This year’s Home Run Derby arrives at a time of unprecedented long ball saturation, no matter how one chooses to measure its dimensions. Teams are hitting 1.37 home runs per game, a 9.2% increase over 2017, the year of MLB’s previous high rate. Homers make up 3.6% of all plate appearances and 5.3% of all batted ball events, gains of 8.7% and 10.5% relative to 2017. You can more or less double those increases when comparing this year to last year, during which the frequency (1.15 per game) was merely the fifth-highest of all time, a hair behind 2016 (1.16). It’s getting kind of ridiculous, particularly now that we understand that recent changes to the ball’s materials and manufacturing process have resulted in a more aerodynamic ball that carries further.
Given that I’m the old crankypants who last week declared that we’ve reached the point of too many homers, you might find it odd that I’m the one touting the Derby, but I see no contradiction. I’m firm in my belief that we can indulge in a bake-off without mandating that everybody eat a whole pie — rather, 1.37 whole pies — per day.
Besides, while it took MLB more than 30 years — there was a derby television show in 1960, and the event has been part of the All-Star festivities since 1985 — to find a Derby format that works, the 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, really does make for an entertaining event. The fireworks produced by the likes of Giancarlo Stanton at Petco Park in 2016, or Aaron Judge at Marlins Park in 2017, or Bryce Harper at Nationals Park last year were a gas to watch, creating the kind of whizz-bang spectacle that raises the profile of recognizable stars and helps to grow the game. That said, the television ratings for last year’s event set a 20-year-low, so what do I know?
What I do know — besides the fact that there is no Derby curse — is that we can lament the absence of certain non-participants. There’ll be no Stanton (who’s on the injured list for the umpteenth time this year), Judge (who’s missed significant time due to injury himself), or Harper — no previous winner of the tournament, in fact. Also absent will be the majors’ leading home run hitter, Christian Yelich (who withdrew on Sunday due to back soreness), as well as Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout, Gary Sanchez, Joey Gallo, and so on. Any field of eight players will inevitably lack many luminaries. While only six of the eight participants rank among the majors’ top 25 in homers, that still leaves us no shortage of sluggers who can reliably club the dang ball over the fence. History has shown that even a relatively weak field (such as last year’s) can make for a memorable event.
This year’s field of contestants was imaginatively seeded by MLB according to raw home run totals as of last Tuesday, feeding 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. With the late withdrawal of Yelich, officials chose simply to insert Matt Chapman, whose 21 homers are tied with for 16th in the majors and fourth among participants, in his slot, presumably because the graphic designer who made this is taking the rest of the month off.
|6||Ronald Acuña Jr.||412||21||5.1%||8.0%||21.6%||94.3||422||14.9||7|
|8||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||253||8||3.2%||4.5%||12.9%||91.9||421||8.5||1|
While it’s fair to question the applicability of any of these statistics in such a non-game situation, it’s worth appreciating the numbers that do describe this group, particularly given the league’s lazy seeding procedure. 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 flies, their average projected home run distance, and their 2015-19 total of homers projected to travel least 440 feet (Bell’s seven leads this year’s pack, with Alonso second at six and Acuña third at four; no other participant has more than one). This year, I’ve also included barrel rate (barrels per batted ball event), which according to a new study by Devan Fink correlates best with recent Derby success.
Chapman (1) vs. Guerrero (8)
He’s no Yelich, but the 26-year-old Chapman is no slouch; thanks to his excellence at the plate and at the hot corner, he’s tied with Alonso for eighth in the majors in WAR (3.6). He tends to hit his home runs in clusters — five within a 12-game span in mid-April, six in a 12-game span in late May and early June, five in 10 games in late June — and is already within three home runs of his career high, set just last season. He’s hit 14 of his homers at the Coliseum, a venue with a 94 park home run factor for righties last year. Besides his overall total, he doesn’t rank all that high in any of the above metrics, though his 93.0 mph average exit velocity on all batted balls places him ninth in the majors overall.
As for Guerrero, the son of the Hall of Fame right fielder (and 2007 Derby winner) has gone from being the game’s consensus top prospect to the youngest Derby participant ever (20 years and 114 days, 116 days younger than Ken Griffey Jr. in 1990) in just months. Thanks to the service time shenanigans that delayed his debut until April 26, he’s about 29 PA short of officially qualifying for the batting title, and he’s the only player here in single digits in homers. He’s in something of a drought, too. Six of his eight homers came in a 16-game span from May 14-31; he has just one in his last 116 PA dating back to June 6. What he does have, besides the instant name recognition and a very bright future ahead, is distance: his 421-foot average ranks fifth among the 195 players with at least 250 PA, second only to Acuña among this slate. Oh, and it looks like he has his Derby stroke down:
Bregman (4) vs. Pederson (5)
This pairing features the field’s only two Derby veterans as well as the two players with the shortest average home run distances. Bregman didn’t get past the first round last year, but in losing, he did fall just one homer short against eventual runner-up Kyle Schwarber. Thanks in large part to his MLB-high 12 homers in May, the 25-year-old third baseman/shortstop is already within eight homers of last year’s career high. For as great a player as he is — currently tied for fourth in WAR (3.8) and tied for seventh in wRC+ (149) — he appears to be working at a distinct disadvantage here. His average home run distance is actually the seventh-lowest of the 195 players with at least 250 PA; he can thank Minute Maid Park’s Crawford Boxes, recipient of five home runs averaging just 363 feet. He’s in the bottom third of the 250-PA set in barrel rate, too. Those metrics don’t suggest that he has much of a shot to win, but as a franchise centerpiece-type star who’s answered the call to participate in this marquee event for two straight years, he deserves a hand for setting an example among his peers.
Pederson, who bowed to Todd Frazier in the Derby finals as a rookie in 2015, then fell into the kind of second-half slump (six homers, .178/.317/.300) that gives Curse truthers their ammunition, may not be very high in the distance or barrel rate rankings. However, he wields a particularly potent bat; as a platoon player, his 297 PA are 79 fewer than any player here besides Guerrero. He’s third in this field in terms of both HR/PA and HR/CON, and he’s a left-hander in a park that had a 105 park home run factor for lefties last year, compared to 98 for righties; the park is nearly symmetrical but the fence in left field is 19 feet high, compared to nine feet in center and right. The switch-hitting Bell and Santana are the only other contestants who can bat lefty.
Alonso (2) vs. Santana (7)
The Mets’ season is already a dumpster fire wrapped in a calamity, but the 24-year-old Alonso has been everything the team could have hoped for, and he deserves to be the top seed here with Yelich’s scratch. He’s been consistent, never going more than six games without homering — Yelich’s longest drought is eight games, Trout’s 11, Bellinger’s 12 — and distributing his output pretty equally across months, with nine in April and June and 10 in May; he’s also the only player here who homered on the day before the Derby. He’s the field’s leader in all of the rate stats, including barrel rate, and he can dial long distance; his six homers of at least 440 feet is second only to Bell. He’s a very reasonable pick to win the whole thing.
Santana will try to follow in the footsteps of Frazier, Harper, and Ryne Sandberg (1990) as the only players to win the Derby on their home field. Statistically, the only thing he really has going in his favor is that he leads the Indians in home runs; he’s just 35th in the majors overall, which matches his highest ranking in any of the other above categories (HR/FB). That said, his numbers as a lefty at home are much stronger. With 10 homers in 121 such PA, his 8.3% rate would top the field, as would his 12.8% HR/CON (nosing out Alonso), while his 30.3% HR/FB would be second to the Mets’ rookie. That home field advantage may be significant.
Bell (3) vs. Acuña (6)
This pairing is almost the mirror image of the Bregman-Pederson one, in that it features two of the field’s top three sluggers in terms of average distance (Acuña’s 422 feet ranks fourth in the majors, Bell’s 413 feet 18th). The 26-year-old Bell, who has already surpassed his career high in homers, has an MLB-leading seven shots of at least 440 feet and is one of only two players in the majors with multiple homers of at least 470 feet (Nomar Mazara is the other), capped by a 474-footer off the Reds’ Anthony DeSclafani on April 7 (see below); both were left-handed. No other participant has a 470-footer this year, though Acuña — whose four of at least 440 feet is tied for ninth overall — has two of at least 460. Hand in hand with Bell’s distance is his exit velocity; his average on fly balls is the fastest of the field by nearly one full mile per hour. If we’re considering only his plate appearances as a lefty, he actually homers with slightly less frequency (6.8% in terms of HR/PA, 9.8% in terms of HR/CON, and 27.4% in terms of HR/FB), though all seven of his long drives came from that side of the plate.
In addition to the aforementioned distance details, 21-year-old Acuña, who’s in just his second major league season, has the second-highest barrel rate of the field, though he barely edges Bell by 0.1%. Just nine of this year’s 21 homers, and 23 of his career total of 47, have been hit at SunTrust Park, which last year had a park home run factor of 95 for righties.
* * *
Given that you’ve read this far, you might want some predictions, and while I’m not going to claim to be an expert in prognostication, I will point out that I picked Harper to win last year. So here goes: Guerrero (in something of an upset), Pederson, Alonso, and Bell to advance, with Alonso besting Guerrero in a very entertaining all-rookie finals that hopefully will bring both sluggers back for more in the coming years.
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.