By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
For all the talk of baseball’s star fading in the sports galaxy, it sure attracts a lot of eyeballs the night of the Home Run Derby.
From its humble beginnings as a no-frills 1960 TV show offering a $2,000 check to the winner, to the highly-rated midsummer extravaganza of today, the made-for-TV event rarely fails to fascinate the masses. In fact, last year’s Derby (won by Aaron Judge of the Yankees) was the second-highest rated in the history of the competition.
The Red Sox have showcased a modest number of sluggers on Monday nights over the years, including Jim Rice (1985), Mo Vaughn (1995), Nomar Garciaparra (1997 and 1999) and Carl Everett (2000), but all stand in the shadow of David Ortiz, who won in 2010 and made five appearances over the course of his career.
A league-leading first half barrage from J.D. Martinez seemed to be the occasion for another Boston slugger to enter the fray. But alas, it will be another year of watching everybody else’s power hitters.
It’s a young crop, with 28-year old Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman the veteran of the group. Freeman has topped 30 home runs just once in his career. He’ll be joined by former National League home run champ Bryce Harper, who holds a similar distinction to Freeman in that he’s surpassed 30 homers just one time. Despite this, the hometown favorite has also been the betting favorite headed into the competition.
Joining the two veterans is a team of relative newcomers: breakout sluggers Jesus Aguilar of the Brewers and Max Muncy of the Dodgers, toolsy infielders Alex Bregman of the Astros and Javier Baez of the Cubs, and outfielders Rhys Hoskins and Kyle Schwarber.
Like with the NBA Slam Dunk contest, there seems to be a perpetual referendum to get the game’s biggest names into the contest. Mike Trout, for instance, has thus far neglected to participate. It makes you wonder if he’ll pull a LeBron and manage to avoid the contest for his entire career. But Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have taken home the last two trophies. There’s some major wattage there. And this year looks like a yellow brick road for Harper, a former MVP who stands to get a massive payday this winter.
Does anyone else stand a chance? To gain some wisdom on this year’s event, I reached out to some guys from the station who love dingers: Jeremy Conley, producer for the Adam Jones Show and curator of The Dong Report every evening at 10:55, as well as The Bankroll Boys, Joe Murray and Dan Lifshatz from the Over/Under 98.5 podcast for a wagering perspective.
Murray loves “hefty lefty” Schwarber. Prognosticators were bullish on the Cub in the early going, his odds trailing only Harper’s. But he’s fallen back to the pack in recent wagering and now sits behind another burly masher in Aguilar.
Conley was reluctant to play favorites but passed along a fun fact: Muncy is one of just two non-rookies with fewer than 30 career homers to appear in a Home Run Derby. The other was future three-time winner Ken Griffey Jr, who was a 20-year old twig when he did it in 1990.
Muncy got so much sleeper love that he’s now among the favorites.
Lifshatz picked Freeman, digging the lefty swing like his podcast partner. Freeman gets Harper in the opening round and is one of the underdogs. But Harper has just five home runs since Memorial Day. Will his struggles carry over to Monday night’s contest?
Another angle: Will somebody go on a tear in the Derby (a la Bobby Abreu in 2005) only to experience a second-half power outage in games that actually count?
Perhaps it’s for the best that J.D. Martinez sits this one out. Then again, it’d be more fun to have him there. And that’s the point of a night like this. With baseball absorbing more accusations of being boring and out-of-touch, the Home Run Derby is an opportunity to place the Wiffleball bats of our childhood home run battles into the hands of a team of Paul Bunyans.
While Bregman, Baez. et al may not fit that description, perhaps there will be some intrigue to tonight’s contest. Either way, the eyes of the sporting world will likely turn to Nationals Park on this mid-July night.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.