The pairing was worth the wait: two rookies, both denied well-earned call-ups last year due to service-time shenanigans, not only clubbed their way into the 2019 Home Run Derby at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, but all the way to the finals. In the end, the Mets’ Peter Alonso bested the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who had done nothing less than steal the show by setting Derby records in every round. Alonso’s 23rd home run of the final round, which landed with around 18 seconds left in regulation time, beat Guerrero’s freshly-set record without his even needing to tap into his bonus time.
Between a more aerodynamic ball that is being launched with record frequency, and a decision on the part of officials not to enforce the rule requiring the pitcher to wait until the previous ball had landed (a source of controversy amid Bryce Harper’s 2018 win), Derby records were demolished left and right. And while it lacked the likes of Harper, Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Aaron Judge, and so on, youngest Derby field ever (average age 25.26 years) threw the spotlight on some of the sport’s brightest young talents. Every contestant except one (Carlos Santana) was 27 or younger. Even with a decided lack of star power — just five of the top 20 players in total home runs participated, none of them previous winners — the head-to-head, single-elimination bracket format, with timed four-minute rounds and 30 seconds of bonus time added for hitting two 440-foot homers (as measured by Statcast), kept things entertaining, though the event did wind up running long.
While the 24-year-old Alonso, who has already homered 30 times for the Mets this year, emerged victorious thanks to a trio of walk-off wins, the 20-year-old Guerrero, the youngest participant in Derby history, and the first offspring of a previous winner to participate (dad Vlad won in 2007) was the star of the night. Due in part to his delayed call-up and some early difficulty adjusting to the majors, the game’s consensus top prospect has hit just eight regular season homers (which might be the fewest of a Derby participant — I’m not sure), but on Monday night he showed poise well beyond his years, particularly during the extended exposure he received in an epic semifinal battle with Joc Pederson. The pair not only finished regulation time tied at 29, which matched the single-round record that Guerrero had just set in the quarterfinals, but they remained tied through a one-minute tiebreaker round and the first three-swing “Swing-Off” in Derby history. More on that momentarily.
The festivities began with the matchup between the fifth-seeded Pederson and the fourth-seeded Alex Bregman, the only two participants with previous Derby experience. Pederson, who finished as the runner-up to Todd Frazier in 2015, initially struggled like he’d never been in this position before, that despite having a distinct advantage as a lefty. Progressive Field’s right field fences are just nine feet high, compared to 19 feet in center field and left; last year, the park played to a 105 home run factor for lefties versus 98 for righties.
The Dodgers’ slugger needed nearly 30 seconds to get his first homer, and while he followed immediately with his second, he hit several that were high but short and then a handful that he couldn’t seem to elevate. He homered just four times before taking a 30-second time-out (every contestant was allowed one in each of the first two rounds, with two in the finals) at 2:11. His first two swings after the break produced homers, and suddenly he was Locked In, pounding the ball to right field with just about every swing. By the one-minute mark, he was up to 12, and at the 23-second mark, his 15th homer, which traveled a projected 452 feet, unlocked the bonus time. He finished regulation with 17, and added four in the bonus round, setting a new first-round record for the format.
Bregman, who lost to Kyle Schwarber in the first round last year, homered four times in the first minute, with a fifth landing just a couple of feet below the top of the 19-foot wall in the left field corner. He added just two more before taking his time-out at 2:30, but like Pederson, found a rhythm once the pitches resumed. By 1:15 he was up to 13, but then fell into a mini-slump, not collecting his next one until he pounded one off the left field pole with 25 seconds remaining. He finished with a respectable 16 homers, but was unable to hit one that went 440 feet, let alone two, and so received no bonus time.
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||8||29||421.5||476|
Vladito announced his presence in auspicious fashion, bashing a towering 462-foot drive off the scoreboard in right center on his second swing. By 3:28, he had topped that with a 476-footer, clinching his bonus time, and he added a 472-footer before his first minute had run off the clock. He had seven homers by the time he took his break at 2:48, which he came out of with moonshot after moonshot of well over 440 feet, a dazzling display of distance. He had 20 homers by the 1:12 mark. Though he hit just one more over the next 40 seconds, he finished regulation with 24, and added another five in bonus time, setting a single-round record for the format (Josh Hamilton’s 28 from 2008 was set under very different rules). Eight of his first-round homers went at least 440 feet.
Chapman, the top seed only by dint of his having replaced Christian Yelich after the major league home run leader scratched on Sunday due to a sore back, homered on his first swing, and by 2:58 had collected seven, including 473- and 447-footers. His chances faded when he managed just one homer over the next minute, and he never truly got his rhythm back. He took his time-out at 1:47 with just nine on the board, and while a brief flurry pushed his total to 13, he couldn’t produce another, even with the benefit of the extra 30 seconds. He didn’t lack for distance, however; his 432.1-foot average for the round tied with Guerrero’s final round as longest of the night.
Whereas most of the other participants played to their pull side, Acuña worked foul pole to foul pole, spraying balls all around the yard. The contest’s second-youngest participant hit two in his first 30 seconds, the second of which was projected at 469 feet. He soon added a 453-footer, and from about 2:30 to 2:00 really found his groove, hitting his 10th homer right at the halfway point, and launching most of his drives towards center field and right-center in an impressive display of opposite field power. He called timeout at 1:41 with 11 home runs in the bank, added another half-dozen in his first minute back, reached 20 at the 28-second mark, and finished regulation at 23, blowing bubbles with his gum as he did so. The break before his bonus time costs him rhythm, as he added just two more homers.
The switch-hitting Bell, who chose to bat left-handed, came into the tournament favored by some to win it. He produced a towering 401-foot blast to right field on his second swing, but totaled just three in his first minute and 20 seconds, and had just four at his timeout, at 2:33. He came out of the break with a bang, aiming more towards right-center, doubled his total by the time he reached the two-minute mark, and was up to 12 by 1:30 before a 30-second drought effectively crushed his chances. Even with homers on his final two swings of regulation, he added just one in bonus time, however, and was done for the night.
Batting lefty and representing the host city, Santana couldn’t find any home-field advantage. Hitting line drives instead of big flies, he didn’t collect his first homer until 3:05, when he deposited a 395-footer into the right field corner. He had just five by the time he took his timeout at 1:41, and didn’t hit his 10th until just 40 seconds remained. He finished regulation with 13, and failed to unlock the bonus time, positioning himself as a sitting duck with respect to Alonso.
The Mets rookie took his time to get on the board, in part because pitcher Derek Morgan (his second cousin) wasn’t putting the ball in his happy zone frequently enough. He finally hit his first homer at the 3:32 mark, but added just two over the next minute. With a pair of 452-foot drives, he unlocked his bonus time, but still had just five homers by the halfway point, and six by the point of his time-out 1:44. Not until around the one-minute mark did he find a groove. He tied Santana with 10 seconds remaining, and clinched victory in the round with a sky-high 406-footer to left center, rendering his bonus time moot. It wasn’t pretty, but he survived and advanced.
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||8||40*||422.8||488|
With apologies to Alonso, this matchup of two lower seeds — and two progeny of former major leaguers (you’re forgiven if you don’t recall Stu Pederson’s eight-game, five-plate appearance stint with the 1985 Dodgers) — was the best of the night, and one of the best in Derby history, an Ali-Frazier-type epic. Unlike in the first round, the homers didn’t initially come as easily for Guerrero this time. He didn’t get on the board until the 3:39 mark, but by 2:58 was up to seven. A 461-footer at the 2:45 mark put him in the bonus, and he called timeout at 2:39, having hit nine homers. With shot after shot towards his oversized visage on the scoreboard — homers on seven consecutive swings at one point — he reached 20 by 1:21, and finished regulation with 27. He quickly collected two in the bonus time, but missed number 30 when his buzzer-beating drive hit a few feet below the top of the left field wall.
Needing to break a freshly-minted record, Pederson made a contest of it. With most of his drives heading towards the second deck in right field, he collected a trio of quick home runs in the first 20 seconds, seven (including two of 440-plus) in the first minute, and 14 by the halfway point; he took his timeout at 1:58. Despite a brief funk coming out of the break, he reached 22 by 1:03. Though he struggled to elevate in the final minute, he finished regulation with 27 homers, giving himself a clear path to victory. After going 0-for-3 to start the bonus round, he added a quick pair to tie Guerrero with nine seconds remaining, then launched the apparent winner with three seconds to go. However, due to a scoreboard discrepancy between the broadcast and the ballpark, it turned out he’d finished with “only” 29, leaving the two players tied.
Guerrero began his one-minute tiebreaker with three straight homers, added a fourth by the halfway point, and matched that total over the final 30 seconds, leaving him with 37 for the round; amid the barrage, he hit the night’s longest homer, a 488-footer. The fatigued-looking Pederson, who had had far less time to rest since his previous turn, hit just two in his first 29 seconds, but then produced homers on four straight swings, two of them into the short corner down the right field line. Needing two to tie with 13 seconds remaining, he landed one with seven seconds left, and re-tied Guerrero with a shot that just cleared the right-center wall as the clock ran out.
That took the duel to an unprecedented swing-off. Guerrero hit a 440-footer on his first swing, but merely lined his second one, and made the mistake of lifting his third to dead center, where it failed to reach the warning track. The door was open for Pederson, who took two pitches, then launched the tying blast to right-center. After hitting a can of corn on his second swing, he pulled his third foul down the right field line, setting up yet another round of swing-offs. This time, Guerrero homered on his first two swings before falling short in his third. Pederson kept up the tension by homering on his first swing, but grounders on his second and third left him on the short end of a remarkable, epic round. But like the “Thrilla in Manila,” the victory may have cost Guererro as he advanced further.
|Ronald Acuna Jr.||6||19||421.2||469|
Nearly an hour after his first round, Acuña began his second by homering to dead center on his first swing, but just missed a second when his ball hit near the top of the right field wall, and totaled just three in his first minute. Hitting the ball wherever it was pitched instead of sticking to a tight zone, he continued to spray the ball all over the place, reaching eight homers by the two-minute mark, and taking a timeout at 1:42 with nine. He picked up the pace after taking a break at 1:42, hitting his 14th (and reaching the bonus) at the one-minute mark. He finished regulation with 17 and, despite looking gassed, added a pair in the bonus.
Alonso’s first drive of the second round was caught by a fan leaning over the right field wall; it didn’t look as though it would clear but it was counted, presumably on the grounds of interference (the broadcast didn’t even pause to acknowledge the decision). He hit four in his first minute, and by the 2:35 mark had seven, including a pair of 440-plus drives. Another 45 seconds passed before he homered again, though; he took his timeout at 1:49 with just eight homers on the board. After collecting himself, he peppered the trees in center field, reaching 13 homers with a minute to go, and hitting number 20 as regulation time expired, pushing him past Acuña and into the final.
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||8||22||432.1||463|
Perhaps it was fatigue — after 69 home runs in the first two rounds, who could blame him? — but Guerrero was a mechanical mess at the start of his final round. He needed more than 30 seconds to hit his first homer, a 461-footer to left field. Though his drives were less majestic than the previous two rounds, he pushed his total to five before his first timeout at the 2:52 mark. With violent but sloppy swings, he couldn’t elevate, and didn’t homer again until 2:13, when he clubbed a 456-footer to left center. He took his second timeout at 1:52 with just eight homers on the board, but found a rhythm with five in a six-swing span coming out of the break. He reached 20 with 26 seconds remaining, but couldn’t produce another until the second swing of his bonus round, and added just one more the rest of the way, finishing with 22 — again, all to his pull side — to surpass Giancarlo Stanton’s 2016 finals record.
Alonso, working more to straightaway center, banked four homers in the first 33 seconds, and eight before taking his first timeout at 2:47. He added just one more before the two-minute mark, but rediscovered his groove and reached 18 with a minute remaining. After tying Guerrero with a line drive that bounced off the top of the right-center wall with 21 seconds remaining, he quickly followed with a Derby-winner of more impressive arc. With his victory, Alonso not only collected $1 million, he became the third rookie ever to win the contest, after Wally Joyner in 1986 (co-champion with Darryl Strawberry) and Judge in 2017. He joined Strawberry as the only Mets player ever to win, and Harper as the second player in a row to live up to my pre-Derby prediction (I even had him besting Guerrero in the finals).
Cumulatively, while this year’s rounds weren’t quite as tight as last year, when six of seven pairings were decided by a single homer and five via walk-offs, the final four matchups were squeakers, and the whole night delivered drama, suspense, and fireworks. That Alonso won all three matchups by hitting walk-offs ensures his spot in Derby lore, and likewise, Guerrero’s monumental battle with Pederson will be something that’s remembered for as long as this contest remains an All-Star week centerpiece.
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.