The 33rd inaugural MLB Home Derby will take place Monday night in Marlins Park. A recipient of a large amount of rule changes in its brief history, the Home Run Derby’s current format, instituted two years ago, is the simplest and best it’s ever been. Eight MLB sluggers split into two, four-person brackets compete to see how many home runs they can slug in five minutes. The winner of each match-up advances to the next round in a knockout format until there’s one man standing. The four representatives this year for the American League are Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, Mike Moustakas and Gary Sanchez, while the National League is headlined by reigning champion Giancarlo Stanton, Cody Bellinger, Justin Bour and Charlie Blackmon.
The MLB’s selection criteria for the Home Run Derby is a bit ambiguous. While the selection committee generally chooses players with strong power numbers, there is no statistic or ranking system to guide the choices. As a result, there is usually controversy over the inclusions and subsequent exclusions.
The MLB clearly cares about the marketing angle of the Home Run Derby just as much, if not more, than the fairness of the selections. Justin Bour, though a powerful bat, probably doesn’t make the contest if he played for someone other than the hometown Miami Marlins. Gary Sanchez probably doesn’t make the contest if he plays in a small market like Oakland compared to a massive one like New York. Charlie Blackmon…well that’s a tough one. Maybe the MLB would like to widen their appeal in lumberjack and flannel-wearing circles? Beats me.
Frankly, we here at FunGraphs don’t give a crap about the marketability of the Derby. We want to see the MLB’s most powerful sluggers ripping off massive dongs. But what’s the best metric for determining the most powerful sluggers? Simply looking at home runs is misleading, as lead off hitters garner more at bats and players who missed games due to injuries will be at a disadvantage. After much pontification and internal discussion, FunGraphs developed a new (at least I don’t think anyone else has done it) statistic called True Power Factor (TPF). It’s calculus is simple: total cumulative distance in feet on home runs divided by at bats. This stat a) rewards players who hit a lot of home runs, and b) especially rewards players who hit long home runs but c) doesn’t penalize players for injury or less frequent playing time. FunGraphs’ Derby bracket is based solely on TPF score, although two exclusions were made: Mike Trout due to injury, and Ryan Schimpf due to playing in AAA for the last month.
Aaron Judge / RF / New York Yankees (AL) – 41.5 TPF
This one was a no-brainer. Aaron Judge leads the majors in home runs (30) and total home run distance (12,492 feet), and is second in HR/AB ratio (10.0%) and average home run distance (416.4 feet, among those with 15+ home runs). His True Power Factor (TPF) score of 41.5 is the best in the league. Judge and his 6’8″ frame absolutely annihilate opposing pitching and he’s the odds on favorite to win the AL MVP at the half-way point. Not surprisingly, the smart money in Vegas views Judge as the clear favorite in the Derby, with his 3-to-1 victory odds besting Stanton’s 9-to-2.
Robinson Chirinos / C / Texas Rangers (AL) – 40.3 TPF
What? Who? Prior to 2017, Chirinos had been an average hitting backup catcher for the Texas Rangers for several seasons. Fast forward to July 9th, 2017 and Chirinos is still (regretfully) the backup catcher for the Rangers, however he has absolutely smoked the ball this season. While Chirinos’ nominal home run total of 12 is fairly pedestrian (although only one below Sanchez’s total), he’s managed to produce them in a mere 119 at bats. His 10.1% home runs per at bat is the best in the majors, while his TPF of 40.3 is second to Judge. Chirinos is also 5th in the majors in barreled balls per plate appearance. Chirinos’ progression at 33 years old is largely due to a mechanical adjustment which increased his flyball rate from a solid 45% in 2016 to a third in the MLB 57% in 2017. I get that Texas doesn’t want to ruin incumbent catcher Jonathan Lucroy’s value by benching him, but what gives at a certain point?
Freddie Freeman / 1B / Atlanta Braves (NL) – 40.1 TPF
A broken wrist in mid-May unfortunately squashed Freeman’s actual Home Run Derby hopes in the eyes of the MLB selection committee. But what Freeman did in the first six weeks of the season was truly special and deserves commendation. His 16 home runs across 161 at bats combine for elite HR/AB ratio of 9.9%, while his 40.1 TPF is comfortably in third. Freeman, always a good hitter, elevated his game to another level in mid-2016 and hasn’t looked bat. Given that Freeman has looked like his old self at the plate since his July 4th return, and is even manning a new position at third base, I think he could handle a Home Run Derby.
Cody Bellinger / LF / Los Angeles Dodgers (NL) – 39.2 TPF
The Dodgers are pretty spoiled, aren’t they? Los Angeles shortstop Corey Seager was a unanimous NL Rookie of the Year winner in 2016 and also a Home Run Derby participant. Another year, another young stud in a similar situation for Los Angeles. Bellinger’s 25 home runs at the break are second in the NL and fourth in baseball. He’s the easy choice for NL ROY and might even garner a decent amount of MVP votes. There’s been nothing fluky about Bellinger’s power either, as his 9.7% HR/AB ratio along with his 39.2 TPF are both fourth in the majors. He’s hit over 10,000 feet of home runs thus far this season, which is also third. Bellinger’s power stats are impressive on their own, but even more so when one considers that he’s only 21 years old. For some perspective, Aaron Judge was a 12 home run hitter in AA at the same age.
Joey Gallo / 3B / Texas Rangers (AL) – 35.0 TPF
Gallo, owner of generational power to go along with generational strikeout ability, is an absolute natural for the Home Run Derby. The format will neutralize his Kryptonite (breaking pitches), while emphasizing his prodigious power stroke. Gallo was reportedly invited to the actual Home Run Derby but graciously turned down the offer because he felt like there were more deserving candidates. That’s a damn shame, because Gallo absolutely golfs the ball. His average home run distance of 413.6 is sixth among players with at least 15 home runs. His 8.5% HR/AB ratio is fifth, which is impressive considering that Gallo strikes out in over 40% of his at bats. Not surprisingly, Gallo’s barrel statistics are off the chart, with his 20.6% barrels per batted ball second only to Aaron Judge. Hopefully Gallo considers himself good enough next season.
Joey Votto / 1B / Cincinnati Reds – 33.5 TPF
Joey Votto, arguably the best first baseman of his generation and a sure-fire Hall of Famer, has been a prolific offensive player for the last decade. But home runs weren’t really a huge part of his game until this year. Outside of a 37 dinger season in 2010, Votto never hit more than 29 home runs in a season. He’ll surely shatter that mark this year though, with an NL-leading 26 at the All-Star break. The surge is largely due to an increase in flyball rate from 29% in 2016 to 42% this season. Votto’s 10,512 feet of home run tape in 2017 is second in the league and his 33.5 TPF is sixth. Votto expressed interest in joining the 2017 Home Run Derby, but somehow never received an invite. Tsk tsk MLB.
Eric Thames / 1B / Milwaukee Brewers – 33.4 TPF
Eric Thames, a man with very large forearms, spent several seasons honing his swing in South Korea before returning to the majors in 2017 with Milwaukee. I’d say the trip across the pond was helpful, as Thames has terrorized MLB pitching to the tune of 23 home runs and and a .562 slugging percentage since his return. Like Votto, Thames expressed interest in participating in this year’s Derby but never received a call from the MLB. That’s an unconscionable decision, as Thames is 4th in the MLB in total home run distance, seventh in TPF and sixth in HR/AB. He’s also a tremendous reclamation story that would allow baseball writers and news anchors to spew hours of feel-good montages about perseverance and how baseball is more than just a game.
Logan Morrison / 1B / Tampa Bay Rays – 33.4 TPF
I was initially a little disappointed in Morrison for his hot take regarding Gary Sanchez’s selection to the Derby: “Gary shouldn’t be there…I remember when I had 14 home runs. That was a month and a half ago.” But after delving into the stats, Morrison was right. Not only is he tied for seven in the majors in home runs, he’s third in total home run distance and tied for seventh in TPF. The MLB was likely skeptical of Morrison’s sudden home run outburst, as his previous career high for home runs was 23 with the Marlins in 2011. But, like so many others on this list, Morrison changed his swing plane in an effort to hit more fly balls, and the resulting 46% flyball rate (up from 35% last season) is providing a sustainable avenue to more home runs.
The FunGraphs list features only two contestants actually participating in the Home Run Derby (Judge and Bellinger), as well as one who was asked to participate but declined (Gallo). It’s understandable that the MLB did not invite relative unknown Robinson Chirinos to the contest, and somewhat understandable that Freeman didn’t receive an invite while recovering from a fractured wrist. However, it is difficult to contemplate how Votto, Thames and Morrison were all spurned.
Stanton and Moustakas are perfectly understandable choices, as they both are top 10 in home runs and barely missed the cut based on TPF score. Stanton is also the reigning Derby champion and possesses some of the biggest power in the game. Sano is a questionable selection based on TPF alone, but I understand the pick given that he barrels the ball with the best of them. However, the Bour, Sanchez and Blackmon selections are without merit.
As discussed earlier, Bour was likely a home town favorite pick to make sure that mercurial Miami sports fans actually fill up Marlins Park for the festivities. Sanchez, outside of averaging over 420 feet on his home runs, shows little other justification for inclusion. His 6.1% HR/AB rate and 25.6 TPF are both well off the marks of Votto, Thames and Morrison. Blackmon is even more egregious, featuring a pedestrian 5.4% HR/AB rate and a middling 22.5 TPF score.
The Home Run Derby will be a good time either way, but the MLB certainly dropped the ball on some of the selections.