Kahn: Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, and Young Sluggers

By Andrew Kahn

No player has hit more home runs in his first 100 major league games than Mark McGwire, who smashed 37 dingers with Oakland as a late call-up in ’86 and hot starter in ’87. If Cody Bellinger keeps up his current pace, he’ll set a new high mark. Two Yankee sluggers have displayed prodigious power to start their careers. Do these historically impressive starts spell stardom for the young bombers? An analysis of other rookie sensations provides some answers.

Through Tuesday, Bellinger, a 21-year-old rookie with the Dodgers, already has 22 homers. Judge has slugged 24 home runs for the Yankees in 2017. Through 93 career games he’s belted 28, the sixth-most in history in a player’s first 100 games.

Results
Rk Player HR
1 Mark McGwire 37
2 Rudy York 33
3 Gary Sanchez 32
4 Jose Abreu 31
5 Ryan Braun 30
6 Aaron Judge 28
7 Adam Dunn 27
8 Wally Berger 27
9 Trevor Story 27
10 Bob Horner 27
43 Cody Bellinger 22
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/21/2017.

Note: The data, compiled through a Baseball-Reference.com Play Index search, does not include seasons before 1913, though due to the scarcity of home runs before that time, it is reasonable to believe this list is accurate.

McGwire is the only player in the top 10 of the list (which includes players who have hit 27 or more in their first 100 games) in the 500 home run club; not surprising since half of the list is still active. Extending the list to the 80 players who hit at least 20 homers in their first 100 games adds fellow 500-club members Albert Pujols and Frank Robinson, but that’s it. In other words, becoming an all-time great slugger does not require a historically fast start, nor does a historically fast start predict greatness.

A dozen years from now, we may feel differently. Judge’s teammate Gary Sanchez has 32 homers and has played just 96 career games. Colorado’s Trevor Story hit 27 in an injury-shortened rookie season last year. And Jose Abreu of the White Sox has maintained his power since hitting 31 to jump-start a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2014. The other active player, Ryan Braun, won Rookie of the Year in 2007 and kept slugging, though, like McGwire, he had artificial help.

Adam Dunn (27 homers in his first 100 games, stretched over two seasons), the king of the “three true outcomes,” was an incredibly consistent masher en route to 462 career taters. He hit 46 homers in 2004 and exactly 40 each of the next four seasons. Bob Horner, a Braves infielder, won Rookie of the Year in 1978 and built on that success, clubbing 218 homers in 10 seasons.

The final two members of the top 10 may not be as familiar to modern fans. Wally Berger and Rudy York played in the ’30s and ’40s and were very good, but not spectacular. York not only spent two years in the minors between his first cup of coffee in the bigs in ’34 and official rookie season in ’37, but he also played a few more minor league seasons at the end of his career. Wally Berger, whose name sounds like a fast food chain, hit 38 homers as a rookie, a mark bested only by McGwire’s 49 in ’87. Neither ever matched their homer total from their rookie season, but their power persisted through their primes. Berger finished with 242 career homers, York with 277.

The over-representation of youth is curious. Count Justin Verlander among those who believe today’s baseballs are “juiced.” If the balls were in fact altered during the 2015 All Star break, it would help explain how Bellinger, Judge, Sanchez, and Story cracked this list, not to mention the home run barrage across the big leagues. Or perhaps these young studs are swinging for the fences. Story and Judge are top 10 in the league in strikeout percentage, and Bellinger would be too if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Or maybe they’re all just really good at hitting home runs. The exact causes of how the players arrived on this list are as unclear as how they’ll perform going forward.

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