If you haven’t already heard, 2017 is the year of the home run. With the first half of the season in the books, teams have combined to mash 3,343 homers, 261 more than the total at last year’s All-Star break. Part of that has to do with the long-ball generosity of Ricky Nolasco, John Lackey, and Bronson Arroyo. Part of it has to do with the emergence of an unlikely group of sluggers. But most of it has to do with the balls being juiced, no matter what MLB would have you believe.
We get to celebrate that power surge with Monday’s Home Run Derby, the best baseball-but-not-quite-baseball event of the year. The field includes seven of the 24 most prolific home run hitters of the first half, plus Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez (sorry, Logan Morrison), and it’ll take place in a stadium featuring an animatronic sculpture consisting of rotating marlins, flashing lights, and flamingos standing among palm trees. It’s going to be great.
Last year I wrote a gambling guide for the derby, in which I urged readers to avoid betting on Giancarlo Stanton. This was marvelously dumb advice. But being dumb and gambling go together like the Mets and Tommy John surgery, so here I am to offer more (probably terrible) predictions.
Let’s go matchup by matchup.
No. 1 Giancarlo Stanton vs. No. 8 Gary Sánchez
In last summer’s derby, Stanton clubbed 61 dingers. Sixty-one! That may seem like a reasonable number given that he hit them against batting-practice-caliber pitching, but fellow 2016 derby participants Robinson Canó, Wil Myers, Carlos González, and Corey Seager combined for 44 home runs. Stanton hit so many bombs that he not only took the crown from reigning champion Todd Frazier; he kicked Frazier’s ass so thoroughly that the White Sox third baseman later compared Stanton to Xerxes.
Stanton has launched 26 homers so far in 2017, including 10 with an exit velocity of at least 110 mph. He is the size of a defensive lineman with the strength of a superhero, and he routinely hits the ball at speeds best suited for the Autobahn. He’s built for this event.
Opposing Stanton in the bracket is Sánchez, a.k.a. the Kraken, a.k.a. El Gary. Since being called up last August, he’s hit 33 homers in 410 at-bats, and in April he swung at a pitch so hard that he strained his right bicep.
Sánchez is a wonder, but I’m not doubting Giancarlo twice.
The pick: Stanton
No. 4 Mike Moustakas vs. No. 5 Miguel Sanó
This one comes to down a clash of styles. Sanó routinely hits pitches harder than all but a handful of players in the bigs, as more than 51 percent of his batted balls are being struck with an exit velo above 95 mph. Meanwhile, Moustakas’s exit velo metrics are below league average, but his fly-ball rate is up more than 7 percentage points from last year — an approach that’s helped him bash 25 homers in the first half, three more than his previous career high and a total that trails only Aaron Judge and George Springer in the AL.
I could see this showdown going either way, but I’m betting on Sanó for two reasons: (1) While Moustakas is undeniably one of the league’s best bubble-blowers, Sanó is virtually unmatched when it comes to puffing out his cheeks during at-bats; and (2) Twins general manager Thad Levine recently told the Star Tribune that Sanó is going to win the derby because: “He’s a winner. That’s why he’ll win. He’s a winner.”
Seems like unassailable logic to me. Who am I to argue?
The pick: Sanó
No. 2 Aaron Judge vs. No. 7 Justin Bour
Readers who don’t live in Miami-Dade County may be wondering who the hell Bour is. The answer: a 6-foot-3, 265-pound first baseman who dances to Selena Gomez and has seemingly emerged from nowhere to hit .289 with 20 homers and 59 RBIs in the first half. He’s a large man who can demolish baseballs, an ability that’s key to succeeding in this competition.
Except being 6-foot-3, 265 is not that impressive when compared with Judge.
The 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge was the story of MLB’s first half, in part because he went from striking out in half of his at-bats in 2016 to leading the majors in WAR in 2017, but primarily because he provides a definitive answer to the question: What is the upper limit to human evolution? He’s also amazing when measured by exit velocity metrics, and within a span of two days he hit the hardest and longest homers of the season.
Plus, he never skips leg day, and his last name allows fans and broadcasters to yell things like “Here comes the Judge!” and “All Rise!” and “Just cannot believe a Judge would put our country in such peril!” and “SEE YOU IN COURT!” every time he goes yard. (It’s probably for the best that Chris Berman isn’t calling this year’s derby.)
If you want to maximize the amount of fun you’ll have Monday, the choice is obvious.
The pick: Judge
No. 3 Cody Bellinger vs. No. 6 Charlie Blackmon
Other than Judge, Bellinger has been the 2017 season’s biggest revelation. Like several other players in the competition, he’s also enormous (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), and he’s averaging a home run once every 10.3 at-bats. These aren’t cheapies, either:
The derby’s youngest entrants historically haven’t fared well (no one under the age of 25 has won it since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1994), and the 21-year-old Bellinger occasionally shows signs of his youth: He doesn’t know who Jerry Seinfeld is, and he’s struck out 85 times over 292 plate appearances. But if Andrew Miller can’t sneak a pitch by him, it seems unlikely that his father, Clay, will when attempting to serve up meatballs.
Facing off against Bellinger is Blackmon, the Rockies star whose social media alter ego Chuck Nazty has become something of a phenomenon. Blackmon has totally reinvented himself since being drafted in 2008, going from the mound to the outfield, and from clean-shaven to heavily bearded.
Never doubt a man who suddenly decides he wants to look like Rick Rubin. Still, in the battle between the baby and the beard, I’m going with the baby.
The pick: Bellinger
So how does this end? For as fun as Sanó and Bellinger should be to watch, I’ll riot if the derby doesn’t produce a finals face-off between Stanton and Judge. In the end, I’m banking on Judge: Vegas sportsbooks don’t list odds for how many TV screens and other pieces of equipment he’ll obliterate during his home run barrage, but I promise I’d bet the over if they did.