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MIAMI — Quickly, without looking, who won baseball’s Home Run Derby in 2014? Better yet: Name a great thing that happened in the 2014 Home Run Derby?
Anyone? Anything? Any moment that’s remembered even three years later?
Oh, but something very important did happen that year. The Home Run Derby got so weird and convoluted and — frankly — bland that Major League Baseball had no choice but to re-imagine it, to find the answers to what ailed it and, ultimately, to figure out the code to make it a must-see event again.
As New York Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge proved Monday night at Marlins Park, with one blistering swing after another, with one oh-my-God-did-you-just-see-that homer after the next, the Home Run Derby has reached peak baseball porn. It’s an event to gawk at, to thoroughly enjoy, to marvel at the muscle and to rise to your feet as a home-run loving baseball fan when Judge puts on a show like he did to capture the trophy.
And it might have given MLB’s All-Star week a new sense of swagger with its drama-filled, action-packed, can’t-deny-it enjoyability. By the way, Yoenis Cespedes won the 2014 derby. But baseball fans have won every year since then.
This is the story of how Major League Baseball looked in the mirror after the 2014 Home Run Derby and decided it wasn’t working. And then how MLB fixed it.
It started with two things in 2015: a bracket and a clock. Once that formula was in place, the derby just needed two more things — a monster named Giancarlo Stanton to win it in 2016 and an even bigger monster named Aaron Judge to take the new format to another level Monday.
Judge hit 47 homers. The derby trended all over the Internet. Fans screamed in the concourse of Marlins Park when it was over about how wonderful it was. The derby wasn’t just back. The derby — like one of Judge’s 500-foot homers — was blasting to new heights.
“We feel really good about it,” Tony Petitti, MLB’s chief operating officer, told Yahoo Sports after the event. “It’s great when you can take something that you’ve been doing for a long time and make it feel new.”
It was Petitti who initialized and oversaw the rejuvenation of the derby after he took his position in 2015, which is when commissioner Rob Manfred graduated from the COO position to his current role. Together, they set to make the derby something that fans would love again.
After that 2014 derby, the blemishes were obvious. The derby was trying too hard. The league had tried many things to make it interesting again. Like appointing captains and having them draft derby teams. Or inserting bye rounds into the format. The sluggers were batting against “outs” — swings that weren’t homers — rather than a clock or an opponent, so they’d take pitch after pitch looking for the perfect one and the derby would drag on and on.
“We felt like the thing that was hurting the event was guys taking a lot of pitches,” Petitti said. “The format was tough to understand. We just wanted to make it simple.”
The bracket idea had been floating around for a while. Tom Verducci, writing in Sports Illustrated back in 2013, gave significant momentum to brackets as a solution. Petitti gives credit to Hall of Famer John Smoltz for stopping him once and telling him, “the derby would be so much better with a clock.” Soon enough, after working closer with the MLB Players Association, a great combination was born.
“We all see how great brackets are,” Petitti said. “They’re an easy thing for fans to understand.”
The new format debuted in 2015, stunning in its simplicity. Hit as many homers as you can in four minutes. If you hit more than your opponent, you advance.
When that first buzzer-beating homer flew over the fence in 2015, sending Todd Frazier past Josh Donaldson and eventually onto a Home Run Derby victory, it was obvious Major League Baseball had broken the code. This was what the derby should be. Then came Stanton and his stunning 61 homers in 2016. Then Judge, who laid waste to everyone in his path Monday night.
If 2015 was the year the Derby found itself again, then 2016 was the year the mojo returned and 2017 was the year it became baseball’s foremost extravaganza.
When it was all over Monday night, when Judge hoisted the trophy looking like a create-a-player from a video game, baseball talk was dominating Twitter. Of the top 10 trending topics, seven were about the derby. The other three were about reality TV — “The Bachelorette,” “Love and Hip-Hop” and “The Real Housewives.” Yes, this revived version of Home Run Derby had returned baseball to being that type of a conversation starter.
“Our expectations were really high given the power that these guys had,” Petitti said.
So, did this beat expectations?
“It really did,” Petitti said. “There’s a lot of pressure on these guys. People expected them to put on a really good show and they more than delivered. Aaron Judge, as great as a first half as he’s had, I don’t think anybody expected him at that level.”
There was Judge’s decisive victory — another celebration of baseball’s recent spree of young talent — but there was so much more. Every matchup in the derby bracket was determined by just one homer. Many of them went down to the final seconds. That’s high drama.
There was the great first-round finish between Cody Bellinger and Charlie Blackmon, in which Bellinger hit a homer in the final few seconds of his round that went far enough to trigger an extra 30 seconds of swing time. Then he beat Blackmon in bonus time.
There was Judge’s unbelievable first round, in which he hit 23 homers – including one off the roof — after Justin Bour hit an also-unbelievable 22 homers right before him. Judge had two paths at that point, become a first-round disappointment or turn into the Joey Chestnut of dingers. Chomp the competition he did.
Even before the last homer fell Monday night, there was talk about the derby becoming the main attraction of MLB’s All-Star week. The potential for a Judge-Stanton matchup had ratcheted up the anticipation the past week. And tickets were a hot commodity.
But MLB thinks pitting the derby against the All-Star game itself is a false dilemma.
“It’s not one or the other,” Petitti said. “We’re trying to put on two great shows.”
Half the equation is done this year. Because thanks to Aaron Judge and a thriller of a night, baseball fans won’t have trouble remembering what happened at the Home Run Derby three years from now.
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