Inside the Detroit Tigers’ home run race of 2022 with … Aaron Judge?

Detroit Free Press

The 2022 MLB season is winding down, meaning it’s time to focus in on the races that matter.


Not in Detroit! Instead, we’ll be watching the big home run race as Aaron Judge attempts to catch … the Detroit Tigers! (Sorry, Roger Maris fans, but stick with us here for a bit …)

The Tigers entered Saturday with 91 home runs, 20 fewer than the next worst team (Cleveland Guardians, 111) and 133 homers fewer than the MLB leaders, the New York Yankees at 224.

The Yankees’ power company is charged, of course, by outfielder Aaron Judge, who leads the individual home run race by a margin almost as great as the Tigers’ deficit in the team race. (The Yanks have nine players with double-digit homers — including Matt Carpenter, whose 15 are more than any individual Tiger despite his total of just 47 games.) Judge’s 57 homers (entering Saturday) are 18 more than the majors’ No. 2 slugger, Kyle Schwarber (39) of the Philadelphia Phillies.

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For the first time in months, we can say the Tigers have an insurmountable lead: Ahead by 34 with just 18 games to go!

Still, a 33-homer difference between one player and an entire team doesn’t seem like very much, does it? Especially since the Tigers have combined for 5,155 plate appearances this season, while Judge has just 611. (That means the Tigers have homered once every 57.3 plate appearances — roughly every two games’ worth — while Judge has gone deep roughly every 2½ games. Yikes.) Remember when the Tigers had to hit three home runs to score fans free curly fries at Arby’s? This season, they’ve managed just 17 games with at least two. Judge, meanwhile, has 10 multi-homer games by himself.

Then again, it’s not even the smallest gap this decade: Noted Yankees slugger <checks notes> Luke Voit led the majors with 22 homers in 2020’s 60-game season. That was just 29 fewer than the most power-deprived squad that year, the St. Louis Cardinals, who had 51 homers while still making the playoffs. (That was in only 58 games, since the Cards’ COVID-postponed two-game set against the Tigers was never made up.)

But hey, that was a weird year — White Sox slugger Jose Abreu won AL MVP with more homers (19) than walks (18) — so maybe it shouldn’t count. In that case, we have to go a bit farther back for a closer finish in the “Man Vs. Team” homer competition …

1990-91: Big Daddy vs. the Cards

Yes, Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, aka “Big Daddy,” made a run at an entire franchise in back-to-back seasons, bashing 51 homers in 1990 (his first year in Detroit) and 44 in 1992. (Fielder tied for the MLB lead with Oakland’s Jose Canseco in ’91.) The Cardinals, meanwhile, mustered just 73 homers in ’90 and 68 in ’91, for end-of-season margins of 22 and 24 homers, respectively. Those were the final days of the Cards’ “slap and dash” dynasty under manager Whitey Herzog; St. Louis was led in homers both seasons by a young Todd Zeile with 15 and 11, respectively.

Fielder, meanwhile, crushed 11 homers in a single month twice over the two seasons — May 1990 and again in July 1991. Fielder’s two-season run can be summed up by the slugger and his manager from early 1990, when Fielder hit six homers over five days from May 6-10: “I’m in a nice little groove right now,” Fielder told reporters on May 10. “Little groove?” Sparky Anderson quipped. “I’d say Cecil is in a great big groove.”

The speedy Cards also had a close call with a home-run leader in 1986, outhomering Toronto’s Jesse Barfield by just 18 (58-40) in 1986, but none of these three seasons match the closest call of the expansion age …

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1979: Kong vs. the Houston Astros

Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt (31) came within one homer of the 1981 San Diego Padres (32), but we’ll slap that season with an asterisk, thanks to the mid-summer strike that wiped out about two months of the season.

But two years earlier, in ’79, we had a real “Man Vs. Team” homer race: Dave “Kong” Kingman’s pair of homers for the Chicago Cubs in a doubleheader on Sept. 19 gave him 47 on the season, one more than the Houston Astros. (The Astros weren’t bad — they finished four games above .500 — they merely played in the cavernous Astrodome.)

But Kingman went 10 games without a homer — only breaking the skid with a solo shot in the Cubs’ finale — while the Astros homered three times down the stretch — one each in road games against the Atlanta Braves (2) and the Los Angeles Dodgers to overcome Kingman, 49-48. The “clinching” homer was hit on Sept. 28 by Cesar Cedeno; his sixth homer of ’79 tied him for third on the Astros’ roster, behind eight from Terry Puhl and nine by Jose Cruz, grandfather to current Tigers prospect Trei Cruz (who has eight homers this season in High- and Double-A).

That’s as close a race as we got during the expansion era, but the post-WWII years were another story entirely …

1947-49: Kiner vs. the Washington Senators and the Chicago White Sox

Ralph Kiner launched rockets seemingly from his debut with the Pirates in 1946; he led the NL in homers his first seven seasons (1946-52), and the majors for six (1947-52). That included a back-to-back-to-back stretch in ’47-49 when his 51, 40 and 54 dingers topped the Senators (42 and 31 in ’47-48) and White Sox (43 in ’49). (Johnny Mize of the Giants tied Kiner for the MLB lead in ’47 and ’48, too.)

Still, we have to shift some of the credit for Kiner (and Mize) in 1948 into blame for the Senators; finishing seventh in an eight-team AL, the Sens were hampered by their home of Griffith Stadium, which played like “Comerica National Park” on steroids — 407 feet to left, 421 to center and a 320-foot distance to right negated by a 30-foot wall. (Consider longtime Senator Eddie Yost — after 101 homers over 14 seasons in D.C., he landed in Detroit for 1959 and hit 21 in his first season with the Tigers.)

No Senator reached double-digit homers in ’48; the team was led by the seven each by Gil Coan and Bud Stewart. As a result, not only was Washington out homered by Kiner and Mize, but four other big-leaguers that season: Cleveland’s Joe Gordon (32), Cincy’s Hank Sauer (35), St. Louis’ Stan Musial (39) and the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio (39). Ouch.

But there was one more notable post-WWII “race” …

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1946: Hammerin’ Hank vs. the White Sox

Hank Greenberg, who returned from the war in 1945 to hit a pennant-clinching homer for the Tigers, picked up where he left off with 44 homers. That was six more than the runner-up, Boston’s Ted Williams (38) and seven more than the White Sox. The ChiSox also picked up where they left off before and after the war, finishing last in the majors in homers in ’41 and ’45; Taffy Wright was second on the ChiSox roster with 10 homers in the final pre-war season, then returned in ’46 to lead them with seven homers.

Greenberg, meanwhile, topped seven homers in a month three times in 1946, with nine in May, eight in June and a ridiculous 16 on September (highlighted by six in four games against the St. Louis Browns in Detroit in the next-to-last series of the season). Rubbin it in, Greenberg nearly led the league in home runs at the White Sox’s home of Comiskey Park; he homered three times in 11 games on the South Side, while Wright had four homers (in 63 games) and the Yankees’ Charlie Keller had five (in 11 games).

So while Detroit’s 2022 144-game total of 90 homers looks paltry, especially when compared to Judge’s 57, the Tigers can take comfort in one thing: They’re out-homering Judge 43-0 at Comerica Park.

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