On a Night of Upsets, Pete Alonso Repeats as Home Run Derby Champ

For all of the anticipation and hype that surrounded the long-awaited participation of two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani as well as distance king Joey Gallo in their first Home Run Derbies — and at mile-high Coors Field, no less — it was easy to overlook the one contestant in the field who’d done this before. Because there was no Derby last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, 2019 winner Pete Alonso entered Monday night as the reigning champion, and he defended his title successfully and emphatically.

Indeed, the Mets’ 6-foot-3, 245-pound slugger seemed built for this competition, and he practically toyed with his opponents. After hitting a contest-high 35 homers in the quarterfinals, Alonso didn’t need his full allotment of time to win either of his final two rounds, capping his run by beating Trey Mancini in the finals, 23-22. In victory, he became the fourth player to win multiple Home Run Derbies, after Ken Griffey Jr. (1994, ’98-99), Prince Fielder (2009, ’12) and Yoenis Céspedes (2013-14). Mancini, who missed the 2020 season while undergoing chemotherapy for stage three colon cancer, put forth a valiant effort with a quick compact stroke that contrasted with Alonso’s long swing, but ultimately, he was outhit and outdistanced.

Alonso and Mancini were both part of the wave of upsets that characterized the night. In the quarterfinal round, all four lower seeds advanced, knocking out the Vegas-favored heavyweights, Ohtani and Gallo. While Ohtani’s loss to eighth-seeded Juan Soto rated as something of a disappointment given his headliner status, their battle was epic, requiring two rounds of tiebreakers. It’s worth noting that Coors Field favors right-handed hitters when it comes to homers, and three of the four lower seeds that advanced — the fifth-seeded Alonso, sixth-seeded Mancini, and seventh-seeded Trevor Story — swing righty. The seedings, by the way, were based upon the participants’ home run totals as of July 7; it wasn’t as though any Derby- or Statcast-related science went into the matchups.

The contest worked similarly to years past, as an eight-man single-elimination bracket with timed rounds. This year, the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds were three minutes long, with each player allowed to call one 45-second timeout per round. At the end that, after another brief break, each player had a 30- or 60-second bonus round, depending upon whether he had hit at least one drive of 475 feet during regulation. Each of the eight participants received the distance bonus in the quarterfinals, but only two of the four did in the semifinals, as fatigue set in and footage dropped. The final round turns were just two minutes long, plus the timeouts and the bonus rounds.

With the starting time temperature above 90 degrees and the balls not stored in the humidor, the blasts off the bats of contestants flew freely in the high altitude — an average of 449 feet, by my calculations. At the outset of the Statcast broadcast on ESPN2, hosts Jason Benetti, Jessica Mendoza, and Mike Petriello provided some math to help us appreciate the distances we were about to see. They noted that Coors Field adds 24 feet of extra flight due to the ballpark’s elevation, with the de-humidored balls adding another 23 feet (20 feet of carry thanks to increased exit velocity, and another eight feet due to warmer temperatures, minus five feet for the dried-out balls’ slightly lower weight), for an expected gain of 47 feet relative to balls stored in the humidor and hit in 72-degree conditions. For what it’s worth, the median distance gain of the eight contestants during the quarterfinals (relative to their season home run averages) was 41 feet. Fatigue definitely appeared to be a factor; where the contestants averaged 26 homers and 449 feet in the first round, they dipped to 14 homers and 443 feet in the second, though in the finals, Alsonso and Mancini were back up to an average of 458 feet.

2021 Derby Quarterfinal 1
Contestant Seed Total Avg Dist Long
Trey Mancini 6 24 447 (+40) 496
Matt Olson 3 23 447 (+41) 495
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Numbers in parentheses are additional feet relative to regular season average home run distance.

The first matchup set the tone for the night’s tightly-contested rounds, though almost invariably, the participants needed a few cuts to get into the swing of things — a situation that may have owed as much to their respective pitchers searching for optimal placement. Mancini hit only two home runs in his first 30 seconds, and then went even colder, not adding another before taking his timeout with 2:07 remaining. He returned to action with a wall-scraper to center; it didn’t go out, but he followed with two straight homers, working the center-to-right-center area. Spraying the ball all around the outfield with a rapid and efficient stroke, he had seven homers with 1:30 to go, unleashed another eight in the next 50 seconds, and finished regulation time with 19, the last 17 in a 25-swing span following the timeout. He added just four in bonus time.

Olson managed just one homer in his first 30 seconds. With about 2:20 remaining, he locked in, pulling everything to right field, sending some into the upper deck, and reaching 10 homers before taking his timeout with 1:15 remaining. While he didn’t lack for distance, he couldn’t quite match Mancini’s pace; he finished the regulation round with 17. He added three in the first 30 seconds of bonus time, reached 22 with 18 seconds to go, hit his 23rd with three seconds left… and sent a buzzer-beating drive several feet to the right of the right field foul pole, losing the round by a single dinger.

2021 Derby Quarterfinal 2
Contestant Seed Total Avg Dist Long
Trevor Story 7 20 437 (+18) 518
Joey Gallo 2 19 446 (+32) 494
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Numbers in parentheses are additional feet relative to regular season average home run distance.

Representing the festivities’ host team, Story didn’t get on the board until his fourth swing, but soon started producing some monster drives to left-center, including a 518-footer — fleetingly, a new record for the Derby, surpassing Aaron Judge’s 2017 mark by five feet — nearly to a concourse, and a 498-footer. Still, he hit too many line drives, and had just seven homers before taking his timeout with 1:24 remaining. Only near the end of the round did he really find a rhythm, homering six times in an eight-swing span within the final 45 seconds and finishing regulation with 16. After hitting just one in the first 45 seconds of bonus time, he finished with three quick ones, including a buzzer-beater, for an even 20.

Gallo, this scribe’s pick to win the competition, hit a towering 458-foot drive to right-center on his second swing but fell into the same early-round slump as his predecessors; he went seven straight swings without a homer, didn’t collect his second until a full minute had elapsed, and had just four at his timeout with 1:44 remaining. Particularly given the slow pace of coach Tony Beasley’s pitches, he couldn’t catch up, adding just three over the next minute, and finishing regulation with 11. He found a groove during bonus time, homering on five straight swings, one of which produced his longest drive, a 494-footer. His 18th came with seven seconds to go, but he popped one up before homering as time expired, finishing a buck short. That Gallo didn’t reach 500 feet on a single drive, or create a sustained fireworks show, was one of the night’s bigger disappointments.

2021 Derby Quarterfinal 3
Contestant Seed Total Avg Dist Long
Pete Alonso 5 35 447 (+36) 514
Salvador Perez 4 28 446 (+46) 491
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Numbers in parentheses are additional feet relative to regular season average home run distance.

Alonso came to the plate looking considerably looser than the previous contestants, and perhaps because of that, got off to a better start than any of them; pitcher Dave Jauss, the Mets’ bench coach, had no trouble finding a groove. Alonso homered eight times in his first minute, including a 512-footer to left-center, which he outdid by two feet moments later. Thanks to a streak of nine straight homer-producing swings, he was up to 13 with 1:31 remaining, when he took his timeout. He came out of his break and continued to crush, producing streaks of four and seven straight, finishing regulation with 25 homers, and never going more than three straight without hitting one out. He added an astounding 10 more in the bonus time, running his total to 35. He was a model of efficiency; where other contestants struggled to homer on more than 50% of their swings, Alonso managed a homer on 71%.

Perez, charged with the equivalent of sprinting up Mount Elbert, fell into a pace similar to the other non-Alonso contestants, homering just twice in his first six swings. With four homers in a row, he finished his first minute with seven, and reached eight when he called timeout with 1:44 remaining. A six-swing post-timeout drought effectively sealed his fate, but he hardly threw in the towel. After finishing regulation with 17, he pounded a whopping 11 during the bonus time, including homers on his final seven swings. Despite finishing with the round’s second-highest total to that point, he was done.

2021 Derby Quarterfinal 4
Contestant Seed Total Avg Dist Long
Juan Soto 8 31 452 (+50) 520
Shohei Ohtani 1 28 465 (+48) 513
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Numbers in parentheses are additional feet relative to regular season average home run distance.

In what turned out to be the best battle of the night, Soto quickly got going. Working with high pitches from coach Kevin Long, the Derby’s youngest participant bashed seven homers to center and right-center in his first minute, capped by a 520-footer to right field, breaking Story’s short-lived record. Soto called timeout at 1:44 with nine homers, reached 14 with 56 seconds to go, but managed just four more before the buzzer. He added another four in the bonus round, finishing with 22, matching his age.

Ohtani, the event’s favorite, didn’t get a chance to take his cuts until 86 minutes into the broadcast. Despite smiling as though he was having a grand old time, he didn’t homer on any of his first nine swings, lining the pitches from Angels bullpen coach Jason Brown to right field instead of elevating them. He finally got on the board 47 seconds in, but his troubles continued; he didn’t hit his second homer until his 15th swing, and had just five before taking his timeout with 1:20 remaining. Coming out of the break, it was suddenly Sho Time, as he hit five homers over the next 50 seconds, and finished regulation with homers of 513 feet (his long for the night) and 500, the latter his 16th homer. He had homered 12 times on his final 17 swings of regulation. Overtaking Soto appeared doable, particularly when Ohtani added homers to right field with his first two swings. He reached 20 with 31 seconds to go, but popped a couple up and lined one before adding two to tie Soto at 22.

In the 60-second swing-off, Soto managed just one homer in his first 34 seconds before recovering; he hit five in a row near the end of his round to run his total to 28. Ohtani quickly hit a flurry of towering shots to right, three of them exceeding 500 feet, tying Soto with 14 seconds to go, but between a pair of grounders, a couple of pop-ups, and a liner, he couldn’t break the tie. The competition then went to three-swing rounds. Soto grew more selective and went 3-for-3, including a 502-footer. With zero margin for error, Ohtani stepped in… and hit a grounder on his first swing, ending his night.

For as much of a letdown as it might have been to have the top seed knocked out in the first round, it’s tough to complain about what Ohtani gave us: a Derby-high six homers of at least 500 feet (out of 15 for the entire field), plus the highest average distance of any round, and three of the four hardest-hit balls at 117 miles per hour off the bat. He’ll get another chance to shine on Tuesday night, while serving both as the American League’s starting pitcher and leadoff hitter in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

2021 Derby Semifinal 1
Contestant Seed Total Avg Dist Long
Trevor Story 7 12 441 477
Trey Mancini 6 13 440 475
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In the first semifinals bout, Story, looking somewhat fatigued, managed just two homers in his first 11 swings and 75 seconds before hitting three in a row. He was stuck on five when he took his timeout with 1:28 to go, went on another three-swing run, but sputtered thereafter, homering just twice on his final nine swings to finish regulation with 10. Because none of them had exceeded 475 feet, he got only 30 seconds of bonus time rather than 60, and added just two in that span, the last of which was 477 feet, his longest of the round.

Mancini, with his quick pace and the perfect pitch placement from Chuck Ristano — the pitching coach at Notre Dame, where Mancini won the Big East Home Run Derby in 2012 while vowing that the two would partner for a major league derby if the chance ever came — appeared as though he would make short work of Story. He homered three times in the first 23 seconds, but then hit a six-swing dry spell. He recovered to reach seven before calling timeout with 1:39 to go. Though his distances were comparatively unremarkable, his ninth landed with 59 seconds to go. He tied Story with a 460-foot drive to right center with 30 seconds remaining, then won the round on his next swing, via a 475-footer to dead center — his longest of the round — to advance to the finals.

2021 Derby Semifinal 2
Contestant Seed Total Avg Dist Long
Juan Soto 8 15 438 481
Pete Alonso 5 16 450 498
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Soto set a good pace initially, homering six times in his first minute, though none of them reached 475 feet. After hitting his seventh homer, he called time with 1:46 to go, but struggled to elevate upon coming out of the break, homering just once on his next 13 swings and looking as though he had run out of gas; it didn’t help that Long wasn’t as precise as some of his counterparts. Soto added just three more after that slump, finishing regulation time with 11 but activating the distance bonus. Starting at the 45-second mark, he collected three in a row, and finished with 15.

It wasn’t nearly enough. Alonso was absolutely locked in from the outset, homering on his first swing, finishing his first minute with seven, and reaching 10 at the 1:30 mark. He was up to 14 — out of just 20 swings — when he called time with 1:03 remaining, not to get a drink of water or Gatorade, but to pump up the crowd. He needed just two more swings to finish the job, tying Soto with a round-high 498-footer to left-center, and delivering the coup de grâce with 50 seconds remaining. Neither the slugger nor his pitcher realized until after delivering one more pitch that Alonso had won the round and didn’t need to continue.

2021 Derby Final
Contestant Seed Total Avg Dist Long
Trey Mancini 6 22 451 490
Pete Alonso 5 23 464 509
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The finals pitted two players who at least for the night appeared to have mastered the form via their efficiency, contrasting in style due to the length of their swings but both looking significantly less gassed than their semifinal opponents.

Mancini homered four times in his first 30 seconds, and added one more — a 490-footer to unlock the bonus time — before his timeout with 1:17 remaining. He stayed hot coming out of the break, running his streak to six straight and reaching 10 with 50 seconds remaining. He continued his efficient swats to right field, finishing regulation with 17 homers. Though he homered four times in his first 24 seconds of bonus time, he managed just one additional homer.

Alonso began his round with a pair of monster shots, including a 509-footer to center. He hit his eighth with 58 seconds remaining, part of a flurry of seven straight homers that suggested victory was inevitable. He called time out with 36 seconds remaining, having hit 12 homers. Despite Jauss hitting him on the shoulder once, and leaving another one far inside (which he cranked to left-center for a 458-footer), he finished regulation with 17 homers. At the start of the bonus round, Alonso hit the scoreboard, a drive of 492 feet, and he just kept going, homering on six straight swings and winning with 32 seconds still on the clock — a remarkable display of power.

In my preview and on social media, I referred to a Coors Field Home Run Derby as a bucket-list event. I’ll let you decide if it lived up to that level of hype; the loss of the top seeds so early was a bit of a letdown, but viewers got their money’s worth when it came to distance drives and drama. Five of the seven matchups were decided by a single homer, and the two that weren’t featured a double tiebreaker and the night’s most impressive single-round display. If I’m all for another Home Run Derby in Coors, I’m also all for seeing Pete Alonso do this again and again. On a night when everybody was hitting the ball to the Moon, he was on another planet.

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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1 year ago

This was as fun of a HR Derby to watch as 2008’s with Hamilton’s performance in NY imo.