New Home Run Derby Format Could Lead to Epic Contest Dud

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New Home Run Derby Format Could Lead to Epic Contest Dud
Matt York/Associated Press
If not for Giancarlo Stanton, would this year's Home Run Derby be worth watching?

While it's a widely accepted fact that chicks dig the long ball, they're not the only ones. Just about everybody loves to watch big leaguers swing for the fences, which is what they'll get to do over and over during Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby on Monday night at Target Field in Minnesota.

There's reason to wonder, however, whether this year's baseball-bashing will measure up to some of those from recent years.

In case you haven't been paying attention over the past week, the sluggers who'll take their cuts have been selected. Captain Jose Bautista invited Brian Dozier, Adam Jones, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes—the reigning champ—to make up the home American League five-man squad.

The National League will challenge with Justin Morneau, Todd Frazier, Yasiel Puig and Giancarlo Stanton, who shares the NL home run leader at 21 with captain Troy Tulowitzki.

There are a few noteworthy changes being implemented this year:

  • The field of contestants has expanded from eight to 10
  • Each player will get seven outs instead of 10
  • Hitters will compete in a bracket-style format

These are no small switches to an always-popular event, but are they for the better?

After all, the Home Run Derby gained must-see status in the late-1990s when Ken Griffey Jr. was sporting his backward cap and winning consecutive contests. That's when the ante was upped, leading to Slammin' Sammy Sosa making annual efforts to hit more out than anybody else, which he did in 2000 at Turner Field in Atlanta. 

Pretty soon, just about every big-name homer hitter—from Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi to Albert Pujols, Jim Thome and David Ortiz, among plenty of others—was ready and willing to engage.

More recently, though, it feels like the derby has become a bit like the just-get-it-over-with NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Especially because some of the best in the game—from Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera to Jose Abreu and Nelson Cruz—have taken to passing on mashing. Even when extended invitations from fellow players acting as honorary captains, which has been the case since 2011. 

The primary goal in changing things up, it seems, is to improve the pace of the derby, which, admittedly, does tend to drag on. Considering baseball has been trying for years—unsuccessfully—to do just that for actual games, this is ironic, no?

With the new format, though, baseball and especially the participating sluggers will lose the ability to seamlessly compare players' performances against those of the past.

As much damage as Stanton does to baseballs, the fact that he'll get only seven outs this year—three fewer than in past derbies—makes it unlikely that we'll see something really special. Like, say, that record 28-homer round from Josh Hamilton at old Yankee Stadium in 2008. Or Bobby Abreu's 24 home runs in the first round in 2005 at Comerica Park.

The same goes for the record when it comes to total long balls hit in one derby, which belongs to Abreu, who finished with 41 overall that same year to win it.

So even if Cespedes becomes the first player to repeat as winner since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1998-99, he'll have a nearly impossible time trying to match his 32 homers from a year ago with fewer outs to work with. 

Speaking of Cespedes, he's also one of only three contestants this time around—along with Morneau, who hit just four in 2007 before winning in 2008 (yes, he beat Hamilton); and Bautista, who reached the 2012 finals after struggling in his first go the year before—with any previous derby experience. Like, at all.

That's partly because there's less enthusiasm for the event from players these days. One complaint, of course, is that taking all those swings at max effort is exhausting. There's also the fear that the derby messes with one's swing, which may or may not be true.

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"The biggest thing is just the big swings you take over a period of time; you can get beat up a little bit," Trout told Samantha Zuba of the Los Angeles Times while recalling his entry in a derby in the minor leagues a few years ago. "It's tough on your body."

While these are understandable reasons, they make it less likely that a hitter who's tried it once or twice before will have another go. Hence, Cabrera, the reigning two-time AL MVP who made it to the semis in 2006 and again in 2010, said thanks but no thanks. Ditto for Nelson Cruz, who came in second to Prince Fielder in 2009 and whose 28 home runs are second-most in baseball heading into the break.

Perhaps the biggest problem that could play out with the alterations to the event this year? Forcing the hitters' hands by ensuring that one from each league will make it to the final round in a head-to-head battle for the title.

Sure, that might add some narrative to the finale, but what if one or more contestant who puts on a show in the early rounds gets passed up in the end by an other-leaguer who squeaked out of the competition on his side of the bracket?

A big factor in the derby is the fun interaction and crowd-building momentum a particular player gains along the way by performing well. To see that happen early on, and then potentially watch said slugger have to bow out because of the format, is undercutting some of the anticipation and support gained by a contestant.

Imagine Stanton and Puig—two of the most exciting, can't-take-your-eyes-off-them players in baseball today—go bonkers. Well, only one of them can make it all the way to the finals.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press/Associated Press
It's possible Yasiel Puig could hit the second-most homers through three rounds of the derby and still not reach the finals.

Inserting a bye into the middle does the same thing, since we'll have to wait that much longer to see the two players who hit the most home runs in their respective leagues step into the box again.

If Dozier goes all little-engine-that-could and surprises everyone by hitting the most out in Round 1, well, Minnesota Twins fans won't get to see their hometown slugger again until Round 3.

Beyond all of this, there's the potential problem that is Target Field, which happens to be one of the more homer unfriendly ballparks in baseball. It ranked 27th out of 30 in the home run aspect of ESPN's park factors last season.

"[Target Field] is not the best place to hit home runs," Tulowitzki said to Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com. "But I don't think it matters for some of these guys. They can hit it out of any park."

That's true, but it's just another issue—and possible concern—to consider.

Jim Mone/Associated Press
Target Field isn't exactly a homer haven.

Are these changes to the Home Run Derby as dramatic and drastic as, say, having the All-Star Game decide home-field advantage in the World Series? No. But for an event that already has undergone a number of "fixes" over the course of its history, the latest ones feel more like searching for a solution to a problem that wasn't necessarily there in the first place.

In fairness to what's usually a fun-to-watch exhibition, let's see how things play out Monday evening. If the derby loses some luster, at least the changes will—mercifully—bring the evening to an end a little sooner.

 

Statistics are accurate through July 13 and come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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