Breakneck Pace: Baseball’s Home Run Phenoms

Aaron Judge is the fastest player to hit 60 home runs. It took him just 197 games to do so. (via Keith Allison)

Last season began with a bang in New York, as Yankees right fielder and reigning Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge pounded his 60th career home run on April 16. That round-tripper continued a hot streak that dated back to 2017, when Judge broke the record for most homers by a rookie with 52, three more than Mark McGwire’s 49-home run rookie season in 1987. Some of Judge’s 2018 home runs also broke records, including this one: Playing in just his 197th career game, Judge became the fastest player to reach the 60-home run mark.

It was a feat he would repeat with career home runs Nos. 61, 62, 63, and 64, before finally cooling off enough to fall back from the record-breaking pace. In all of baseball history, no player had more home runs than Judge in his first 197 games, a distinction touted by the Yankees and the baseball media. And it is worth touting! But it also raised a question not easily answered: Which players were the fastest to get to the other home run milestones?

In this article, we will answer that question, with the fastest players to each mark included in a list that can be accessed here. We also attempt to explain why these men—some of them Hall of Famers, others relatively unknown—were so quick to develop their power-hitting skills when they were promoted to the major leagues.

At the top of the list, there isn’t much correlation between early home runs and future greatness. At least 242 players have homered in their first major league game. There have been 120—including Judge—who did so in their first major league at-bat. And there have even been 30 players who hit the first big league pitch they saw out of the ballpark.

Willson Contreras was the most recent player to hit a first-pitch, first-at-bat home run, in 2016. Walter Mueller was the earliest, at least as far as existing records can show, in 1920. More impressive is the list of five players—Bob Nieman, Bert Campaneris, Mark Quinn, J.P. Arencibia, and Trevor Story—who hit two home runs in their first game. Of the five, only Story (who just completed his third season in the majors) has the chance to establish a noteworthy career as a slugger; the other four averaged just 82 career home runs.

One thing that stands out in the early part of the list is the timing. Nearly all of the players who hit home runs three through 27 the earliest in their careers did so at some point in the 2010s. Perhaps it is an indication of how much the recent strategy in baseball has revolved around the home run, even moreso than it did in the so-called steroid era or in baseball’s other home run-happy period of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In the race to home run No. 20, three players have managed to reach that milestone in just 51 games. Two are active today: Cody Bellinger (2017) and Gary Sanchez (2016). The third is Wally Berger, who hit his 20th career round-tripper way back in 1930 as a member of the Boston Braves, the lone player in this section of the list to accomplish the feat in the twentieth century.

Berger provides some of our first clues to deciphering the type of hitter who climbs the home run charts so quickly. He was big for his era, at 6-foot-2 inches and nearly 200 pounds. But more importantly, Berger also toiled for several years in the minors before making his major league debut at the age of 24.

That was partly the result of how the game worked in those days. While hot prospects on the East Coast like Jimmie Foxx might debut at the age of 17, young ball players from the West Coast might stay in the Pacific Coast League or elsewhere for years, making salaries that were every bit as good as the majors and staying closer to home. Berger was born in Chicago but raised in San Francisco, where the PCL’s Seals were the best game in town. After unsuccessful tryouts with the Seals, Berger had several good years with the minor-league Los Angeles Angels before the Boston Braves bought his contract.

An additional factor was the fortunes of the Braves. If the Athletics or the Cardinals had signed him, Berger might have ridden the bench and pinch-hit for a year or more. But the Braves were mediocre at best in the 1930s, and Berger started in the outfield in 151 out of 154 games, giving him plenty of chances at the plate. He was a mature power hitter given an opportunity to shine, and he did so, finishing his rookie year hitting .310/.375/.614 with 38 home runs.

Another barely remembered power hitter farther up the list has a similar story to Berger’s. Rudy York was a big-slugging, poor-fielding, Georgia mill worker when he was discovered by scouts from the Knoxville Smokies. He played a few games with minor league and semi-pro teams in the South but had trouble catching on. His raw power was enough to catch the eye of the Detroit Tigers, however, and they signed the 20-year-old thumper. After a cup of coffee with Detroit in 1934, York was sent down to the Beaumont Exporters of the Texas League.

York still holds the record for being the fastest to reach home runs No. 43 through 57, among others, and it was his records Judge broke in becoming the fastest to 58 through 64. By 1937, York had solidified his hitting game and improved at first base enough that Detroit called him up. His main barrier to getting at-bats was the presence of another power-hitting Tigers first basemen: future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. Greenberg had been injured for much of the 1936 season but was still in his prime: The 1937 campaign would be an 8.3 WAR year for Greenberg, one in which he drove in 184 runs—still a franchise record.

Had York been restricted to pinch-hitting duties, it would have doomed his rapid rise up the home run chart. But so great was his power at the plate that Tigers’ player-manager Mickey Cochrane looked for a way to fit him into the starting lineup. York spent the first half of the year at third base, and when Cochrane was nearly killed by a fastball to the head, York took many of the skipper’s own starts behind the plate. A .925 fielding percentage at third was the cost of having York and his 35 home runs in the lineup that year.

Being blocked at a position also led two more players to be included on the fast-homering list. In 2004, Ryan Howard had 46 home runs in Double-A and Triple-A in the Phillies’ farm system and looked for all the world like the first baseman of the future for the rebuilding franchise. Howard’s only obstacle was, like York’s, a future Hall of Famer who already had the job: Jim Thome. Beloved by the fans and in the midst of a 42-homer season of his own, Thome’s position seemed secure, so Howard lingered in Triple-A Scranton until a late-September call-up gave him a few major league at-bats.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Thome’s elbow injury in 2005 gave Howard a starting job, and he made the most of it. He hit 22 home runs in 88 games and won Rookie of the Year honors. The Phillies traded Thome to the White Sox in the offseason, and Howard soon proved he belonged in the cleanup spot. He hit 58 home runs in 2006, won the MVP award, and (more importantly for this discussion) climbed the home run pace charts with record-breaking rapidity. Breaking records once set by Ralph Kiner, Howard soon became the fastest to 100, 150, 200, and 250 home runs. His 286th home run at the close of the 2011 season was another record, and he likely would have continued along that path if not for a devastating Achilles injury in the 2011 postseason that plagued the rest of his career.

A similar story in 2017 held back another member of the Phillies long enough that when he finally joined the big league club, he was a full-fledged power hitter. First baseman Rhys Hoskins was a fifth-round draft pick of the Phillies and was not exactly expected to be a big-time slugger. So when he launched 38 home runs at Reading in 2016, the team’s management must have chalked it up to park effects and good luck. They decided to stick with the young first baseman on whom they had already hung their hopes, Tommy Joseph. But Hoskins’ first 115 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley produced 29 home runs and a .966 OPS, leading the Phillies finally to accept that they had a legitimate slugger on their hands.

As the Tigers did with York, Philadelphia scrambled to find a place for the 24-year-old Hoskins in the lineup. He became an outfielder and struggled on defense, but on the offensive side of the ball, he was nothing short of remarkable. Hoskins launched nine home runs in his first 16 games to set a new record. That pace continued through home run No. 18, which he hit in his 34th major league game—an average of more than one home run every two days. He hit 34 in 2018; a respectable total, though not quite up to the record pace set by Bellinger and Jose Abreu a few years earlier.

For the home run milestones over 350, only three names appear: McGwire, Babe Ruth, and Barry Bonds. All three are best-in-a-generation sluggers whose inclusion on any home run chart pace should come as no surprise to anyone.

Among the players at the lower end, though, a theme emerges of what sort of hitter is likely to get off to a torrid start to his power-hitting career in the majors. For most, their debut in the majors was delayed. All-time greats like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron may have started their careers extremely well (Mays was Rookie of the Year in 1951,) but because they were both just 20 years old in their rookie years, their true potential for home run power took longer to develop. The extra years Howard, Hoskins, York, and Berger were held back made them some of the physically strongest members of their rookie class.

Some of the difference can be chalked up to their managers, as well. It is a risk to find an everyday spot for a rookie in the lineup, especially one that would force him to play out of position. And baseball is not a game that always rewards risk-taking in a manager. It is to their credit that these young sluggers’ coaches saw such promise in them that they were willing to play them every day, getting them multiple at-bats and the chance to do what they do best: hit the ball into the seats.

References and Resources

Kyle Sammin is a lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania. Read his other writing at his personal website, and follow him on Twitter @KyleSammin.
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3 years ago

Would have been nice to have included a chart that lists the fastest to 2 through 762.

3 years ago

Cool spreadsheet. Lot of usual suspects, but a good reminder that juiced or not, Big Mac could really sock.

3 years ago

Surprisingly never quite good enough for any of these records, but Albert Pujols is an outlier to the usual cases. He was a 21-yeor-old rookie who was not supposed to make the opening day roster in 2001 but then slammed 37 homers on his way to a unanimous Rookie of the Year award, just one shy of the NL rookie record at the time, while I believe his 130 RBIs remains the MLB rookie record. Despite slowing down significantly in his 30s, he’s since easily set himself up to be a future first ballot Hall of Famer.

3 years ago

I’m surprised you didn’t mention Bob Nieman and Keith McDonald, the only players to hit home runs in each of their first 2 at bats.

Why are you doing it by games anyway, when at bats are a lot more meaningful?