The Easiest Possible Fix for the Home Run Derby

I’ll grant that, maybe in Major League Baseball’s eyes, there’s nothing wrong with the Home Run Derby. Fans still turn out in droves, and the TV ratings are fantastic, so the Derby always seems to do well. Players get a kick out of attending, and I’m not exposed to the opinions of the average baseball fan. But I know I’ve never met anyone older than six who loves the entertainment the Derby’s supposed to provide. I know I don’t much care for the Derby, myself, and I actually just had to Google it to make sure it was happening tonight. I’ve live-blogged the last few, but out of obligation, not desire, and focusing on writing allowed me to not focus on the show.

I guess we can play the hypothetical game, kind of like when people write about the gameplay rule changes they would make if they were commissioner. The Home Run Derby is easily dismissed, and when the participant field is announced each year people complain about snubs. I think we can agree that long, impressive home runs are more entertaining than a handful of wall-scrapers. During the Derby, those are the home runs that draw the loudest reactions. So in an effort to boost the competition’s entertainment value, I propose a very simple adjustment. It’s an adjustment that could have sweeping effects.

Right now, there are three rounds. There’s a round of eight players, each getting ten outs, then there’s a round of four players, each getting ten outs. The two players with the most combined home runs advance to the championship, where they get one more set of ten outs each. This is the familiar scoring system, and it’s not like the Derby hasn’t given us a few worthwhile memories in its time. But I think the scoring system could be changed. Instead of tallying up total home runs, the winner could simply be the player who hits the longest dinger.

It would be a significant change to the rules, and it would be conceivable that a player could win the whole thing by hitting just one ball out of the yard. That’s not what the Derby has been about, but tradition isn’t an argument against change, and this could be the ticket to a Derby worth putting on and paying some modicum of attention to.

Right away, the selection process for participants would be different. Instead of picking guys who have a lot of home runs, the selectors would look for guys capable of hitting mammoth home runs. And this is what a lot of us have always wanted — we’ve wanted to see, say, Wily Mo Pena get a crack at it. Not to see how many homers he could hit, but to see how far he could hit them. That’s where the real entertainment is, at the extremes of human ability. If Michael Cuddyer wins tonight’s Derby with, I don’t know, ten dingers in the final round, and they’re all around 390-420 feet, that’d be good for him, but that wouldn’t make great TV. Cuddyer probably isn’t a threat to push 480 or 500.

Maybe you still have league captains. Maybe you have an official selection committee. Maybe each team nominates one player, and then somebody else narrows the field down. Right now, the Home Run Derby totals 140 outs or so. That’s for eight participants. Given this proposal, you’d do away with the tournament structure and you’d just have one round. Say, 12 players, and ten swings each. Or eight players, and 15-20 swings each. That would make the Derby faster, in case that’s a priority. The numbers aren’t set in stone.

True, home-run distances are based on a calculation, and calculations involve potential errors. Distances aren’t as matter-of-fact as whether or not a ball left the yard. The distance calculations are complicated, and above a lot of people’s heads. But it’s not like we’re talking about something like UZR. People have long been comfortable citing distance calculation results, no one really questions them, and every player in this hypothetical tournament would be getting measured by the same calculations and factors so there’d be little reason to believe the results are messed up.

True, you can already watch the Derby and see who hit the longest home run, because they make that data available. But because that isn’t how the tournament is judged, people care less about the distances, and the players selected in the first place are different. Yeah, there’s overlap, and Yoenis Cespedes, for example, should put on a good show. But people are looking forward to Cespedes specifically because he can hit the baseball so far.

In the NHL Skills Competition, there’s a challenge for the hardest slap shot. The hardest slap shot needs to go into the net in order to have its speed calculated. But the winner isn’t the guy who gets the most slap shots on goal — it’s the guy with the fastest slap shot. Right now, the Derby rewards consistency of home runs instead of impressiveness of home run(s), and that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. At least, it doesn’t seem like the optimal thing to do.

Do it this way, and you don’t need to worry about park factors (not that anyone really does). Different ballparks will have different home-run factors for lefties and righties, and that’s an unspoken bias. Citi Field, for example, seems to make it a little easier for lefties to go deep, and that might influence tonight’s results. Go by distance and it doesn’t matter, or it just matters less. There’ll still be different wind patterns, maybe, but the dimensions will be negated.

Do it this way, and there’s drama throughout until the very last pitch. Under the current setup, you still can’t really know until it’s over, but you can have a pretty good idea. With this proposal, every single pitch and swing would have the potential to be the winner. You could go into the final swing of the tournament, with the hitter having to top, say, 485 feet, and there would always be that chance. Each pitch would be more interesting, and one would be less likely to suffer from Derby fatigue.

Already, some players accuse Derby participation of messing with their swings. Rewarding the longest home runs might encourage even worse habits, maybe. But we’re talking about just a handful of swings, over a four-day break, and they wouldn’t be meaningfully different from ordinary Derby swings, if at all. Maybe there’d be a slightly greater risk of injury, but there’s already an injury risk, just as there is in the playing of the All-Star Game. There are risks in sports and you can’t avoid them.

You’d keep the Derby pitchers the same. You’d forget about outs and go by swings. You’d bring in the hardest-hitting sluggers, some of them widely familiar, some of them largely unknown. And you’d sit back and watch. Home runs are exciting during games because they’re important and unexpected. During the Home Run Derby, you’re supposed to have home runs, so to entertain, a home run has to clear a higher bar. The goal should be to amaze, and I think this could potentially do wonders for the event. Also get rid of Chris Berman too.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Why not have both awards?