Previewing the 2018 Home Run Derby

With apologies to the 1960 television show that became a staple of ESPN Classic, the Home Run Derby has been around since 1985, but it wasn’t until the last few years that Major League Baseball found a format that was vastly entertaining: a head-to-head single-elimination bracket setup with timed, four-minute rounds and 30 seconds of bonus time added for hitting two 440-foot homers, as measured by Statcast. In 2015, the first year of that format, Todd Frazier, then of the Reds, became just the second player in Derby history to win in his home park; the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg was first in 1990. In 2016, the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton won at Petco Park, and last year, rookie Aaron Judge beat Stanton on his home turf in Marlins Park — a pair of ideal results that will be tough to top.

Indeed, one of the big drawbacks of the Derby has been its failure to attract a full complement of the game’s elite sluggers; to the extent that complaints about MLB’s failure to market its stars to full advantage rings true, here’s a very good example. Mike Trout has never participated, and Bryce Harper has just once, in 2013. With the Derby and the All-Star Game at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, Harper is back, but he’s the only member of the eight-player field who has participated in a previous Derby. There’s no Judge this year, no Stanton, and no J.D. Martinez or José Ramiréz either. In fact, according to the Washington Post, this is the first year since at least 2008 without a player from among the majors’ top five in homers participating. Just two of the current top 10, the Brewers Jesus Aguilar (sixth with 24, but leading the NL) and Harper (tied for seventh with 23) are involved, and of the eight contestants, just one is from an AL team, the Astros’ Alex Bregman. Let’s call it what it is: a comparatively weak field.

Perhaps that’s because the myth of a post-Derby curse persists; what fall-off there is generally owes to regression in players’ rate of home runs per fly ball, which can owe something to luck. Anyway, these dinger displays are still fun, even in this homer-saturated age, and the timed format is much, much, much better — so much so that I’d even be willing to call Chris Berman out of retirement to repeat that phrase — than the previous slog, during which a batter might take pitch after pitch looking for the right one, and an hour in the competition might go by before somebody was eliminated. That wasn’t compelling television.

Here’s the field of contestants, who have been imaginatively seeded by MLB according to raw home-run totals to feed into a format where 1-8 and 4-5 meet on one side of the bracket, and 2-7 and 3-6 meet on the other side:

2018 Home Run Derby Field
Seed Player HR HR/PA HR/CON HR/FB EVFL Avg HR 440 Ft
1 Jesus Aguilar 24 7.6% 12.2% 27.0% 94.4 394 3
2 Bryce Harper 23 5.6% 10.0% 25.3% 96.4 409 14
3 Max Muncy 22 7.9% 13.7% 30.6% 95.8 401 1
4 Alex Bregman 20 4.6% 6.3% 14.6% 93.5 384 0
5 Kyle Schwarber 18 5.6% 10.1% 26.9% 95.3 401 6
6 Javier Baez 19 5.2% 7.5% 23.2% 98.6 404 2
7 Freddie Freeman 16 3.8% 5.6% 17.2% 94.2 400 7
8 Rhys Hoskins 14 3.8% 6.4% 12.8% 93.9 393 1
All statistics through Sunday, July 15. EVFL (exit velocity on fly balls and line drives), Avg HR (average home-run distance), and 440 (2015-18 total of home runs projected for at least 440 feet) via Baseball Savant.

I’ve gone beyond the raw totals to show how often each contestant homers per plate appearance, per batted ball [HR/ (AB – SO + SF)], and per fly ball, with their average exit velocities on fly balls and line drives, their average projected home-run distance, and their 2015-18 total of homers projected to travel least 440 feet; of this group, only Harper (three) and Muncy (one) have hit any of that distance, hence the choice to include Statcast-era totals.

Aguilar (1) vs. Hoskins (8)

The 28-year-old Aguilar is something of a Cinderella story, a player who spent nine years in the Indians’ organization but got just 64 plate appearances at the major-league level before moving along via waivers to the Brewers in February 2017. As a 27-year-old rookie last year, he hit 16 homers in 311 PA, but he’s already outdone that and, in fact, leads the NL in long balls, a show of power that helped him win the NL Final Vote. Aguilar is efficient, ranking second in the majors this year in both HR/PA and HR/Con behind only Muncy, and he’s not just a product of Miller Park, which has generally been an easy place for righties to homer (park factors of 105 in 2016 and -17); he’s split his 24 homers evenly between home and road.

Though Hoskins has hit 32 homers in his first 136 major-league games, he’s an extremely streaky slugger. He was a rookie sensation last year, homering 11 times in his first 18 games, and 18 in his first 34, after debuting on August 10. He hasn’t been able to keep up that breakneck pace, finishing last season with a 16-game dry spell and then homering just six times in this season’s first two months before fouling a pitch off his face on May 29 and fracturing his jaw. After missing nine games, he homered in his second plate appearance after returning and hit eight in 20 June games, but so far, he’s homerless in July. They only metric to which one can point that suggests he’s got an edge here is his 0.55 groundball-to-flyball ratio, which is the third lowest among 258 players with at least 200 PA; after all, you can’t win a Home Run Derby hitting grounders. That said, Hoskins isn’t even a guy who hits for distance, generally. Among the 279 players with 25 homers in the Statcast era, his 397-foot average is 178th. For all of that, his intermittent history of hot streaks means he could tap into some kind of groove. Maybe.

Bregman (4) vs. Schwarber (5)

Bregman, the AL’s lone representative, has come into his own as a player in his third big-league season, already surpassing his career highs in homers and WAR. Even so, he’s another player who looks like a longshot here, particularly as the contestant with the lowest average distance (for the entire Statcast era, he’s 267th at 387 feet) and the only one without a 440-footer. He does get the ball in the air, at least; his 0.79 groundball-to-flyball ratio is 33rd among the 200-PA set. He also tends to make hard contact quite frequently: his total of 131 batted balls of at least 95 mph is seventh in the majors and the highest of this field.

There are eight hitters in this competition, but only one who can actually Schwarb the ball. Beyond his 30 homers last year, Schwarber had a rough 2017, but this year, after losing weight, adjusting his swing, and hitting the ball on the ground more often (with a GB rate climbing from 38.3% to 44.3%), he’s been much more productive, with his wRC+ jumping from 102 to 129 and his defense no longer a liability. Schwarber ranks ninth in HR/Con and has the highest percentage of 440-foot homers here (9.4% of his 64 career dingers) and he’s tied with Harper for 460-footers (three), though none of his was hit this year. His light-tower power certainly gives him a chance in this format.

Harper (2) vs. Freeman (7)

Harper, the runner up to Yoenis Cespedes in the 2013 Home Run Derby at Citi Field, has more going for him than just experience and home-field advantage. He’s the distance king among this group in terms both of average (he’s 24th out of 228 in the majors) and 440-footers, so look for him to have no trouble earning the bonus time. He’s 10th in the majors in HR/Con, though fourth in this field. And while he’s hardly having his best season with the bat, he won’t face any infield shifts here. On the note of home-field advantage, Nationals Park generally favors righties for homers (park factors of 100 in 2016 and -17) as opposed to lefties (park factors of 95 in both years); his home-run distribution ever so slightly tilts towards away (12 out of 23 this year, 87 out of 173 career).

That won’t matter much in the bracket’s lone lefty-versus-lefty matchup, because while Freeman is a damn fine hitter — his 150 wRC+ is third in the league among qualifiers and fifth at the 200-PA threshold — who earned his starting nod for the All-Star Game, he doesn’t stack up very well by the numbers in this competition. He’s got the field’s second-lowest homer rate (beating Hoskins by 0.016%) and by far the lowest HR/Con. While he does have a history of hitting for distance, it’s relatively ancient history; of his seven 440-footers, six are from 2015-16, though his most recent one, on his birthday last year (September 12), came at Nationals Park.

Muncy (3) vs. Baez (6)

The World Population Clock puts the current population of Earth at 7.636 billion people, and it’s a certainty that none of them predicted Muncy would participate in this year’s Home Run Derby. The 27-year-old infielder had hit just five big-league homers in 245 PA before this season. He didn’t get a single major-league plate appearance last year while toiling at Triple A Oklahoma City (where he hit 12 homers in 379 PA) after being released by the A’s at the end of spring training. Mechanical changes — a less upright stance, with a leg kick and lower hands, as Jeff Sullivan illustrated — and a more aggressive approach have unlocked his power, and he’s suddenly become one of the game’s best hitters. Consider: his 171 wRC+ leads the NL at the 200-PA level. (He’s 23 PA short of qualifying for the batting title.) His home-run rate and HR/Con lead all players with at least 200 PA, and his HR/FB rate is third; he’s 30th overall (and third among this group) in average exit velocity on flies and liners, and his 49.4% rate of producing exit velos of at least 95 mph is 11th. As a lefty, he’s at something of a disadvantage in Nationals Park, though he uses the whole field well enough that it might not matter.

The 25-year-old Baez is having his best season thus far in terms of wRC+ (132), and he was a worthy choice to start at second base for the NL squad, but whether that or his incredible flair will translate here remains to be seen. He does hits balls in the air as hard as just about anybody, as his 98.6 mph average exit velocity on flies and liners (which ranks fifth in the majors) attests, and he’s a respectable 28th in home-run rate this year and 56th in average distance.

*****

If you want dingers and you’ve read this far, you probably want predictions as well, and so here are mine: Aguilar, Harper, Schwarber and Baez advance, with Harper rising to the occasion in his home park to defeat Baez in the tournament’s most entertaining matchup and then topping Aguilar to complete the spectacle — a good show despite the spotty field. Hopefully, it will inspire more participation next year in Cleveland, and maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if MLB applied a bit more muscle to get Trout, Ramiréz (or Francisco Lindor), and the reigning champion into the field.





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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brood550
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brood550

About the post-derby curse. It really appears to be a thing at least for some players. The most extreme example in recent memory for me has to be Bobby Abreu after the 05 derby. He had a typical for him 148 WRC+ going into the Derby then goes WRC+ of 103 the rest of the way and never posted another season above 4 WAR after being a perennial 5-6 WAR guy. He was on pace for another 5WAR season prior to the derby.

Judge last year Pre Derby: .329 Ave .448 OBP .691 slg with A WRC + of 197

Post Derby .228 Ave, .391 OBP, .548 SLG with a 144 WRC+ and his K-rate ticked up 1.9%

Granted Judge’s pre-derby pace was crazy and for most purposes unsustainable. but a full .100 drop in AVE and an almost .150 drop in SLG is pretty wild.

Terence
Member
Member
Terence

Last year, Judge had a first half BABIP of .426, second half BABIP of .266. I find it hard to blame that on the home run derby.

brood550
Member
brood550

He was definitely in for some regression with such a crazy first half. That too is a rather large change in outcomes from the first half. Seems a bit larger than what one would expect under normal conditions.

He was flying out a lot more post derby. Fly Ball % pre derby: 37.5% post derby: 50.7%. IFF% jumped from 2.8% to 9.5%.

Was he trying to loft the ball because of the derby or not? Maybe it’s not because of the derby but it is a pretty drastic change.