A Derby That Delivered the Goods

Walk-off. Walk-off! WALK-OFF! Bryce Harper won the 2018 Home Run Derby at Nationals Park in dramatic and impressive fashion, needing less than the full complement of time to beat his opponents in all three rounds. At ease in front of the hometown fans showering him with cheers, the Derby’s No. 2 seed and the only contestant with previous experience rose to the occasion each time. After dispatching seventh-seeded Freddie Freeman and third-seeded Max Muncy in the quarter- and semifinals, the 25-year-old Nationals superstar did have his back to the wall in the final round against fifth-seeded Kyle Schwarber, but with nine homers in the final minute — on 10 swings by my count, though ESPN’s broadcast said nine in a row — he tied the Cubs slugger’s total of 18. On the second pitch of the 30-second bonus period, he lofted a 434-foot drive to center field, then did a two-handed bat flip as the crowd went wild, and quickly handed the trophy to his barrel-chested father, Ron, who had pitched to him:

In a field that was somewhat lacking in star power, with no Mike Trout (who’s never participated), no Aaron Judge (who did not defend the title he won as a rookie in 2017), no Giancarlo Stanton (who won in 2016 but then was upset in his home park last year), and no player from among the season’s top five home-run totals for the first time since at least 2008, Harper — the biggest name from among the eight participants, even if he has struggled by his own standards this season — took center stage. He became just the third player to win the Home Run Derby (which began in 1985) in his home park, after the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg in 1990 and the Reds’ Todd Frazier in 2015.

Frazier’s win came in the first year of a format that has turned the event from a three-hour slog into a vastly more entertaining spectacle that ran just over two hours. Instead of swinging until having made 10 “outs” (non-homers), players have four minutes to hit as many homers as possible, with the caveat that a ball can’t be pitched until the last one landed. Each player gets one 30-second timeout in the first two rounds and two timeouts in the finals. A player hitting two homers projected by Statcast to have traveled at least 440 feet unlocks an extra 30 seconds of bonus time.

Fifteen of Harper’s 44 homers in the three rounds traveled that far, six apiece in the quarterfinals and finals, and three in the semifinals. His longest blast, a 473-footer in the finals, was outdone only by Javier Baez’s 479-footer in the first round.

Though Harper was considered the oddsmakers’ favorite (and my pick to win) entering the competition, not much went according to plan — or at least not according to seeding, which was done based upon raw home-run totals as of July 10. Just two of the top four seeds advanced in the quarterfinals, and two of my four picks.

In the night’s opening matchup, eighth-seeded Rhys Hoskins knocked off top-seeded Jesus Aguilar, the NL leader in home runs, 17-12. That was the most lopsided outcome of the night, as it turned out. After needing the first minute and 20 seconds to total three homers, and hitting just five by the time he took his first timeout with 2:05 remaining, the Phillies’ slugger — who at this time last year was participating in the Futures Game — resumed by bashing six out of seven balls over the wall in the next minute. He added another flurry of a half-dozen in the last 35 seconds but had just one drive of 440 or more (a 463-footer). While Aguilar got on the board with a 420-footer in his first swing, he had just three after the first minute, and more or less maintained that clip, never showing the urgency necessary to catch up to Hoskins. The No. 1 seed was one-and-done.

The second matchup, between the fourth-seeded Alex Bregman and Schwarber, was much tighter. Schwarber made a strong opening statement with a 427-footer to right center, but hit the wall three times over the next minute or so and had just four when taking his timeout relatively early at 2:29. He didn’t get his fifth homer until just past the two-minute mark, but that became the first of six over a one-minute span, pushing him to 10 with a minute remaining. With less than 10 seconds to go, he hit a towering 450-footer to claim the bonus time, and after finishing regulation with 14, added two in the extra 30 seconds, becoming the night’s first hitter to reach the third deck in right field.

Bregman homered in his first swing, hit three in his first 33 seconds and had seven when he took his timeout at the 2:04 mark, where Astros teammates Jose Altuve, Gerrit Cole, George Springer, and Justin Verlander huddled around him for a pep talk. He homered in two of his first three swings out of the break,and reached 15 with 10 seconds remaining. His next ball didn’t even make the warning track, while his second, uncorked with one second remaining, hit off the center-field off the wall, missing the tie by just a few feet. Oh, the agony of defeat.

The matchup between Muncy and the sixth-seeded Baez was every bit as gripping. Baez, who was pitched to by older brother Gadiel, didn’t hit his first homer until 3:24, and then crushed two on either side of the three-minute mark, with the second a massive 479-footer to left-center. With a 443-footer shortly after that, he earned his bonus, and had seven when he took his timeout at 1:58, during which Schwarber, Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina and a few other players from both leagues swarmed around to offer encouragement. Between his wild swings and his brother’s somewhat wild pitches, Baez didn’t really find a groove until his final 30 seconds. He finished with 14 in regulation and added two more in the bonus round.

Muncy, with a much more repeatable swing, homered six times in the first minute, but managed only two the second, sneaking one just over the 335-foot sign in the right-field corner, one swing before taking his timeout. He returned and soon hit three over 430 feet, bang-bang-bang, tying Baez at 16 with 44 seconds to go, and hitting a walk-off at the 35 second mark.

The Harper-Freeman pairing was a mismatch, with the Braves first baseman’s opposite-field approach inefficient for the format. Freeman homered just twice in the first minute, but did reach six by his timeout at 1:55. Still, it was quickly apparent that his total of 12 wouldn’t stand up when Harper mashed four in his first minute, two of at least 440 feet. Even with the slight handicap of waiting for his long-distance drives to land — a 467-footer, and soon 462, 455, and, 465 in rapid succession — he still had about 30 seconds to go when he hit his 13th to eliminate Freeman.

Buoyed by his upset victory over Aguilar, Hoskins nearly toppled Schwarber, too. He crushed four in the first 50 seconds of the semifinal round, two over 440 feet. After a mini-slump, he reached eight before his timeout at 2:04, and 13 with a minute to go. His 19 by the end of regulation set a Derby high, and he added a towering 453-footer at the bonus-time buzzer.

Schwarber quickly got on the board, and while he didn’t hit his second until the 3:10 mark, that began a five-in-a-row streak that included a 448-footer. Losing and then finding his rhythm again, he reached 12 before taking a comparatively late timeout at 1:32. A 446-footer at the 49-second mark, his 14th homer for the round, opened the bonus time, but he was on such a roll that he didn’t need it. As time expired, he hit his 21st homer, the night’s highest score, off the right-field foul pole for the win. Five of his 21 homers went over 440 feet, with a long of 462.

In the other semifinal, Muncy looked completely at ease while clocking four homers in the first minute, but the dingers soon became harder to come by. He took his timeout with seven homers at 1:53, and while he punched four over the next minute, he ran out of gas, never getting a single 440-footer and finishing with just 12.

Harper hit a couple grounders before sneaking a modest 364-footer into the right-field bullpen, but he couldn’t find his groove and didn’t get his fourth homer until 2:28. With his next two, he seized both the bonus and the rhythm. He had 10 homers when he took his timeout at 1:33, and after tying him with a shot off the right-field foul pole, he won it with 1:11 remaining.

In the finals, Schwarber Schwarbed the hell out of his first homer, 453 feet into the upper deck, and ripped five in the first minute before taking his first timeout at 2:50. He added four in the first 40 seconds after the timeout, and reached the bonus before his second timeout at 1:40. Still sending up bombs — four in five swings at one points — he finished regulation at 17 but added just one in the bonus. Eight of his last nine homers were of at least 430 feet, six of them at least 440.

That looked like enough to win. Harper needed 30 seconds to get his first but was stuck on four when he took his first timeout at 2:38, his longest one foot shy of bonus distance. With his father showing signs of fatigue, he didn’t hit his fifth until 2:18, and while he sandwiching a 473-footer and a 453-footer around the two-minute mark, he was stuck on nine when he took his second timeout at 1:20.

Tension. Drama. The hometown hero needed a late rally just to prevent a rout. Coming out of the timeout, Harper had to take a few pitches, and didn’t get his next homer, No. 10, until his father’s sixth pitch, with 48 seconds to go. Then six in a row and eight in the final 38 seconds of regulation, until he connected with what proved to be the tying homer with three seconds remaining.

Who writes this stuff? On the second pitch of the bonus round, he finished the job.

The stakes might have felt higher with some combination of Stanton, Judge, Trout, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez participating, but that’s no guarantee it would have been as entertaining. Six of the night’s seven pairings were decided by a single homer, five of them with walk-offs and the other with a near-miss on the final drive. It was competitive and compelling and in the end, the guy with all the pressure on him, the one who’s slumping as questions about his free agency swirl around him, staged a comeback that delighted the hometown fans. Hell yes, give me more of this, please.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

Whoever decided to switch to the bracket/timer format deserves a massive raise. As Jay mentioned, it turned the Derby from an “unwatchable slog” into a tidy two-hour ball of fun.

Well done, rando MLB employee. Well done.

4 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

This deserves its own “Bud Light Presents: Real American Heroes”…”Here’s to you Mr. Made the HR Derby watchable again guy”…

Handsome Wes
4 years ago
Reply to  scotman144

Also, the guy who said “we don’t need to have Chris Berman call the action anymore.”

Free Clay Zavada
4 years ago
Reply to  Handsome Wes


4 years ago
Reply to  scotman144

They changed that to “True Men of Genius” shortly after 9/11, but the point still stands!

4 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

Had not watched it in years, so glad I did!

As impressive as Harper and Schwarber was, Baez was most impressive to me, the ball jumped off his bat, half didn’t look like they’d come close and sailed way out easily.