Why Does the Home Run Derby Poll Go Live in April?

Yesterday, Major League Baseball’s Twitter account tweeted a link for something called the Home Run Derby poll. I was curious. I had never heard of this being a thing before, so I wanted to take a look. The group chosen for the unofficial voting is a confusing group to say the least. The poll is unofficial, which already makes it sort of odd, but the candidates for it were not optimally chosen. Once I investigated a little further, I realized why — it’s released way too early in the season.

Major League Baseball has been conducting this poll since at least 2011. So right away, we know that the ballot that fans are voting on right now is not the result of some feeling out process. To cut right to the chase, here’s the ballot we’re working with this year:


This went up on April 25th, the same day that the All-Star Game ballot was released. Looking at this today, it looks more than a little bit foolish. Prince Fielder is out for the season, and while Bryce Harper may be active by the break, he’s certainly not deserving of being an All-Star this year, and the fans have accounted for this in the All-Star Game voting. But with a much more limited field in the Home Run Derby poll, he’s still among the leaders:


Whether he’s healthy or not, it’s doubtful the Nats will let Harper compete, so his inclusion here amounts to little more than a tease.

Beyond that, several of the players listed on the ballot don’t place very highly on the home run leaderboard. In fact, cross referencing this list with the home run leaderboard as of Thursday night, seven of the top 10 home run hitters aren’t on this list. That’s not to say that the 20 nominees need to be simply a list of the top home run hitters, but you’d hope that more than three of the top 10 home run hitters would be represented. Here’s how the 20 players have fared this season:

Home Runs & Ranks for Derby Poll Members, 2014
American League HR HR Rank
David Ortiz 16 T-9
Mike Trout 16 T-9
Jose Bautista 15 T-13
Yoenis Cespedes 14 T-17
Miguel Cabrera 12 T-24
Chris Davis 12 T-24
Carlos Beltran 6 N/A
Robinson Cano 4 T-119
Prince Fielder 3 N/A
Joe Mauer 2 T-144
National League HR HR Rank
Giancarlo Stanton 20 T-3
Troy Tulowitzki 18 5
Paul Goldschmidt 15 T-13
Pedro Alvarez 11 T-34
Yasiel Puig 11 T-34
Buster Posey 9 T-53
Jason Heyward 8 T-62
David Wright 6 T-79
Jay Bruce 5 T-97
Bryce Harper 1 N/A

I put N/A for rank for those players who do not currently qualify for the batting title. Obviously, we can rank them.

Nearly half of the candidates haven’t reached double digits in homers. Mauer stands out as a pretty embarrassing selection. Cano has hit fewer home runs, and while that stood to reason given his change in home ballparks, he’s probably still hit fewer than even his new digs would dictate. Carlos Beltran has missed time, but also clearly has lost a little of his enormous luster this year. His isolated power is the lowest it has been since 2010. David Wright is similarly having a down year — his slugging percentage is below .400 for the first time in his career. And Posey and Heyward just seem like odd choices in general. Neither player sniffed 20 homers last season, and neither are anywhere relevant on the home run leaderboard this season either.

Perhaps, I thought, they were included because the league wanted past participants, so that they would have comfort in knowing that these players have done it and would likely do so again. But that isn’t the case either:

Last Home Run Derby for Derby Poll Members
American League Last HR Derby?
David Ortiz 2011
Mike Trout Never
Jose Bautista 2012
Yoenis Cespedes 2013
Miguel Cabrera 2010
Chris Davis 2013
Carlos Beltran 2012
Robinson Cano 2013
Prince Fielder 2013
Joe Mauer 2009
National League Last HR Derby?
Giancarlo Stanton Never
Troy Tulowitzki Never
Paul Goldschmidt Never
Pedro Alvarez 2013
Yasiel Puig Never
Buster Posey Never
Jason Heyward Never
David Wright 2013
Jay Bruce Never
Bryce Harper 2013

Only three of the 10 NL picks have participated in the Derby before. The American League is a much different story, as the participation in recent years has been much more robust. Only Trout hasn’t competed before, but then he hasn’t had a ton of opportunities to either. And aside from Mauer, everyone else has competed in one of the past four Derbies.

Ah, yes, Mauer. Since the game is being played in Minnesota, there’s likely to be a member of the Twins present. MLB undoubtedly and understandably wants a player for whom the home crowd can cheer. Back in April, Mauer was a good bet. But that’s the thing about baseball, you just never know. Here we are on June 20th, and Mauer is sitting on two homers and Brian Dozier, who is now the team’s best bet for an All-Star, is sitting on 15, which ties him for 13th with Jose Bautista and Paul Goldschmidt. If the poll had been released this week, Dozier would almost certainly be on it and Mauer wouldn’t be.

All of this begs the question, why does MLB send this poll live in April? With the All-Star Game ballot, there will be the occasional new starter who gets left off the ballot, but for the most part it is very inclusive. The Home Run Derby poll, however, is far from inclusive. Sure, you can write in players, but who’s doing that? You’re clicking six of the 20 names here and hitting submit, if you do it at all. And as such, it behooves MLB to get this right. And the only way to get it right is by waiting.

Don’t believe me? Well, let’s walk through it. Who are some of the biggest NL names not on this ballot? To me, three that pop out right away are Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez and Mark Trumbo. They are either star players, prodigious home run hitters, or both — and all three have participated in the Home Run Derby in the past. One problem. Trumbo and Gonzalez are banged up, and if they had been chosen back when this went live in April, they’d look like foolish selections today as well.

There’s also the issue of breakout rookies. While perhaps the All-Star Game itself should be conservative with selecting phenoms, there’s no reason to hold back in the Derby, especially since the participants now not need be All-Stars. Jose Abreu was tied for second in the majors with seven homers on the day the ballots were announced, and even if you thought that fluky at the time, it clearly doesn’t look like that now. Now, he has 20 homers and is still in the top five, and that’s with having missed a few weeks to injury. He might be the current home run champ otherwise. Perhaps George Springer and his 12 homers in 55 games would also be enticing.

Why does any of this matter? In a vacuum, it doesn’t. There are enough great players on here, and as MLB’s tweet shows, the voting leaders, sans Harper, will be fine candidates if they are indeed tapped by the Commissioner’s Office or the Home Run Derby captains or whoever is really in charge of the selection process. But in the larger picture, it’s just another data point that suggests MLB doesn’t know its product as well as it should. As Ferris Bueller taught us, life moves pretty fast. People barely care about the All-Star Game itself in April, but it’s necessary to open the voting that early if you want to have paper ballots in the ballparks, and that remains a fun tradition. But the Home Run Derby and the informal poll that accompanies it shouldn’t fall under the same umbrella. The Home Run Derby is supposed to be fun, as is everything associated with it. It should pass the eye test. Now, perhaps I’m on an island here, and I’m the only one who clicked that link yesterday and saw two injured stars and scratched my head at a handful of others who I don’t consider to be home run hitters on the list. But I don’t think that I am.

Either way, starting the balloting around now, when we are starting to think All-Star break, would help build buzz for the event and ensure that fewer mistakes are made. The All-Star Final Vote has shown that fans are more than willing to stuff the virtual ballot box on short notice. There’s no reason that the Home Run Derby poll should be any different. MLB already carries the perception that it lags behind the other leagues in creating stars. The best way to create new stars is get the Home Run Derby right — it’s one of two nights when all the eyes of the sports nation turn to MLB (with the other being the All-Star Game). And by releasing a poll in April that is limited to 20 people, the only way it will ever be right is by accident. That’s not good enough.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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9 years ago

Just make it Stanton vs. the field, and base the results in three categories:

– Most HRs hit (as usual)
– Longest ball
– Max decibel level