Baseball’s annual Home Run Derby, which takes place on Monday of each MLB All-Star Week, is one of the highlights of the year. The event started to grow stale earlier this decade, but the recent format switch to have each round be timed (awarding extra time for longer home runs) and introducing a bracket was the perfect injection of excitement.
This year’s field looks somewhat lacking at first glance. From a star power perspective, the eight contestants in 2018 are pretty weak. This might be surprising for Nats fan to hear, considering perhaps the game’s biggest star, Bryce Harper, will be competing. Still, beyond the hometown hero, there aren’t many big names this year.
The absence of star power isn’t helped by the NL-heavy lean of this year’s field. Seven of the eight contestants play in the National League, meaning many of the American League’s top sluggers are sitting out. Major League Baseball has to hope the absence of stars like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Correa, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Trout doesn’t cause casual fans to tune out.
Let’s go through the bracket and see who we think will come out on top.
1-seed Jesus Aguilar (Brewers) vs. 8-seed Rhys Hoskins (Phillies)
The five most-prolific home run hitters of 2018 are in the American League, and not participating, but Aguilar leads the Senior Circuit in dingers this season with an impressive 24. That mark, however, represents more than half of his career total (40), which is a pattern you’ll see in this year’s field.
Aguilar’s opponent is Hoskins, who Nats fans will come to know and loathe in the coming years as he mashes for Philadelphia. He’s got, by far, the fewest home runs among this year’s group, sitting at just 14. He has even fewer career home runs than Aguilar, with 32.
Despite the differences in their home run totals, these two average similar distances (393 feet vs. 396) and exit velocities (101 mph vs. 104) on their home runs, so it could be closer than the seeding would indicate. In fact, given Hoskins’ greater familiarity with Nationals Park as a division rival, I’ll take the 8-seed in an early upset. UMBC over UVA, look out.
5-seed Kyle Schwarber (Cubs) vs. 4-seed Alex Bregman (Astros)
Schwarber is a big guy, so it’s not surprise that when he gets a hold of one, the ball really flies. His 106.46 mph average exit velocity on his 17 home runs is the 5th-best of any player with more than 15 bombs this season, and he’s hit four “no doubt” home runs this season, a total that trails only Harper and Freeman in this year’s field.
Once again we’ve got two contestants with fewer than 100 career home runs facing each other. Schwarber has hit 63, and Bregman’s got 46. Bregman is easily the smallest player in this group, which is reflected in his 382-ft average home run distance. In a competition where distance matters, that could hurt him. That said, he clearly has good strength, given his 19 home runs on the season so far.
When picking an ultimate winner, the Derby is about endurance, and I bet Bregman can hit more home runs in the course of a night than most of the rest of this group. In the first round, however? Give me the pure power of Schwarber, who has probably eaten meals bigger than Alex Bregman.
2-seed Bryce Harper (Nationals) vs. 7-seed Freddie Freeman (Braves)
Thank goodness Harper made the All-Star game (as if that was ever really in question) and therefore is competing in this year’s Derby. If you thought the field was somewhat barren as it is, just imagine it without him.
Somehow, he’s is the only contestant with previous Derby experience. How much does it matter that Harper competed five years ago? Probably not much, considering the drastic format changes the event has undergone since then. Still, having made it to the final round, where he lost to Yoenis Cespedes, he’s definitely familiar with how to pace himself. Also, Harper is a showman who loves being the center of attention, and as the unofficial host of All-Star Week in D.C., it’s hard to imagine anyone beating him in the first round.
Freeman does represent a tough challenge, as he has the most career bombs of anyone in the field, with 182. He’s sitting at just 16 on the season, but he’s crushed the ones he’s hit, averaging just under 410 feet per homer and over a 105 mph average exit velocity, both numbers better than Harper by a hair.
Bryce ain’t going out this early though. Not at home, and not to a Brave. Harper advances, lock it in.
3-seed Max Muncy (Dodgers) vs. 6-seed Javier Baez (Cubs)
Stop me if you’ve read this before, but while Muncy’s first-half has been impressive with 21 home runs, it only brings his career total to a whopping ... 26. Granted, that’s 26 more than I’ve hit in my life, but still. For a contest all about stars and power, Muncy doesn’t exactly fit the bill. He’s got some strength, averaging over 400 feet on his home runs this season, but while he represents a nice story, him winning would be a worst-case scenario for Major League Baseball in terms of ratings.
Javy Baez, however, is exactly the type of player who rises to the challenge in events like this. The man is a walking ball of energy and star power, and he’s got the requisite power with 18 home runs on an average of 103 mph off the bat. Baez is yet another competitor with fewer than 100 career home runs, but I’ve still got both Cubs advancing to the second round.
8-seed Rhys Hoskins (Phillies) vs. 5-seed Kyle Schwarber (Cubs)
Both underdogs advance on the left side of the brackets, and they’ll team up to make one of the girthiest head-to-head matchups in Derby history. Two “country strong” guys cranking bombs in the summer night is what the Home Run Derby is all about, and we’ll get that here with Hoskins and Schwarber.
It’s a close call, but having once seen in person Schwarber hit a ball about 650 feet on a cold Pittsburgh night in October, I have no doubt he can get several balls far enough to add the extra time needed to beat Hoskins and advance to the final.
2-seed Bryce Harper (Nationals) vs. 6-seed Javy Baez (Cubs)
The seeds are simply determined by the each player’s home run total at the time of the announcement, but still, it’s interesting that Harper is the only seed favorite I have making it out of the first round. This would easily be the most exciting head-to-head matchup in terms of fan interest and star power, as Baez and Harper represent the biggest names in this year’s field.
As fun as it would be to see two Cubs go up against each other in final round, and Baez is a legitimate sleeper, there’s just no way I’m picking against Harper in front of his home fans, in a park he knows like the back of his hand. He’s struggled his year at the plate, but one thing he hasn’t forgotten how to do is hit dingers. He’s moving on.
2-seed Bryce Harper (Nationals) vs. 5-seed Kyle Schwarber (Cubs)
This is not only the matchup I’m predicting, but it’s also the matchup I think would be the most fun. Unless you’ve got a horse in this race, it’s pretty easy to root for the hometown guy to make it all the way (especially when the hometown guy is one of the five biggest stars in baseball), and Schwarber is an immensely likeable slugger who plays for one of the sport’s best teams and most recognizable franchises.
Harper’s best chance of getting eliminated actually comes in the second round, I expect. He’s not getting knocked out in the first round, and if he makes it to the final round he’ll be so locked in he’s going to finish strong. Both players will be tired by this point, but Harper has the pure will to power through and take the championship. Harper wins it, and unfortunately for those hoping for a buzzer beater, I say he wins the final round fairly easily.
Let’s be honest. You know this was going to be Harper all the way. We all can’t wait to see the show he puts on for the fans.
Who do you have in your brackets?