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MLB unveils new format for Home Run Derby, but who should take part?

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

In his first Home Run Derby appearance last year, Yoenis Cespedes took first place by bashing 32 homers, third-most ever in one derby.

For the first time in a decade, the Home Run Derby will have a new format. Since 2004, the derby has featured eight participants, all of whom were lumped together in one group. Each player was given 10 outs per round to hit as many home runs as he could, and in each of three rounds, the bottom half of the group was eliminated until a champion emerged.

This year, however, the field has been expanded to 10 players, the outs have been reduced to seven, the players will be segregated by league and a bracket will come into play. After the first round, two participants from each league will be eliminated. The remaining players will be seeded one through three, with the one-seed getting a second-round bye. There will then be three more rounds in which the three survivors in each league compete head-to-head in a bracket format. That all sets up a final featuring one representative from each league.

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break it down. To begin with, there are two more participants and one more round than in previous years, but with the drop from 10 to seven outs per hitter, the length of the derby should be unchanged. There were 140 outs in the old format (eight hitters got 10 outs in the first round, four hitters got 10 outs in the second round and two got 10 outs in the third round; 80+40+20=140) and there will be 140 outs in the new format thanks to an additional rule that will give the top finisher in Round 1 a bye for Round 2 (10 hitters get seven outs in the first round, four hitters get seven outs in the second round, four hitters get seven outs in the third round, two hitters get seven outs in the finals; 70+28+28+14=140).

Thus, while the derby will likely be the same length overall as under the previous format, each individual round is shorter, making the wait for a meaningful result shorter. Even with two more participants, the first elimination round falls from 80 total outs to 70 and Round 2 falls from 40 to 28. The semifinal round is new but should be compelling and quick, and the final drops from 20 outs to 14.

A visualization of what the bracket will look like for this year's Home Run Derby.

There are some interesting things going on with regard to stamina, as well. The player in each league with the most home runs in the first round will get a bye for Round 2, meaning if someone goes crazy, like Yoenis Cespedes did last year when he hit 17 home runs in the first round, he’ll get to sit out Round 2 to rest. Cespedes went on to win the Derby despite that heavy workload in Round 1, but four of the previous five first-round winners appeared to wear themselves out with their impressive opening round totals, most notably Josh Hamilton in 2008, when he hit a first-round record 28 home runs in Yankee Stadium but lost to Justin Morneau in the final round.
 
The other two players to advance from Round 1 will have to compete in four rounds to win the derby, but because the outs are reduced, the maximum number of outs for any player is actually reduced from 30 (10 in each of three rounds) to 28 (seven in each of four rounds). That should eliminate concerns about additional strain on any of the participants. A Round 1 winner could conceivably win the derby while making just 21 outs, again helping to compensate for the work they put in to win the first round.

Add the heightened rooting interest created by the head-to-head matchups in Rounds 2 through 4, one highlighted by SI's Tom Verducci when he suggested a shift to a bracket format a year ago, and the new set-up seems to be an all-around improvement. There are more players involved, more direct competition and rooting interest (including a guaranteed AL vs. NL final), but no expansion of the length of the derby and an actual reduction of the workload for any single hitter. Well done.

As for selecting the participants, however, that remains unchanged. As in recent years, one captain has been appointed for each league and charged with the task of choosing the other four players on his team. This year’s captains are Jose Bautista for the American League and Troy Tulowitzki for the National League, not inappropriate choices given that Bautista is having an excellent season and had a 54-homer campaign just four years ago, while Tulowitzki has been the most productive hitter in the majors this season and is second in the NL in home runs. With those two as givens, here are my suggestions for the other four players on each team:

American League:

Yoenis Cespedes, RF, Athletics: Last year’s champion should always get a chance to defend his title, and Cespedes had one of the most remarkable derby’s ever last year, hitting 32 home runs, tied for the third-highest one-year total. Cespedes didn’t even use up all of his outs in the final. I asked him afterward if he would have kept hitting if he knew where his total ranked all-time. His answer: “.”

Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox: Abreu is third in the majors in home runs with 22 but is first among qualified batters in home run frequency, having gone deep once every 11.3 plate appearances. The potential for a showdown between the rookie Abreu and his Cuban countryman Cespedes would make the inclusion of both players that much more compelling.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays: Encarnacion is the major league home run leader with 24 and is second only to Abreu among qualified hitters with a home run every 12.2 plate appearances. Encarnacion also leads the major leagues in home runs since the start of the 2012 season with 102 (one more than Miguel Cabrera) but has yet to be invited to participate in the Home Run Derby.

Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers: There are those who believe that the host team should always have a derby entrant. I don’t agree, and this year is a fantastic example as to why. As underrated as he may be, I’m not sure even Twins fans would rather see Brian Dozier, who leads Minnesota with 15 home runs, participating instead of an established slugger along the lines of Cabrera, Chris Davis, Nelson Cruz or Victor Martinez, or a young star such as Mike Trout or Josh Donaldson. I’ve chosen Cabrera here because he hasn’t participated in a derby since 2010. All he’s done since then is win two MVPs, a triple crown (which included a major league-leading 44 home runs) and lead MLB in home runs over the last four seasons with 131, a dozen more than second-place Encarnacion.

National League

Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins: Do I even have to explain this one? Stanton, the NL leader with 20 home runs heading into Tuesday’s games, has never been in an All-Star Home Run Derby. That has to change this year.

Evan Gattis, C, Braves: Gattis leads National Leaguers with 200 or more plate appearances in home run frequency (13.2 PA/HR) and is tied for fourth in the league with 16 taters. He also hit the longest home run of the 2013 season, a 486-foot shot that stands as the longest home run ever hit at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park and remains the longest home run hit since Encarnacion sent one 488 feet in Toronto in September 2012, per ESPN’s Home Run Tracker.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks: Last year’s NL home run champion and MVP runner-up leads the NL in home runs since the start of the 2013 season with 51 but was not included in last year’s derby. This year, he’s sixth in the league with 15 round-trippers but is just three behind second-place Tulowitzki.

Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers: Puig doesn’t rank among the league leaders in home runs or home run frequency, but with the National League field a bit thin (seven of the top 10 home run hitters this season are American Leaguers), it’s hard to resist the temptation to including Puig alongside his fellow Cubans Cespedes and Abreu. After all, the Home Run Derby is an exhibition structured around showmanship, and, love it or hate it, Puig is currently baseball’s greatest showman. If you want some statistical basis for his inclusion, how about the fact that he has the seventh-best average home run distance in the major leagues this year, according to Home Run Tracker? Puig’s 11 home runs have averaged 415.6 feet. Number one: Stanton, of course, at 426.2 feet.

Alternate choices with as many or more home runs as Puig this season who would also be derby rookies (meaning the NL field would be entirely comprised of first-timers) include Justin Upton, Anthony Rizzo, Todd Frazier, Michael Morse, Mark Reynolds, Khris Davis and Ian Desmond. Another compelling option is Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, who has homered in his last four games and leads all players in the majors with 10 or more home runs in home run frequency with one every 11.2 PA. Honestly, though, would you rather see Devin Mesoraco or Yasiel Puig in the Home Run Derby?

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