Here's how to spice up the Home Run Derby

This is not another column about how the unprecedented 2019 surge in home runs across baseball ruined the sport. It’s not about how the record-breaking pace has rendered comparative statistics meaningless. It’s not about how soft pop flies the other way sneaking over the fence fail to deliver the kind of dramatic continuous action that critics complain is missing from the sport. It’s not about how each league-wide benchmark left in the dust makes the whole thing feel increasingly like an act of collective willful ignorance. It’s not about how, now that we have incontrovertible proof plus the commissioner himself copping to the fact that the ball is to blame, it’s time to consider whether this year will be the beginning of a new era in extra-bouncy baseballs or a blip that leaves a season’s worth of superlatives with asterisks next to them.

But it is about how all of that made me reconsider what I want out of the Home Run Derby.

I bet that Pete Alonso will hit a whole bunch of homers tonight. But not one of them will be as interesting or impactful any of the 30 he’s hit so far this season. That’s always been true of the midsummer exhibitions, but the appeal of the derby has been the spectacle of seeing nothin’ but dingers — except don’t you feel like that’s every game this year?

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The first three months of the season have inspired an epidemic of home run fatigue and now as a respite we get the game’s most powerful and prolific home-run hitters smashing…more home runs? The solution isn’t to change the skill being showcased — even at a critical mass, the home run is the most aesthetically awe-inspiring standalone event — but rather to add an element of surprise by virtue of the lineup.

As it stands, the derby features the players who are the best at hitting home runs off really good pitchers who are trying really hard to prevent them from making solid contact hitting home runs off tailor-made intentional dinger-fodder. It’s a leveling down of the difficulty and I don’t see why that would make it more exciting. I guess you could make the fences further or the associated pyrotechnics flashier or, and this is my personal proposal to spice up the derby, you could feature participants for whom going yard at all would be an incredible sight.

Let’s just cut to the chase: If Ichiro Suzuki, who (lets not forget) was in a major league lineup this very season, was part of the 2019 Home Run Derby, it would be the biggest appointment-viewing of the baseball calendar. That was true last year when Mariners manager Scott Servais’ joke to that effect took on a life of its own with columnists demanding that Ichiro (who never hit more than 15 home runs in a single season) be honored for his career as part of a national showcase in a way that also tested the rumors of his legendary longball power. It was a good take then, and it was a good take when it first surfaced in 2011. All the home runs this year just help to justify how his inclusion wouldn’t need to be an aberration on the existing form; it could be the advent of a new kind of derby altogether.

Of course, maybe Ichiro doesn’t want to participate in the derby (although maybe ask him again now that there’s a million dollars on the line) but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon the spirit of this suggestion. The derby doesn’t count. So why not make it all about honorific incongruity?

Anyone else think it would be interesting to see Madison Bumgarner, a pitcher, in the Home Run Derby? (Getty Images)
Anyone else think it would be interesting to see Madison Bumgarner, a pitcher, in the Home Run Derby? (Getty Images)

I want to see Madison Bumgarner (the subject of plenty of unconventional derby discussions himself) face off against Jacob deGrom. I want to see this year’s first overall draft pick Adley Rutschman face off against old man Albert Pujols. I want to see minor league home run king Cody Decker, who retired just yesterday after a final walk-off bomb, challenge Chris Carter, who leads the Mexican League in homers after getting squeezed out of MLB. The Futures Game MVP should earn a derby berth for his performance. As should the annually awarded buffest manager. Introduce audiences to international players for the first time and honor aging legends once more on a national stage.

And even if it is all just an exhibition, it doesn’t hurt that for many of these men, the prize money would be meaningfully motivating and even life-changing (admittedly, that could get delightfully out of hand.) It’s a chance to balance the silliness of an un-home run-hitters derby with some real stakes.

The point is not to turn the derby into a celebrity softball game-style farce. Hitting tons of home runs over the course of 162 games is a display, an honor, and a feat in and of itself. But on derby day, I want to see ballplayers trying their hardest to demonstrate just how powerful they are despite a lack of regular-season slugging production and, along the way, serve as a testament to how impressive each home run really is — even this year.

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