The official 2017 Home Run Derby is Monday night at Marlins Park, but one could argue that the entire first half of this Major League Baseball season has been an endless Home Run Derby, as power hitters from coast to coast are on pace to smash the league’s home run records out of the park.
One of every 6.8 hits was a homer through the end of June, and 11 players had already reached 20 home runs with more than half the season to go. Last season, a record 111 players finished the year with 20 or more homers. That number could reach 130 this year.
Batting practice is becoming as entertaining as the games in many parks. Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees’ 6-7, 282-pound rookie phenom, draws huge crowds for BP at home games, where fans watch from a “Judge’s Chambers” seating area and show up in black robes and long white cotton wigs. They “ooh” and “aah” as the slugger crushes towering fly balls over the fences in every direction.
In early May, Judge obliterated a TV set on the left field terrace at Yankee Stadium with a blast that traveled in the neighborhood of 475 feet. A few weeks later, in Oakland, he knocked two into the Plaza Reserve upper level, nearly hitting an unsuspecting fan in the head.
Judge’s major-league-leading 30th home run Friday broke Joe DiMaggio’s franchise record for rookies, and according to Statcast, he also boasted the hardest hit (121 mph) and longest (495 feet at home against the Orioles on June 11) homers of the season.
The question now is whether Judge can dethrone defending Home Run Derby champion Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins outfielder and face of the franchise who has 26 home runs this season. Stanton recorded the longest home run in recent years when he belted a 504-foot moonshot on Aug. 6, 2016. The showdown between the hulking hitters promises the be one of the most sizzling events of the All-Star festivities.
“It’s the kind of a thing where we both have to talk about all the time but don’t even know each other, or said hello,” Stanton said. “It’s like the twin you’ve never met, I guess. Everyone’s comparing us to each other. We don’t even know each other.”
Marlins Park is one of the stingiest ballparks in the majors in terms of allowing home runs. Since it opened in 2012, the only stadium that has yielded fewer home runs is AT&T Park in San Francisco.
But the eight sluggers in this year’s Home Run Derby are powerful enough to clear the fences at any of the league’s parks.
Stanton was the first player to accept an invitation for the 2017 Derby, setting the stage for what should be a fun night for Marlins fans. He will be on his home turf and hopes to repeat last year’s performance in San Diego, when he belted 61 homers over three rounds to beat Chicago White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier.
Judge won the College World Series Home Run Derby in 2012, and he ranks second all-time behind Mark McGwire (33 in 1987) for most homers by a rookie in the season’s first half. Consider that Judge averages one home run every 10 trips to the plate.
“I’m pretty sure the excitement will be through the roof,” Judge said.
Said Stanton: “I think it will be the most exciting one in a long time, actually. Some good lefties in there to get that upper deck. Power righties, also. So it’s going to be good.”
Stanton and Judge are the headliners, but there are plenty of other power hitters who could put on a show.
The rest of the field includes the Marlins’ Justin Bour, the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez, the L.A. Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, the Minnesota Twins’ Miguel Sano, the Colorado Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon and the Kansas City Royals’ Mike Moustakas.
Judge and Blackmon were already headed to Miami as fan-elected starters for Tuesday’s All-Star Game. Sano, Stanton, Bellinger and Sanchez were selected as reserves.
Sanchez has an average exit velocity of 109.8 mph, second only to Judge among players with 10 or more home runs. He missed a month of the season with a biceps injury but still managed 13 home runs.
Bellinger became the first rookie to hit 10 homers over 10 games. Although he did not make his major-league debut until April 25, he led the National League with 25 homers. The 21-year-old is also known for his perfect left-handed swing, reminiscent of Ken Griffey Jr.
Another lefty to watch is Moustakas, who has 25 home runs.
Although all eyes will be on Stanton, he insists he feels no pressure. “I’m going to have fun. I don’t care. I’ve already won one, so I’m really just having fun. It’s not life or death.”
Stanton is bringing back Pat Shine, a former Marlins assistant coach who pitched to him in last year’s Derby, to throw to him again. Bour will use Marlins outfield coach Lorenzo Bundy.
This will be the third year with the new format, which features players racing against the clock in a head-to-head bracket format.
Babe Ruth once said of hitting home runs: “I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball. In boxing, your fist usually stops when you hit a man, but it’s possible to hit so hard that your fist doesn’t stop. I try to follow through in the same way. … I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”
These days, players are stronger than ever and swinging bigger than ever. Pitchers are throwing harder, bats are made better, balls are tighter, and skeptics would argue there may be performance enhancers that get by the current testing.
“I’m going to try to wear out the upper deck,” Bour said. “I think it’s going to be a great event. The ball is going to be flying everywhere. You don’t really do this thing just to compete. [But] if Stanton or I win, that would be great.”
Miami Herald sportswriter Clark Spencer contributed to this report.
HOME RUN DERBY PARTICIPANTS
Seeded player: 1. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins
Outlook: The reigning champion defends his title in his home ballpark, which could be a good thing for Stanton, who has hit 94 of his career home runs at Marlins Park. Stanton broke records for most homers (61) in Derby history at Petco Park last season and his longest traveled (497 feet). He has 26 so far this season.
Seeded player: 2. Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees
Outlook: Judge has been the story of the season in the majors and became the first Yankee rookie ever to hit 30 or more home runs in a season, surpassing Joe DiMaggio’s record (29). With many comparing the young power hitter to Stanton due to his powerful swing and comparable physique, many around baseball have their fingers crossed that Judge and Stanton will meet in an epic final round.
Seeded player: 3. Cody Bellinger, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers
Outlook: While Judge has made an almost air-tight case for Rookie of the Year in the American League, Bellinger is making his own mark among rookies in the National League with 25 homers. His timely and powerful bat and versatility on the field have been major reasons the Dodgers head into the break with the best record in the NL.
Seeded player: 4. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
Outlook: Moustakas, with 25 homers, nabbed a spot in the Derby and later a spot in the All-Star Game by finishing first on the AL Final Vote ballot. Two years removed from winning a World Series championship, Moustakas is chasing the Royals’ team record for homers in a season (36) set by Steve Balboni in 1985.
Seeded player: 5. Miguel Sano, 3B, Minnesota Twins
Outlook: Like his first-round opponent Moustakas, Sano has never hit a ball in Marlins Park. Don’t be surprised if he gets acclimated quickly, though, as 35 of his 63 home runs during his first three seasons in the majors have come at road parks. Sano (21 HRs) could prove to be one of the sleeper contenders in this year’s competition should any of the favorites falter.
Seeded player: 6. Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado Rockies
Outlook: The oldest player in the Derby is having one of the best hitting seasons of any player at his position. He enters the break with the most homer (20) of any center fielder, and earlier this season hit a ball 458 feet. Can he duplicate the success he has had at hitter-friendly Coors Field in Miami is the question.
Seeded player: 7. Justin Bour, 1B, Miami Marlins
Outlook: Bour’s powerful lefty bat could prove to be an advantage if he can pull some to the right-field stands as he does often at his home park. Bour overcame an awful April in which he hit only .222 with four homers with a spectacular May in which he hit .344 with 11 home runs. Bour (20 HRs) has the tallest task of anyone in the first round — literally and figuratively — as he is bracketed against Judge. But an upset could really make things interesting especially if his teammate Stanton also gets far enough to meet him in the final.
Seeded player: 8. Gary Sanchez, C, New York Yankees
Outlook: The Yankees’ second-year catcher’s first-half home run totals are low (13) since he missed most of April with a biceps strain. But while he received sharp criticism from former Marlin Logan Morrison, one of the league’s leaders in the category this season, Sanchez has proven his home run potential with 33 in his first 112 career games.
ANDRE C. FERNANDEZ