With Lack of Star Power, Is the HR Derby Becoming the New NBA Dunk Contest?

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2018

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge watches during batting practice before a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Friday, June 1, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Last season, Aaron Judge won MLB's Home Run Derby with tape-measure bombs like this one, which traveled 513 feet and may or may not have landed yet.

Other alluring, top-shelf sluggers—such as Judge's now-New York Yankees teammate Giancarlo Stanton—took hacks, and the 2017 Derby enjoyed a concurrent 55 percent ratings bump over the 2016 version. The annual fence-clearing exhibition was arguably a bigger event than the All-Star Game itself.

Just as suddenly, it's reverting back to an afterthought. 

In May, Judge announced he wouldn't defend his title. When asked during spring training if he felt participating in the Derby contributed to his second-half slump and postseason shoulder surgery, Judge replied, "I would rather not say," per George A. King III of the New York Post.

"Even if [MLB officials] reach out, it's still my decision and what I think is best for me," Judge said, per King.

Other larger-than-life bashers—including Stanton and the Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez—are likewise leaning away from partaking, according to FRS Baseball's Jon Heyman.

The league, Heyman noted, has made overtures to Bryce Harper. The Derby and Midsummer Classic will be played at his home field, Nationals Park. Plus, Harper does commercials for T-Mobile, a Derby sponsor. Still, Harper has yet to sign on. Heyman deemed his participation "a long shot."

Mike Trout, the game's best player and current home run leader, has never participated and isn't likely to start now.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals bats against the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Nationals Park on June 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Those are established stars. What about the younger generation, which should be eager for the exposure? They're not especially enthusiastic either.

On Wednesday, Yankees rookie Gleyber Torres removed his name from consideration.

"I'm not a home run hitter," he told Ken Davidoff of the Post. "I'm a contact hitter."

That sounds like the Derby-declining equivalent of the old breakup cliche, "It's not you, it's me." Torres has 14 homers in 51 games. Pretty good for a contact hitter.

What gives? Why is there so little interest among players?

Perhaps it's the oft-cited belief that straining to hit moon shots can screw up swing mechanics or cause injury. Perhaps it's that teams see more downside than upside in letting their prized lineup cogs aim for the fences in an ultimately meaningless sideshow. 

Then again, it's all entertainment in the end. And last year's Derby was entertaining, as Judge, Stanton and others bashed balls into the upper decks.

Now, it may go the route of the NBA's Slam Dunk Contest, a once-hyped event that basketball's biggest stars routinely skip and that has crumbled into a ho-hum novelty.

Speaking of novelty: On Wednesday, Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais floated Ichiro Suzuki as a Derby candidate.

"He's got power and he's been launching balls into the seats [in batting practice]," Mariners manager Scott Servais said, per Scott Orgera of the Associated Press (h/t SeattlePI.com). "A couple of coaches said the other day, 'You know, no one wants to do this Home Run Derby. Why don't we just send Ichiro? He'd be awesome.'"

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 20:  Ichiro Suzuki #51 of the Seattle Mariners looks on during batting practice prior to the game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 20, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. New York Yankees defeated the Seat
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

If you love baseball, you love Ichiro. And his batting-practice flexing has become the stuff of legend over the course of his surefire Hall of Fame career. He's also 44 years old, never hit more than 15 homers in an MLB season and, oh by the way, isn't an active player.

Yet Servais' tongue-in-cheek comment inspired a legitimate social-media campaign, complete with the hashtag #IchiForDC

Maybe it's time for baseball to make the Derby an unvarnished circus act, with aging legends such as Ichiro against power-hitting pitchers; the San Francisco Giants' Madison Bumgarner voiced his desire to participate in 2016.

Heck, why not bring back disgraced former sluggers, such as Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco, to play the heel while they swing from the heels? 

We're kidding, obviously. The point, though, is that the Derby could soon become a joke if all of baseball's preeminent hitters opt out. If a homer lands in the stands and no one is around to catch it, does it make a sound?

Last season, Judge and his 500-foot taters made it appointment viewing.

This season, the choice of Judge and others to sit on the sidelines is a harbinger of disinterest to come.

                

All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com.

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