The 29th annual Home Run Derby will take place at Citi Field Monday night at 8 p.m. Eastern as part of this week's All-Star festivities. This year's field of eight contestants includes the last two winners (Prince Fielder and Robinson Cano), five first-time participants (Pedro Alvarez, Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Cuddyer, Chris Davis and Bryce Harper), and the hometown representative, the Mets' David Wright.
The Ballpark: Citi Field, Queens, NY
Citi Field opened in 2009 and was one of the most difficult places to hit a home run during its first three seasons, prompting the Mets to move in its fences in 2012, particularly in leftfield, the primary target of Wright, their franchise cornerstone.
It has helped. There were just 108 home runs hit at Citi Field in 2011, more than only two other parks (Petco and AT&T), but 155 home runs hit there in 2012, putting Citi closer to the middle of the pack. Using the home runs on contact percentage devised by my batterymate Jay Jaffe last year (HR/Con = HR/(AB-K+SF)), Citi Field went from yielding a home run in 2.4 percent of at-bats ending in contact in 2011 to yielding a home run on 3.7 percent of at-bats ending in contact in 2012. That latter figure has held steady this year with 83 home runs at a contact percentage of 3.5, with righties and lefties going deep at almost identical rates.
Special features: Citi Field has a new, updated version of Shea Stadium's famous home run apple. The apple no longer hides in a giant top hat, but it still rises slowly out of the batters' eye like the great pumpkin, for every Mets home run.
Note: The eight derby participants are listed here in order of their 2013 home runs per contact percentage (the figure in parentheses after their home run total). "Long" is the distance in feet of each hitter's longest home run this season (with a video link).
Chris Davis, Orioles (L)
2013 HR: 37 (15.6%)
Career HR: 114 (9.1%)
In hitting his 37th home run on Sunday, Chris Davis tied Reggie Jackson with the most home runs before the All-Star break in American League history, doing in 94 games what Jackson did in 92 back in 1969. The major league home run leader by a mile (runner-up Miguel Cabrera has 30), Davis is on place to hit 62 home runs this season, a total not reached outside of the 1998-2001 peak of the juiced era, and even then by only three men (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa). Davis also enters the Derby red-hot having homered in each of the last four days, a perfect bookend to his historic first half, which began with four homers in four days, itself a record performance.
Pedro Alvarez, Pirates (L)
2013 HR: 24 (12.2%)
Career HR: 74 (8.0%)
Alvarez was a late replacement for the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez, who pulled out of the Derby after injuring his right middle finger on July 7, but as the numbers above show, Alvarez should have been on this team from the start. He is tied for fifth in the majors in home runs this season, is second in the National League, just one behind Gonzalez, and those home runs comprise the bulk of his value at the plate this season. Alvarez is hitting a mere .253, has drawn only 23 unintentional walks and has just nine other extra-base hits (all doubles). Those 24 home runs, four of which have come in July, account for 32 percent of his hits on the year. When he hits them, they tend to go far; just watch him bounce one into the Allegheny River in the video above. Alvarez is tied for the major league lead with Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion in what ESPNs Home Run Tracker considers "no doubt" homers with nine
Bryce Harper, Nationals (L)
2013 HR: 13 (8.1%)
Career HR: 35 (6.1%)
From Aug. 17 of last year through the end of May this year, Harper hit 24 home runs in 312 at-bats at a contact rate of 9.7 percent. Harper then missed all of June with bursitis in his left knee. He homered in his first at-bat after being activated on July 1, but hasn't gone deep since, a stretch of 63 homerless plate appearances. In fact, Harper has just two extra base hits of any kind since his last home run and has hit a mere .191/.322/.277 over his last 13 games.
Michael Cuddyer, Rockies (R)
2013 HR: 16 (7.0%)
Career HR: 173 (4.5%)
Despite a 15-day DL stay for a herniated disc in his neck, the 34-year-old Cuddyer, by far the oldest participant in this year's Derby, is having a career year with his best home run rate ever, and he is on pace to reach 30 home runs for just the second time in his 13 seasons. Given that, it's fair to ask if his success in this, just his second year with the Rockies, has been a product of Coors Field, but there's more to it than that. Cuddyer is hitting home runs more often at home, but his home run on contact rate on the road is still 5.6 percent, well above his career rate. That said, 5.6 percent isn't a particularly compelling rate for a Home Run Derby participant. The only two men in this year's field who have a lower home run on contact rate this season are the defending champion (Fielder) and the hometown hero (Wright), both of whom hit in pitchers parks and have other reasons to be here.
Robinson Cano, Yankees (L)
2013 HR: 21 (6.9%)
Career HR: 198 (4.4%)
Cano's home runs on contact percentage has increased in four of the last five seasons from a career low 2.6 percent in his miserable 2008 season to his career-best 6.9 percent this year. He set a career high with 33 home runs last year and is on pace for 36 this season. Two years ago, he was the surprise winner of the Derby, blasting a total of 32 home runs, tied for third all time in this event, while hitting off his father, former Astros righty Jose Cano, in Phoenix. Last year, he again had his father pitching to him, but went homerless in the Derby in Kansas City while being showered with boos by Royals fans who were upset that Cano, the AL team captain, had left the Royals' Billy Butler off his Derby team. Cano is the AL captain again this year, and will hear boos in the Derby once again, this time from the rival Mets fans.
Yoenis Cespedes, A's (R)
2013 HR: 15 (6.5%)
Career HR: 38 (6.2%)
Miguel Cabrera, who is second in the majors with 30 home runs and has hit 53 in his last 162 games, declined Cano's invitation to participate in this year's Derby, so Cano took advantage of the fact that Derby participants no longer need to be All-Stars and selected Cespedes, who is having a miserable sophomore season. Cespedes is a compelling choice, if only because of the way he was introduced to American fans. Cespedes is the only righty in the AL's foursome, even though Mark Trumbo, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria have all out-homered him this season.
Prince Fielder, Tigers (L)
2013 HR: 16 (5.5%)
Career HR: 276 (6.0%)
It wasn't a surprise that Fielder's home run rates dropped last year when he moved from homer-friendly Miller Park, where he'd spent his entire career to that point with the Brewers, to Detroit's Comerica Park, which is particularly hard on lefthanded power hitters. Still, he's hitting home runs even less often this year than he did in his first year in Detroit. That said, Fielder has Home Run Derby bona fides as one of just two players to win multiple Derbies (along with Ken Griffey Jr., who won three). Fielder won in 2009 in St. Louis and last year in Kansas City, blasting 28 homers in the latter, the fifth most in a single Derby. This will be his fifth time participating in this event, and if he hits 15 home runs Monday night, he'll break David Ortiz's record of 77 career Derby home runs.
David Wright, Mets (R)
2013 HR: 13 (4.7%)
Career HR: 217 (5.3%)
Wright has the lowest home runs on contact rate of any of this year's participants, but it's hard to begrudge him his spot. Not only because Wright is the Mets' best hitter (though Marlon Byrd, Lucas Duda and John Buck have homered more often this year), but because in his only previous Derby, at PNC Park in 2006, he fell one homer shy of winning, hitting 22 home runs in total. That 2006 Derby was a lifetime ago for Wright, however.
There's a certain irony to Wright being in a Home Run Derby at Citi Field. In 2009, the ballpark's first season, Wright's home run total dropped from 33 in '08, the team's last year at Shea Stadium, to 10, and though he hit only half of those on the road, and Shea was hardly hitter-friendly, his power-outage was blamed on the new stadium. The next year, he rebounded to 29 homers, but 17 of them came on the road, and his strikeout rate spiked as well. In 2011, he was back down to 14 homers, nine on the road. It was then that the Mets decided to bring in the fences. In those first three seasons, Citi Field had a home run park factor for righthanded batters of 78, per The Bill James Handbook, meaning it was 12 percent harder for a righty to hit a home run there as compared to a neutral park. The renovation worked, as the righthanded home run park factor jumped up to 116 last year, and Wright hit more home runs at home than on the road in 2012 for the first time since 2008. However, this year, Wright has just three home runs at home against 10 on the road and his home runs on contact percentage at home is only 1.8 percent. So, Wright's battles with his home ballpark continue, even if he has achieved peace in the rest of his game, which has once again been outstanding over the last season and a half. Monday night, we get to see Wright take on Citi Field one-on-one.