Here’s why MLB should double down on the underappreciated Home Run Derby

More than a day later, the Home Run Derby is still top of mind, which is appropriate — because to me, it deserves to be talked about on more than one day a year. Especially this year.

It doesn’t tell us who baseball’s best batter is or even provide a reliable barometer of who hits the ball hardest. It’s a random collection of guys, some widely recognizable and others who walk down the street without turning one head. It’s not designed to mean much except a million bucks to the victor.

But it’s awesome.

Going into this year’s event, both home runs and the Derby were nursing seriously bad reps. MLB is on pace to shatter its single-season record for home runs, the 2017 mark of 6,105, by a lot. All-Star pitcher Justin Verlander claims the baseballs are juiced, which MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred denies even though a league-commissioned study of the ball concluded it has less drag and thus travels farther and thus — well, you get the picture.

Many baseball diehards actually want to see fewer home runs in the game. The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga argued that the proliferation of homers this season is “slowly killing baseball.” As for the Derby, it has long had its critics. Pitcher Zack Greinke before last year’s event said: “I expect the home run derby will be boring and I’ll leave early.” If he lived up to his promise, he missed Bryce Harper win in bonus time to the delight of his then-home fans at Nationals Park. Short-memory media members scoffed at the event, the lead-up full of suggestions to change it beyond recognition.

I wonder how they feel now. The 2019 version was spectacular, and yes, we’re still talking about it. On Thursday, even as games resume. It got an epic run in the Twitterverse, according to folks with far more statistical data at their fingertips than me.

The players cared. And when athletes with abnormally high ability and competitive spirit streaking through their veins truly care, the result is usually pretty entertaining.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made it special early on, every swish of brutal poetry unmissable. Guerrero sent ball after ball into the stands, 91 in all, one of them marvelously crashing against his own facial image on the scoreboard. Those tinted dreadlocks made it look even cooler, but the most compelling sense of wonder came in trying to figure out how such momentum and force could be generated by the human frame.

It was a physicist’s delight, an absorbing blend of timing and tempo.

Guerrero slammed 29 in the first round, a single-round record, but things were just warming up. His semifinal, a remarkable matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Joc Pederson, saw both players belt 29, then another 21 combined in what went to the Derby’s version of triple overtime before Vlad Jr. prevailed.

As for Guerrero, he didn’t even win the whole thing, managing “just” 22 in the final and being pipped by New York Mets rookie Pete Alonso.

Amid it all, the fans were clamoring and leaping for baseballs. With 312 of them belted, you’d almost feel unlucky if you went home without one.

People aren’t talking as much about regular season baseball as MLB would like. But multiple media outlets have hailed this as the best Home Run Derby in history. The winner surely liked it, as well as the outcome.

“It was special, there were so many guys who put on a show,” Alonso said. “Just going out there and showcasing young talent in the game. I thought it was really entertaining to watch. I had some time to sit back and soak it all in. This is fun.”

Yes, the Derby is mindless fun, and it correlates in no way to the actual science of winning at baseball. But it’s better than the NBA’s dunk contest or whatever other made-for-TV concoctions we can dream up.

The diehards will never get behind our love for the long ball. Baseball purists hate it, but baseball purists are a dwindling breed. Fact is that modern America loves celebrity, and the biggest celebrity athletes in a social media-driven world come far more heavily from the NBA and NFL.

It is then, with tongue firmly in cheek that I suggest the following, mainly because it has zero chance of being implemented: Let’s have even more Derby action. That’s right, more. Given that Alonso’s success brought some cheer to Mets fans amid a miserable season, let’s play with that idea some.

Whoever wins the Derby becomes the HR king, but has to defend his crown over the back half of the season, like a boxing title belt. Once per series, the champ squares off against the top hitter (or selected player) from the opposition.

Stage it just before the start to get some extra bums in seats. Let it add spice to a time of year when many teams have nothing to play for. Perhaps it adds to the attendance on nights when the title is in play.

Perhaps MLB chiefs will read this and be convinced. Perhaps the purists will go back and watch a replay of the Derby and change their mind. Perhaps pigs will fly. But be sure of this: whatever you think of baseball’s power surge and its merits, the sport needs some big hits in its bid to appeal to a changing public — and this year’s Home Run Derby was one.

Source: Fox Sports

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