Nationals Park will host the 34th edition of the MLB Home Run Derby on Monday. This year’s event will debut a host of fresh faces and offer an opportunity for some of the game’s most fearsome sluggers to put on a show. Take a look at the official bracket, released last Wednesday:
Bryce Harper is the only entrant to have previously competed in the event, and he finished runner-up to Yoenis Céspedes in 2013. Everyone else in the field will make his derby debut—and try to follow in the footsteps of Aaron Judge, whose first derby appearance in 2017 has already become the stuff of All-Star-break folklore.
So who will smash the most cowhide-covered spheres deep into the D.C. night? And more importantly, who’s the best bet from a gambling perspective? Here’s a breakdown of the 2018 Home Run Derby, matchup by matchup.
No. 1 Jesús Aguilar vs. No. 8 Rhys Hoskins
You can have your Shohei Ohtanis, no-hitter groundswells, and high-profile trade rumors. My MLB story of the season so far is Brewers first baseman Jesús Aguilar (+500 to win the derby). In his second year of extended big league play, Aguilar is pacing the National League in home runs (24) and third in RBIs (70), and has led Milwaukee’s charge into the thick of the playoff picture—all while pioneering the triumphant return of adult braces (swoon). In a 2-1 win against the Cardinals on June 22, the 28-year-old broke up Jack Flaherty’s no-hit bid with a solo homer in the seventh inning before walking the game off with a mammoth dinger in the ninth:
Hoskins (+650), the Phillies’ standout first baseman–slash-outfielder, is no slouch; he set an MLB record with 18 home runs in his first 34 games during a breakout 2017 campaign. He’s swatted just 14 bombs in 86 games this season, though, and none during the month of July. My money is on Aguilar, whose opposite-field power could propel him to make a deep run.
The pick: Aguilar
No. 4 Alex Bregman vs. No. 5 Kyle Schwarber
Two years removed from being a consensus top-50 prospect, Bregman (+1100) is putting together his strongest major league campaign to date. That’s thanks largely to a revelatory power surge: Of the 24-year-old’s 47 career long balls, 31 have come in his past 158 games. Bregman has become a boon for one of the most explosive offenses in baseball, leading Astros qualified hitters in home runs (20), RBIs (64), OPS (.928), and total bases (200). He can also walk it off:
Schwarber (+333) has revamped his power profile as well. He’s making hard contact at a higher rate than at any point in his career, and though his fly ball rate has dropped off significantly from 2017, he’s making the most of those opportunities, with a career-high home-run-to-fly-ball rate (26.2 percent). Schwarber reportedly dropped 30 pounds last offseason, but one thing will never change when it comes to the Cubs left fielder: When he gets a hold of one, it’s a missile.
This matchup could go either way, but my gut is telling me to go Schwarber. When I close my eyes, I can see his patented thunderstroke of a swing (one that’s perfectly programmed for this competition) launching meatballs from home plate to Capitol Hill. Something about Bregman—not as a player, but as a derby hopeful—gives me 2009 Brandon Inge vibes. I don’t think he’ll be shut out Monday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his recent power outbreak fails to translate to this exhibition.
The pick: Schwarber
No. 2 Bryce Harper vs. No. 7 Freddie Freeman
The two most established participants in the field, the 25-year-old Harper (+225) and the 28-year-old Freeman (+850) feel like elder statesmen compared to their peers. Harper, with home-field advantage, is the betting favorite, and why not? He knows the lay of the park and has a swing tailor-made to hammer balls into the bleachers. Plus, who knows what kind of aerodynamic advantage he might have gained from clipping his beard?
Freeman should be a tough out—certainly more of a threat than his home run count (16) would suggest. Yet despite the Braves star being the most well-rounded hitter in the competition, I wouldn’t bet on him advancing. An Atlanta surprise would be in keeping with this season’s results, though: Take the NL East standings at the break as proof.
The pick: Harper
No. 3 Max Muncy vs. No. 6 Javier Báez
This is the first-round matchup I’m most looking forward to: Muncy (+700), a stunning reclamation project who’s excelling with the reigning NL champs, squaring off against Báez (+550), perhaps the most exciting player in all of baseball. Entering the 2018 season, Báez was known mainly for his slick glovework and crafty tagging tactics, but he’s emerged as a legitimate power threat as well, smacking a team-high 19 long balls in the first half. As he does with all things, Báez is mashing with great flourish. I could watch him obliterate baseballs all day.
Muncy as a spectacle is admittedly more mundane, but his chops are undeniable: Only four players have put barrel to ball at a higher rate than the Dodgers’ unlikely hero, and his 22 home runs are good for fourth in the NL. Still, give me Javy. And when his first ball does leave the yard at Nats Park, let’s make sure Clint Hurdle isn’t in the vicinity.
The pick: Báez
My heart wants to formally predict an Aguilar vs. Báez swag-off in the finals, but the rational side of my brain won’t let my fingers type the take. Harper is my pick to hoist the trophy. From a betting perspective, though, Muncy might be the best value play—he has a story line worth rooting for, and if he gets into rhythm, his compact lefty swing will play well to right field. Let the dingers fly.