Unlike the All Star Game itself, this one doesn’t count. But for many fans, the Home Run Derby is of significantly more interest than the actual game played the next night.
The event itself has progressed from a sideshow that wasn’t even televised for its first five years to a spectacle of the best power hitters in the game putting on a prime time batting practice for millions upon millions of viewers. The changes that have been made to the format, with the addition of multiple rounds of competition, have only made it better. Even the 2005 derby that featured players representing countries that would compete in the initial World Baseball Classic instead of representing their team or their league worked out pretty darn well, though that was mostly thanks to Bobby Abreu hitting 24 first-round bombs and Ivan Rodriguez making a surprising run to the finals for the host Detroit Tigers.
The latest tweak to the Derby is the selection process for participants. Instead of simply inviting the all-star hitters with the most home runs for each league, Major League Baseball decided to name two team captains in 2012 and, like they would playing kickball in the neighborhood sandlot, have those captains choose up sides. Last year, with the game held in Kansas City, Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees, who had been made captain by virtue of his winning the 2011 Derby, was booed lustily for not selecting Billy Butler to the AL squad. Prince Fielder would go on the win the crown last year.
Instead of Fielder becoming the captain for the 2013 Derby, following the logic that had made Cano captain the year before, somehow Cano gets bestowed with the honor again. The game is played at Citi Field, home of the Mets, so David Wright being the NL captain makes a bit of sense, I guess. Why Cano, whose team plays in the same city but not the same park, remain AL captain is beyond me. If they were using geography to name captains for this event, MLB could have saved Cano a lot of abuse by having Butler pick the AL team last year, just as Wright is picking the NL team at his home park.
Or maybe Cano is just the all-time captain, I guess. His squad technically won the Derby last year, though no one really cares at all which league totalled the most long balls, only which player did. Maybe that win for the AL meant he keeps the job as captain. If the AL wins this Derby, Cano would remain as captain for next year then as well.
Regardless of how the captains are selected, the picks this year have raised more than a few eyebrows. It was bad enough that Wright, who currently sits in a tie for the 16th-most home runs by a National League hitter this year, is involved in the Derby at all, but then he asks Bryce Harper (13 home runs, matching Wright’s total), and Michael Cuddyer (15) to be part of the show. Only NL home run leader Carlos Gonzalez is a defensible pick.
Cuddyer is a longtime friend of Wright’s, so that’s why he’s there. He’s had a great, great, first-half, but he’s playing half his games at Coors Field and is on pace for just 26 bombs this year. Harper is an exciting and dynamic player for sure, and no one doubts his power, but when guys like Pedro Alvarez (23 homers), Domonic Brown (23), and Paul Goldschmidt (21) are left off the roster when all three are going to be in New York for the game anyway, it’s difficult to think that Wright shouldn’t have put friendships to the side for the sake of putting on a better show for the fans. And in a home run hitting contest, as a fan, I want the guys who have shown the most capability to hit home runs.
Which brings me to Cano’s AL selections. Originally, Cano approached last year’s winner, Fielder, along with Baltimore Chris Davis, who leads the league with 33 home runs, and reigning triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera (29 this year) to compete. With this group, you have a pair of former Derby winners (and Fielder has hit as many as 50 home runs in a season), along with the top two sluggers in all of baseball. Unfortunately, Cabrera declined the invitation due to an back issue that has caused him to miss a little bit of time over this past week. On Tuesday, MLB announced that Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A’s would fill the final slot for the American League.
Cepedes is not an all star. He has 15 home runs this year, but only has 28 total extra-base hits. He’s slugging .427 on the year. For reference, that number ranks him 44th in the AL, behind Jed Lowrie and Omar Infante and one point ahead of noted slugger Brett Gardner. Heck, Cespedes ranks fourth in slugging on his own team.
Look, anyone who has seen Cespedes in a uniform, much less watched his now famous workout video on Youtube, understands that this is an extremely powerful individual and one capable of hitting the ball a long, long way, but are you telling me there weren’t other players more deserving? Edwin Encarnacion is an all star, he has 23 home runs and last year he hit 42. Jose Bautista is there as well. He has 20 this year. David Ortiz, always a favorite of the Derby, has had a season worthy of inclusion with his 18 home runs. Nelson Cruz has 22 and might have more pure power than anyone in the game.
If Cano wanted to go off the board and choose a non-all star, which he obviously did, why not Adam Dunn? Dunn has 24 bombs this year and has legendary power. There’s a guy who could make any ballpark look small. He could have brought former teammate Raul Ibanez back to New York as a reward for his 22 first-half blasts. Or, he could have righted a wrong and selected Evan Longoria or Oakland’s Josh Donaldson, perhaps the biggest two snubs left off of either roster, as a way of including them in the festivities of the All-Star Game.
Now, it’s certainly possible that Cano did reach out to some of the guys mentioned above. Maybe, like Cabrera, there were all-stars who declined the invite. Maybe some of the non-all-stars had already made other plans after not being selected to the AL team and just simply weren’t available to compete in the Derby. Maybe.
The Home Run Derby will once again be must-watch television for me, as it will for millions of fans around the world, but no matter how dramatic, how impressive, this Derby and its contestants are, I have to wonder if we aren’t getting robbed of an even better show by not having many of the truly deserving compete for the crown.