If you went into a lab and created the ideal Home Run Derby contestant, he'd look a lot like Yasiel Puig.
No, Puig doesn't boast gaudy power numbers. He hit just 12 home runs in the first half, the fewest among this year's derby participants, and none in the entire month of June.
Yet when the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder takes aim at the bleachers at Minnesota's Target Field on Monday, it's a safe bet he'll be the center of attention.
Yasiel Puig is practicing for the Home Run Derby. He's yelling "HOME RUN" after each of his BP swings, and I can hear it from the press box— Pedro Moura (@pedromoura) July 13, 2014
That's just how it goes with Puig. Love him or loathe him, he's a force of nature, an uncontainable mixture of muscle and moxie, brawn and bravado. He was born to perform.
Put it this way: The Home Run Derby needs Puig more than he needs it.
Once a must-see event that frequently overshadowed the Midsummer Classic itself, the derby has devolved into a sideshow. The new format is clunky and top hitters often skip it. (Though it remains a ratings winner, viewership for the 2013 derby was down compared to 2012, per TV By The Numbers, despite being held in New York, the nation's biggest media market.)
Part of that is the decline of the home run. In the post-steroid era, baseball is ruled by pitching, defense and situational execution.
Can Yasiel Puig save the Home Run Derby?
The days of the hulking slugger are, if not over, certainly numbered.
Really, though, that should make the prospect of power hitters doing power-hitter things even more intriguing. When middle infielders were hitting 50 jacks, it felt like overkill.
Now, when they do come, home runs are an event. A genuine spectacle.
And no one knows spectacle like Puig. His brashness rubs plenty of people—fans, commentators, fellow players—the wrong way. That's sort of the point: With Puig, no one is indifferent. His allure is undeniable.
He may be known for bat flipping. But when Puig has a bat in his hand, nobody's flipping the channel.
Or so Major League Baseball hopes. Puig's mere presence is enough to inject some intrigue. If he goes off, though, putting on a show complete with deep drives and over-the-top antics, it could propel the event back to relevance—this year and for years to come.
Remember: Puig is just 23 years old. If he has a good showing Monday, he could become a derby fixture and coax other stars to get in on the action.
Puig isn't the only derby participant worth watching. The Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton is a masher second to none. Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A's, Puig's fellow Cuban and the defending derby champ, shares his countryman's pop and flair for the dramatic.
Every member of the derby roster—which also includes Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, Brian Dozier of the Minnesota Twins, Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles and Josh Donaldson of the Oakland A's on the AL side, plus Todd Frazier of the Cincinnati Reds and Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Morneau of the Colorado Rockies on the NL side—is capable of wowing. That's why they're in the derby.
But with marquee names like Nelson Cruz, Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera opting out, the burden is on Puig to deliver the fireworks.
While Puig's first-half home run total doesn't turn heads, his home runs do. The average "true distance" of one of his dingers is 417.3 feet, according to ESPN's Home Run Tracker, fourth-best in all of baseball and second-best among derby participants, eclipsed only by Stanton.
|Player||Team||HR||Avg. Distance (ft.)||Longest (ft.)|
ESPN Home Run Tracker
"He has tremendous power,” said Tulowitzki, who as NL captain selected Puig, per the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez. “I’ve seen his BP a couple times."
Anyone who's watched a Puig batting practice (which, in essence, is what the derby is) can attest to the majesty—the sheer ridiculousness—of his moonshots.
An impressive derby display could also be a step toward the rest of the league accepting him, which has yet to fully embrace his irrepressible passion. Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis thinks it's already happening.
“There’s not as much venom from the other dugout," Ellis told the Los Angeles Daily News' Jill Painter. "He plays with so much heart and emotion. They know it’s genuine."
If Puig manages to make the derby must-watch TV, MLB will truly appreciate him.
He wasn't created in a lab. But when it comes to reviving baseball's premier power showcase, Puig might offer the perfect formula.