Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit nearly 100 home runs during Monday night’s Home Run Derby, and each barreled ball sounded like a piston firing. The 20-year-old Blue Jays third baseman did not win the derby—that honor went to Mets first baseman and fellow rookie Pete Alonso. But Guerrero was indubitably the star forged on Monday after shattering every derby record of note as the youngest participant in the event’s history.
Vlad Jr. entered the derby as the lowest-seeded player. He left with 91 home runs, obliterating the previous derby record of 61 by Giancarlo Stanton in 2016. Of all of Monday’s contestants, he had by far the fewest home runs (eight) and the least service time (he was called up in late April), and he was the youngest hitter in derby history (he turned 20 in March). But Guerrero quickly established why he is the most hyped baseball prospect since Bryce Harper.
Guerrero bashed 29 home runs in the first round, breaking Josh Hamilton’s record set in his legendary 2008 Home Run Derby (which came in a far more challenging format). But just as important as Guerrero breaking the record is how he did it—all of that whooshing. They say that world-class athletes like Roger Federer dominate while making their craft look effortless. But Vlad Jr. is not Roger Federer—he’s Rafael Nadal. Every time Guerrero swings it’s as if it’s the last time he will ever be allowed to swing at anything. He hacks. Every pitch is a tree that wronged him and he wants to slice it down in one fell swoop.
Guerrero was slated to take on reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich in the first round, but Yelich was a late scratch with a back injury and Oakland third baseman Matt Chapman replaced him. Chapman’s father said participating in the derby with his son was a dream come true. It’s a good thing time moves faster in dreams than real life, because the dream didn’t last too long. Chapman never had a chance, both because of Vlad Jr.’s total and because his dad, whom Chapman chose to be his pitcher, pitched so badly he probably got a scolding on the car ride home.
Jim Chapman, Two Seamer & Slider, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/QWdzF3rNAc— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 9, 2019
Next up for Vlad Jr. was Los Angeles Dodger Joc Pederson. Once again, Vlad Jr. went first. Once again, Vlad Jr. hit 29 home runs, rebreaking Hamilton’s record and coming a warning-track shot shy of the first 30-homer round in derby history.
UNREAL!— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 9, 2019
Vlad Jr. hits another 29 homers in the second round pic.twitter.com/EnO0g7AhlY
At this point it seemed clear that Guerrero was the destroyer of worlds, and everyone in his path was destined for memedom. But there was some karma at work with Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson and his pitcher, Dino Ebel. Ebel pitched to Vlad’s father when Vlad Sr. won the derby in 2007, and he used to play catch with Vlad Jr. on the sidelines. Perhaps this cosmic tie was enough to knot the two together in the most epic duel in derby history. Somehow Pederson tied Guerrero Jr. at 29 homers, meaning the only two people to ever pass 28 homers in a round did it against one another. The two went to overtime for an extra minute, where they tied again.
The second tie triggered ADAA continuation rule 113 D, a sudden-death swing-off (not to be confused with a walkoff). During the swing-off, where each player gets only three swings, Pederson and Vlad tied a third time, leading to a third overtime with the two tied at 38 home runs apiece. Clayton Kershaw’s daughter knew what side she stood on.
With a second swing-off in the works, Guerrero turned two swings into home runs. Pederson hit just one, sending Vlad Jr. to the finals.
There he met Alonso, the hulking Mets rookie with 30 home runs at the All-Star break who entered the tournament with a simple strategy.
“Honestly, I just want to hit the ball hard,” Alonso told the ESPN crew during Joc Pederson’s first-round performance. “I feel like [the baseballs] will be a little juiced today, especially for the derby, and I feel like if you just put good barrel on they’re going to fly no matter the conditions.”
He was right (as was Justin Verlander). Alonso crushed every ball he made contact with, but like many Mets, he was held back by his supporting cast. Pete tapped his cousin Derek to throw to him, but Cousin Derek struggled to consistently feed Alonso in the zone—not as much as Jim Chapman, but close.
“You hate to put this on the batting pitcher,” commentator Mark Teixeira said about Cousin Derek just seconds before he put the weight of the moment on Cousin Derek, the batting pitcher. After all, there was quite a bit of pressure after Vlad bashed “just” 22 home runs, a record total for the final round. But Alonso and Cousin Derek had their best round of the night, and Alonso walked away the champion with 23 homers in the final round. Alonso, who had two buzzer-beating home runs in his first two at-bats, earned extra time with two 440-foot homers in each round but never needed it. (Alonso said he will donate 5 percent of the $1 million winnings—almost double his salary—to the Wounded Warrior Project and another 5 percent to Tunnel to Towers, a nonprofit focused on first responders in New York City, while the other 90 percent will help pay for his wedding. After all, he owes his fiancée something for Monday night’s victory.)
The inevitable comparison is the 2008 Home Run Derby, where Hamilton’s legendary performance overshadowed the fact that Justin Morneau, not Hamilton, won the event. But it’s not entirely apt. Alonso is less than 90 games into his MLB career, and his victory—along with Guerrero’s epic entrance into the national consciousness—is baseball’s best chance in years to burn the sport into a generation’s mind. Mike Trout isn’t famous because he doesn’t want to be. But Vlad Jr. will likely be one of the 10 most famous MLB players by the end of the week, and he is uniquely suited to rekindle our love for baseball. MLB has tried a zillion things to get the attention of kids back, from adding pitch clocks to fancier graphics to adding a strike zone to, yes, juicing the balls. Nearly 100 whooshes later, it might finally be working.