By: Sam Rowley
The new format of the Home Run Derby is here, and I'm here to give you the pros and cons of the system. Let's just say I thought it was a grand slam.
Over the years, baseball’s Home Run Derby became the same mundane event. The league’s best sluggers came up to the plate, each allotted unlimited swings to hit as many home runs as possible before recording 10 outs. Due to lengthy rounds and few home runs, baseball fans steadily lost interest in the Home Run Derby. These days are over. Major League Baseball has wisely taken action to combat the declining interest in the derby by introducing a completely new format to the event. Eight participants are now placed in a single elimination tournament bracket featuring many dramatic matchups. The MLB eliminated the 10 out system and introduced a four minute clock in which players try to hit as many home runs as possible. Participants were given one timeout per 4 minute round and were awarded bonus time for homers hit that exceeded lengths of 420 feet or farther. The field featured some of baseball’s established stars and some of baseball’s youngest studs.
Many had mixed feelings about the new format heading into this years derby on July 13 at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. Looking back on the event, here are my Pros and Cons of MLB’s new derby format:
The main problem with the old format had always been the length of the event. Fans quickly lost interest in a lead-up event for the all star game that regularly took at least three and a half hours to complete. The new clock certainly spiced things up. Gone are the days when hitters would let multiple strikes go by before belting a pitch from seemingly the identical part of the strike zone, leaving fans and the pitchers scratching their heads. This year sluggers went up to the plate hacking. We saw Texas Rangers DH Prince Fielder hitting line drive bullets into the right field bleachers and saw Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson hit bombs to the opposite field. This made the event far more interesting and concise.
More Home Runs
The new format led to far more home runs in a single event than any of the previous years. 159 home runs were hit in this years Home Run Derby, more than twice the number of home runs hit in the 2014 Home Run Derby (78). After all, fans buy tickets to the Home Run Derby to see as many home runs as possible. This is also made the derby exciting to watch and was great for the fans sitting in the outfield bleachers.
A phrase typically used only in basketball can now be applied to the Home Run Derby. There were several instances in this derby when batters raced against the clock to squeak in a few more home runs before time expired. In his first round matchup, Angels first baseman Albert Pujols beat Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant with a dinger as time expired. This injected much needed excitement into the event by putting tremendous pressure on players to produce with little time remaining.
The new format involving a clock also forced players to make decisions on how to manage their time. Under the old format, winning the derby only required pure brawn. Winning this years derby required not only raw power, but strategy as well. Each slugger was given one 45 second timeout per round and they all had to choose when to best use it. On top of this, players also had to decide in the heat of the moment whether to gamble by working quickly and trying to hit as many home runs as possible or to play it safe by staying composed in the batter’s box and guaranteeing themselves a decent amount of home runs. Do you think meathead Yoenis Cespedes of the Detroit Tigers, winner of the past two derby’s, could handle this extra element? Yeah, I don’t think so either.
Second Hitter’s advantage
In each matchup in this bracket style tournament, the second batter of the head to head competition had a distinct advantage. They knew exactly how many home runs they had to hit to advance to beat their opponent and how to pace themselves throughout the round. Meanwhile, the first batter of the matchup, the one who set the number for the second batter to beat, had no idea how hard to push himself in the final minute of his round. Should he keep his composure and rhythm in the box and guarantee himself a few dingers in the final few minutes or should he gamble and swing at every pitch he sees hoping to hit as many out as he can, risking fatigue for potential future rounds or making weak contact and not hitting any out? The second batter had this information, giving him a distinct advantage. In fact, only once in the entire derby did the first batter of a head to head matchup advance to the next round (Joc Pederson’s upset of Albert Pujols in the semifinal by a score of 12 to 11. I love you Joc).
In each matchup that came down to the last few seconds, the last minute for each batter was ugly as hell. Those who were forced to pick up the pace due to matchup scores heading into the final minute of their round began taking low quality swings in hopes of connecting for just a few more home runs. With pressure building and fatigue setting in, many resorted to tomahawking pitches and swinging at stuff they wouldn’t even swing at in games. I am a firm believer in that even taking a few bad swings can throw off the entire swing all together and I’m sure some potential contestants for future home run derbies think the same thing as well. Taking multiple, low quality swings under competition stress not only compromises swing mechanics moving forward, but also opens the door for injury as well. I won’t be surprised if this dissuades players from participating in the derby in the future. (Alex Rodriguez cough cough).
Let’s get this straight. Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier won the derby because he cheated. I get it. People are all happy because he won the Home Run Derby in his home park in front of all his fans after losing in the finals last year. No doubt about it he sacked up when he hit 15 home runs to beat Joc Pederson’s 14, but he cheated and here’s why: With the clock put into effect, Major League Baseball also established a rule that a player could not swing at the next pitch until the ball he had just hit had landed. In the final, Todd Frazier blatantly disregarded this rule while young Joc obeyed it. Often times he would hit consecutive home runs with the second one being hit before the first one even made it out of the park. He knew he had to work hard to beat the 14 home runs hit by Joc Pederson, so he found a loophole in the system. It also pisses me off that no one was enforcing this rule and that no one had the balls to stop him and let him know he was cheating. In fact, Todd Frazier had done this in each of his matchups in the derby. Coincidentally, he took 36 swings in each round, far more than any of the other contestants. In the final, Joc Pederson’s home run to swing ratio was far higher than Todd Frazier’s. Joc Pederson deserved to win. Also Kris Bryant was victim of this rule as well. Bryant lost to Albert Pujols in the first round by a score of 10 to 9. Bryant hit several skyscraper height fly balls and was forced to wait several seconds for them to land before he could take his next swing. Had he disobeyed this rule, no one would have stopped him and he likely would have hit a few more home runs with that little extra time. This would have given the win in the first round and would have put him in the semifinal with Joc Pederson, which would have been an intriguing matchup as both appear to be standout candidates for NL Rookie of the Year. Someone has to enforce this rule going forward as this is a big flaw of the new system.
Overall, the pros of this new system far outweigh the cons. Major League Baseball did what it had to do to address the problems with the old system. The event now is more concise while far more exciting. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, maybe even by next year, if the Home Run Derby earns higher TV ratings than the all star game. This year’s derby earned a 4.9 TV rating, up from a 3.9 rating last year, while this year’s All Star game earned a 6.6 TV rating, down from a 7.0 last year. In order for the success of the Home Run Derby to continue, Major League Baseball must make sure that there is a player from the team that is hosting the All Star festivities participating in the Derby. There is no doubt that hometown hero Todd Frazier stole the show by winning the derby in his home ballpark in front of 42,319 Reds fans. Major League Baseball, I applaud you for taking the necessary steps in improving this event. To say the change made was a home run would be an understatement.