Handicapping an All-Time MLB Home Run Derby at Citi Field
If you had a time machine and could pick any player in his prime to participate in a home run derby at Citi Field in 2013, who would you choose?
It's a simple question that has no practical application (...yet?), but it's fun to debate anyway.
My money is on Ken Griffey Jr. and the sweetest swing in the history of mankind, but perhaps you prefer Mark McGwire, Roger Maris or Babe Ruth.
There's obviously no right answer, but let's look back at 12 of the most prolific individual seasons of baseball yore and place some hypothetical odds on who would win.
The selection process was a simple one: If a player ever hit more than 55 home runs in a single season in their career, they made the cut. That singular criterion conveniently narrowed the field to the following six American League sluggers and six National League mashers.
Fortunately, Citi Field has fairly standard dimensions:
Left field: 335 feet (102 m)
Left-center: 358 feet (109 m)
Deep left-center: 385 feet (117 m)
Center field: 408 feet (124 m)
Deep right-center: 390 feet (121 m)
Right-center: 375 feet (114 m)
Right field: 330 feet (100 m)
The walls stand eight feet tall all the way around the outfield. Right-handed pull-hitters have a slight advantage by swinging for 358 in left-center instead of 375 in right-center, but it's hardly enough to demote left-handed hitters in our minds.
Hack Wilson, 1930 Cubs
Home runs that season: 56
Home runs in career: 244
Odds of winning derby: 100 to 1
You've most likely heard of Hack Wilson in connection with the all-time record for RBI in a single season. His 191 RBI in 1930 is a record that might never be broken. Miguel Cabrera is leading the league in RBI right now, but he's on pace to come up short of Wilson's record by 25 RBI.
But we're not talking about RBI. We're talking about home runs. And Wilson held the record for most home runs in a season by a National League player for 68 years until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa changed that in a big way.
However, he had a lot of help from the baseballs of that era.
The league-wide batting average in 1930 was higher than in any previous season and higher than it has been since. They changed the composition of the baseball prior to the 1931 season and offenses immediately suffered. Runs, home runs and batting average dropped substantially in the span of one offseason.
Unless we're also bringing baseballs from 1930 into the time machine to pitch to Wilson, I find it hard to believe he would hit anywhere near as many home runs as he used to hit. So before you go complaining that the players with the best odds were using steroids, just know that some of these older players had the benefit of hitting juiced balls.
Roger Maris, 1961 Yankees
Home runs that season: 61
Home runs in career: 275
Odds of winning derby: 40 to 1
The funny thing about Roger Maris is that if just two of his 61 home runs in 1961 had come up short—something which arguably would have been the case if he wasn't playing half of his games at notoriously-friendly-to-left-handed-hitters Yankee Stadium—history would have pretty much forgotten about him by now.
Instead, we're arguing about whether his home run total should still be considered the official single-season home run record because there's no incriminating evidence of him using any sort of performance-enhancing drugs.
In terms of career WAR, he's just barely ahead of Aramis Ramirez and a little behind Carl Crawford. On the all-time home runs list, he's tied for 167th with Dean Palmer and a not-yet-30-years-old Prince Fielder.
Yet that one season mandates that we include him on this list of the game's greatest sluggers.
He has a chance to win, but only if we change the venue to Yankee Stadium and put 1961 Mickey Mantle in the competition as well to keep him motivated.
Hank Greenberg, 1938 Tigers
Home runs that season: 58
Home runs in career: 331
Odds of winning derby: 30 to 1
I promise we'll eventually get to some players who actually hit home runs during our lifetime, but we have to pay our respect to our elders first.
Hank Greenberg's career numbers are a bit misleading. He missed out on more than four full seasons of his MLB career because of his service to our country during WWII. Even still, he's remembered as one of the best home run hitters in the history of the game.
Considering he averaged 43 home runs per year in the four years before the war and still came back to hit 44 in his first full season after the war, it's safe to assume he lost close to 200 home runs. There should really be an honorary spot for him on the list of players who hit 500 career home runs.
Regardless of what could have taken place in the 1940s, 1938 was a pretty memorable season for the Hebrew Hammer. His 58 home runs matched Jimmie Foxx's total from 1932 for the most since they de-juiced baseballs in 1930, as mentioned in Hack Wilson's slide.
Luis Gonzalez, 2001 Diamondbacks
Home runs that season: 57
Home runs in career: 354
Odds of winning derby: 25 to 1
Everyone remembers Luis Gonzalez for his little flare past the infield that won the World Series for the Diamondbacks in 2001. Unless you don't remember that, in which case, here you go.
Long before that memorable game seven, however, Gonzalez inexplicably hit 57 home runs during the regular season and won the 2001 home run derby—amid quite the collection of names eventually linked to steroid abuse.
So why isn't Gonzalez higher on this list?
I'm just not buying it. Sue me.
Gonzalez had one good season, never topping 31 home runs in any other season of his career. Even though we're only concerned with what each player did during his peak season, I'd like to at least see some sort of prolonged success before I go picking a guy to beat some of the best sluggers in history.
Jimmie Foxx, 1932 Athletics
Home runs that season: 58
Home runs in career: 534
Odds of winning derby: 20 to 1
We've finally made it to a member of the 500-HR club. With just one exception, the remaining players on the list each hit at least 530 home runs in their career.
1932 was Foxx's best season, but you could literally pick any season in the 1930s and he would at least be competitive in this derby. Foxx hit at least 30 home runs in 12 consecutive seasons from 1929 through 1940, which was the all-time record until Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez each did it for 13 straight seasons.
Legend has it that it was Foxx, not Mickey Mantle, who hit the longest home run in the history of Yankee Stadium.
Though there are arguably more well-known names further up on the list, Foxx seems to be the most likely candidate to put on a show akin to what Josh Hamilton did in 2008.
Alex Rodriguez, 2002 Rangers
Home runs that season: 57
Home runs in career: 647
Odds of winning derby: 18 to 1
Alex Rodriguez may have been aided by performance-enhancing drugs during his career, but his odds of winning this derby of all derbies are damaged by his actual production in the 2002 derby. If it weren't for Lance Berkman, Rodriguez would have finished in dead last.
The theories that Rodriguez is unable to come through in the clutch are somewhere between debatable and completely inaccurate, but it certainly seems like he's incapable of handling the pressure of a home run derby.
Mark McGwire, 1998 Cardinals and Sammy Sosa, 1998 Cubs
Home runs that season: Mark McGwire 70, Sammy Sosa 66
Home runs in career: McGwire 583, Sosa 609
Odds of winning derby: 10 to 1 on each
It was literally impossible to mention one without mentioning the other in 1998, so we might as well lump them together into one slide 15 years later.
Public perception has retroactively changed quite dramatically, but McGwire and Sosa made September 1998 perhaps the most exciting month in the history of baseball.
On the short list of "I remember where I was when" moments in my life, I distinctly remember sitting on the floor in my swimming trunks in front of the television at my grandparents' house when McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the season. I had never seen a Roger Maris highlight in my life, but I knew how important that number was.
Whether or not they were using steroids, they sure knew how to put on a show. There are only six instances in MLB history of a player hitting more than 61 home runs in a season, and McGwire and Sosa have five of them.
Why aren't they getting better odds, then?
Frankly, I think their odds would have to be at least this long for anyone to gamble on them. Considering how inseparable they were in 1998, most would either avoid both of them or bet on both of them at what equates to 5-1 odds.
Ryan Howard, 2006 Phillies
Home runs that season: 58
Home runs in career: 311
Odds of winning derby: 9 to 1
The interesting wrinkle here is that Ryan Howard actually won the home run derby in 2006, so there's a bit of a precedent of success in addition to what he did during the regular season.
No one has ever questioned Howard's power. His 198 home runs from 2006-2009 were good for 33 more than the next best slugger over that stretch of time.
The hesitation to fall in love with him has always been due to the strikeouts, but fortunately, you can't strike out looking in a home run derby.
He didn't fare quite as well in subsequent derbies, hitting just three home runs in 2007 and bowing out in the semifinals in 2009. (It's a shame he didn't compete in 2008. It would've been even more of a blast to watch both him and Josh Hamilton take advantage of Yankee Stadium.)
However, we're only concerned with his 2006 season, when he incredibly hit 58 home runs and, even more incredibly, batted .313 (he hasn't topped 48 home runs or .279 since then). That version of Ryan Howard was one of the best home run hitters of all time, and he would at least give some of these other sluggers a run for their money.
Barry Bonds, 2001 Giants
Home runs that season: 73
Home runs in career: 762
Odds of winning derby: 7 to 1
The all-time leader in career home runs and single-season home runs has the third-shortest odds.
Well, ask yourself this: Would you bet on Barry Bonds? Could you stomach rooting for one of the most hated baseball players of all time?
As Robinson Cano demonstrated last year in Kansas City, it can be pretty difficult to succeed in a home run derby when the entire stadium is booing you.
Also, do you remember that Bonds finished in fourth place in the 2001 Home Run Derby? Or that he only finished in first or second place in one of the six derbies in which he participated during his career?
My guess is that Bonds would get knocked out in the first round and no one would be too upset about it.
Babe Ruth, 1927 Yankees
Home runs that season: 60
Home runs in career: 714
Odds of winning derby: 5 to 1
It's Babe freaking Ruth.
What more do I need to say?
Ruth is the reason that the odds for the other old-timers are so long. Think about it: If you're going to bet on someone who retired before you were even born, aren't you picking the Sultan of Swat?
When the Great Bambino retired in 1935, not only did he have the most career home runs in baseball history, but Lou Gehrig was the only person within 400 home runs of him on that list.
Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds have since bypassed him, but considering how much greater he was than his peers at the time, it's hard to argue that there has ever been a better slugger in history.
However, I would argue that one guy is more equipped for a home run derby...
Ken Griffey Jr, 1998 Mariners
Home runs that season: 56
Home runs in career: 630
Odds of winning derby: 3 to 1
He might not be the logical or the statistical favorite, but Ken Griffey Jr. is certainly the sentimental favorite to everyone between the ages of 23 and 45.
When I mentioned to a friend that I was writing this article, his response was "Griffey. Duh. Enjoy your two-word article."
Griffey won the derby in 1994, 1998 and 1999 and finished in second place in 1992, 1993 and 2000. Sammy Sosa is the only other person to have finished in the top two more than twice, having done so in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
There was just something about that sweet swing and backwards cap that made him almost unbeatable. In a field of some of the greatest sluggers of baseball history, Griffey is the favorite to take the crown.
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