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2018 Home Run Derby preview, predictions and more

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USA Today Sports

2018 Home Run Derby preview, predictions and more

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.

First Round

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.

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.

Final Round

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?

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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