What Can MLB Do to Fix, Spice Up the Home Run Derby?

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What Can MLB Do to Fix, Spice Up the Home Run Derby?
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I would say that Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby is dying a slow death, but, well, that would be stretching the truth a bit too far into "damn dirty lie" territory.

You see, the Home Run Derby actually did pretty well the last time it came around. MLB reported that the 2012 version, won by Prince Fielder, saw a ratings spike and considerable buzz generated on Twitter.

So no, the Home Run Derby isn't dying a slow death. And yeah, I'm going to watch it. Odds are you are, too. We're all baseball fans here, after all.

We can, however, all agree on this: The Home Run Derby could use a few tweaks. It may not be dying a slow death, but the novelty has worn off, and we really all watch it out of habit more than anything else. It would be nice to actually, you know, be legitimately excited to watch it for a change.

What sort of tweaks could help? Here are a few ideas, most of which are actually mine.

 

Listen to Tom Verducci and Bust Out the Brackets

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY

This is the big idea that's not actually mine. I only wish it was, because it's an idea that has the kind of brilliance/simplicity balance that makes one slap his head and go, "Stupid brain! Why didn't you think of that?!"

The idea comes from Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, and it can be summed up with one word followed by the word "yo" for the sake of maximum coolness:

Brackets, yo.

If you've forgotten the Home Run Derby format, it goes like this: Eight players start, four advance to the second round based on their homer output in the first round and so on. It's not a horrible format as far as formats go, but Verducci's idea is better.

In his words:

Here's how it works. You get 16 participants. The nine leading home run hitters are guaranteed entry. The host team gets one entrant. (It still boggles the mind that Justin Upton wasn't selected in Arizona nor Billy Butler in Kansas City.) The defending champion also gets a spot. That leaves five wild card entrants. The Home Run Derby Committee, a panel of baseball officials and media personnel, will select the wild cards based on . . . well, let's be honest: you pick the five remaining guys people most want to see.

The committee seeds the players one through 16 -- not based strictly on leagues or home run totals (though the two guys with the most home runs should get the 1 and 2 seeds), but generally on the most entertaining matchups. This is entertainment, folks.

It works like the NCAA brackets. You go head-to-head against another player. It's one-and-done or survive-and-advance.

It's simple stuff, and it's not hard to imagine how a format like this would heighten the sense of competition.

That's a problem, in particular, with the first round of the current format, as most of the time there's no telling what it's going to take for the hitters to advance to the next round. They spend the bulk of the first round just hitting homers and having fun, and it's only towards the end of the round that the threshold for entry into the next round becomes clear.

Verducci's bracket idea would fix that. With a one-on-one format, one guy would set the bar and the next guy would have to beat it. Repeat seven times for the first round, four times in the second round, etc. The sense of competition would be constant.

And yes, all sorts of fun could be had with the first-round matchups. Verducci floated Bryce Harper vs. Mike Trout as a possibility, as well as Miguel Cabrera vs. Prince Fielder. I'd prefer Trout vs. Cabrera, but you get the idea. 

Would it have to be 16 players? Not necessarily. That sounds like a few too many to me, and a Derby of that size could easily become watered down seeing as how MLB can't force the players it wants in the Derby to participate (more on that later).

But hey, Verducci's bracket idea would easily work with eight players, the field size that MLB is already using for the Derby. That would make for an easy transition that could be carried out with no headaches whatsoever.

So that takes care of how to improve the format. How about the pacing?

 

Implement Swing and Pitch Count Limits

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Because Verducci is a thorough fellow, he did stop to propose a solution for how to improve the pacing of the Home Run Derby.

His idea: Rather than 10 outs, give each Derby contestant 10 swings per round.

That's not that many. For some perspective, Josh Hamilton took a whopping 38 swings (28 homers plus 10 outs) when he did this in the first round back in 2008:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Limiting swings is a start, but I'm thinking Verducci's proposal could use some fine-tuning. 

My problem with a strict 10-swing limit is that it would effectively eliminate super-fun-happy home-run sprees like the one Hamilton went on in Yankee Stadium five years ago. Say what you will about them taking forever, but it's sprees like these that make the Derby worth watching.

So here's what I propose: a 20-swing limit that would leave the door open a crack for super-fun-happy home-run displays.

But here's the catch: These 20 swings would have to happen within 25 pitches. If a player hits the 25-pitch limit before he hits his 20-swing limit, then tough luck, Jack. You're done.

Rules such as these would eliminate one of the most maddening aspects of the Home Run Derby: contestants letting pitch after pitch go by. Give them a set number of swings and a set number of pitches, and they'll be hacking away with regularity. 

Now that we've tackled improvements for format and pacing, we can move on to scoring.

 

Make Distance Count for Something

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

We don't sit down to watch the Home Run Derby in hopes of seeing scores of ordinary home runs. 

No, what we want are homers like this:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And this:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The good news? We get plenty of these home runs in the Derby every year. There are always going to be line drives and pop flies that barely clear the fence, but the moonshots do happen.

The bad news? The long ones don't count for anything.

And that's bogus. A 450-foot home run may be worth the same thing as a 380-foot home run in a regular game, but the Home Run Derby should be different. It's an event that celebrates the awesomeness of the home run, so particularly awesome home runs should be worth a little something extra.

My proposal: Have home-run distance serve as a tiebreaker. If two players hit the same amount of home runs in a given round, the one advancing would be the one with the longer average distance.

Such a rule could easily come in handy in a bracket format where hitters only get a certain number of swings and pitches to work with. Ties could happen often, and it wouldn't be in MLB's best interest to slow down what would ideally be a fast-moving process by resolving ties with tiebreaker rounds. It would be easier just to go to the tale of the tape.

And then there's the potential upshot: Make distance count for something, and you might get contestants trying harder to send the ball into orbit. The result could be more moonshots and, thus, more awesome for the cameras.

And yes, Major League Baseball could do the contestants a favor by making it easier to hit moonshots.

 

Juice the Ball

Rob Carr/Getty Images

I wanted to do some crowdsourcing on Sunday evening, so I went on Twitter and asked people for their ideas on how to improve the Home Run Derby.

A couple of people had a common suggestion: aluminum bats.

It's not a bad idea, but it's also a tricky and potentially dangerous idea. The Home Run Derby already has a reputationone that's not necessarily a mirage—for being a swing killer. I worry about that reputation getting worse if hitters are forced to adjust to aluminum bats for a few hours for the sake of some silly competition.

And yes, I agree with what one of my followers pointed out: Aluminum bats would mean totally unnecessary danger for the people sitting down the foul lines. 

So instead of aluminum bats to make the ball go super far, here's a better idea: juiced balls.

You can go ahead and accuse Home Run Derby baseballs of already being juiced, but this is something SB Nation's Rob Neyer actually sought to find out last year. He went up to some people from Rawlings and asked them point-blank if Derby balls are juiced and got a plain answer.

"Nope," said a Rawlings guy, "they're exactly the same balls."

Go ahead and shout "Lies!" if you want, but the company's reasoning adds up:

It's just not worth it to us to make that few balls, special. The NCAA's asked us to do it for their home-run derby, and we said no. Anyway, the only way to make the ball go farther would be to wind the yarn tighter, and if we do that it won't meet the specs.

I'll say this: Seems legit.

But now I'll say this: Humbug, how hard (i.e. expensive) can it possibly be to arrange for some special juiced balls for the Home Run Derby?

If MLB really wants to increase the general hype of the Home Run Derby, the league would fling some money at Rawlings and tell them to devise a special juiced-ball wing in a baseball factory somewhere. It would only be used once a year, but it would be worth it. Introduce juiced balls into the Home Run Derby, and you're going to get 500-foot blasts flying left and right.

That would be fun. And you know what else would be fun?

Actually arranging for the right guys to hit these blasts left and right.

 

Only the Contestants the Fans Want to See

Norm Hall/Getty Images

If we're being fair, the Home Run Derby is already pretty good at including star players. This year's contest is going to include major league home run leader Chris Davis, two-time Derby champ Prince Fielder, 20-year-old wunderkind Bryce Harper and hometown heroes Robinson Cano and David Wright.

That's a darn good field, as is the case most years.

The fields, however, are rarely perfect. There's always that one guy...

For example, I don't think there were that many people itching to watch Brandon Inge tee off back in 2009. Or Chris Young in 2010. Or Rickie Weeks in 2011. Or Michael Cuddyer this year.

Going to Verducci's bracket format would help solve the problem, but he's kidding himself in thinking that putting the top nine home-run hitters in the league, one player from the host team, the defending champion and five wild-card entries into the Home Run Derby would actually work. We all want the Home Run Derby to be as awesome as possible, but MLB can't start forcing players into the event.

Instead, what MLB should do is make good use of what's already in place.

Fans are already allowed to vote for whom they want to see in the Home Run Derby, but it shouldn't just be about figuring out which player is the top fan favorite. The league should first set aside a spot for a hometown player and then use the fan voting as a means to draw up a definitive list of Mr. Populars. Then it would just be a matter of putting out calls to those guys and seeing who's interested.

That simple. MLB would end up with a Home Run Derby field consisting only of fan favorites, which is exactly how it should be.

Combine this tweak with a bracket format, swing- and pitch-count limits, a distance tiebreaker and juiced balls, and you've got a recipe for one hell of a show.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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