanton is far more buzz worthy for the Yankees than we give him credit for. What impact will that have on Aaron Judge?
The year was 1961.
The New York Yankees were a season removed from a seven-game defeat to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series, largely off Bill Mazeroski’s walkoff homer in the ninth in Game 7, the only time a “winner-take-all” Series was decided off a game-winning shot (Toronto’s Joe Carter walkoff would later decide the 1993 World Series with the Blue Jays already up 3-2 going in to a decisive Game 6). The Yankees’ Bobby Richardson would ultimately win the MVP of that Series, the only player from a losing side to ever hold that distinction, an indicator of just how close New York was to winning their 19th championship.
In the offseason before ‘60, the Yankees traded a World Series icon in Don Larsen, in a package that also included Hank Bauer, to the Kansas City Athletics in exchange for an unassuming kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, right fielder Roger Maris, who won the AL MVP that year in pinstripes on the strength of 39 homers, an AL-leading 112 RBI and .581 slugging percentage, and a career-best 160 OPS+, at least to that point.
That ‘61 season was largely a revenge campaign, as Maris ended the World Series hitting a meager .267 after collectively going 0-for-12 in Games 3, 4, and 7, with his mercurial teammate, superstar Mickey Mantle, boasting a .400 average, 1.345 OPS, and three homers in the Series.
In ‘61, Maris and Mantle accomplished feats the American League has not seen since.
Maris eclipsed Babe Ruth’s single season homerun record that stood for 34 years, ending the season with one more (61) than Ruth. Mantle added 54 blasts of his own, leading the American League in walks (126), slugging percentage (.687), and OPS+ (206), finishing second to Maris for the league MVP award despite besting him in OPS+ by 29 points. No AL player since Maris has managed even 60 in a season.
New York, winners of 109 games that season, dominated the Cincinnati Reds in five games in the World Series, shutting out Cincy twice (Games 1 and 4), both Whitey Ford starts. Maris and Mantle’s combined homerun output (115) remains the most ever between teammates in baseball history over an individual campaign. In fact, no pair of teammates other than the M&M Boys have hit 50 or more homers as a duo in an singular season.
Enter Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in 2018.
In his first regular season at-bat with the Yankees on Opening Day, Stanton lofted a towering shot the opposite way, giving New York a 2-0 lead in the first inning en route to a 6-1 victory against Toronto. On the day, Stanton would hit a second homer, this time to dead center (practically from his knees!), ending with three hits, four RBI, and three runs scored, joining Maris, Mantle, and Joe Pepitone as the only Yankees to muster multiple homerun games on Opening Day.
Beside Stanton was Judge, who extended his major league leading hit streak (dating back to last season) to 14 games, picking up two hits (one a double), a walk, and a run scored.
Is it possible that this modern day pairing could match, if not overtake, Maris and Mantle’s ‘61 season?
The two enter the season hungry: Stanton, last year’s NL MVP, never once tasted the postseason in Miami and Judge finished a game shy of the World Series in his first exposure to October baseball, bowing out to Jose Altuve for the AL MVP.
In a spring training presser, new Yankee manager Aaron Boone was surprised to discover that beneath Judge’s humble and deferential veneer is a “fiery competitor” who continues to want what is best for his club first and himself second, a thought that may ultimately serve as the precursor to an explosive encore to last year’s AL Rookie of the Year season, more so given what the additions of now (Stanton, Brandon Drury, Neil Walker, and Billy Mckinney, called up in light of Aaron Hicks’s recent addition to the disabled list) and later (Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar) will do for the lineup and, ultimately, Judge’s confidence.
Stanton’s arrival in the Bronx deepens the lineup, puts the Yankees on a course to best the club’s 2012 single season team output (245 homers) and the Seattle Mariners’ mark in 1997 (264), and, most importantly, alleviates some pressure from Judge, who struggled in 2017’s second half before returning to form in September and October, likely the result of an ailing shoulder that required surgery in the offseason.
As Maris and Mantle could likely attest, along with Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, who, in 1984, finished first and second respectively in batting average and, in 1985, finished first and twelfth in MVP voting, competition between teammates can be healthy and lead to accolades beyond individual accomplishments. And that is before adding the likes of Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius to the pool, young talents who have improved incrementally in each year with the Yankees. The lineup alone is championship caliber, the heart of which is more potent than Houston’s, whose offensive output rivals the Ruth-led Murderers’ Row in 1927 in overall efficiency.
Upon closer examination of Stanton’s first blast as a Yankee, one would witness something both telling and promising: the first teammate to applaud Stanton was none other than Judge, the former’s “bash brother” and likely inspiration for the type of power surge the American League has not enjoyed in 57 years, since the M&M Boys featured in a landmark year for baseball, one of the best in Yankee lore.
New York, winners of 91 games last year, adds Stanton, benefits from a full season of Sonny Gray, sees Jordan Montgomery enter his second season, enjoys Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, now playoff-tested, atop its rotation, boasts the game’s best bullpen, with three arms, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and Dellin Betances, all capable of closing duties, and will likely see Torres and Andujar join the big club by August. But should this season prove especially memorable, emphasized with another title, the franchise’s 28th and first in nine years, the heart of the Yankee order, galvanized by Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, will largely be the reason why.