The new home run derby format could in fact be a brilliant innovation to a stagnant event. Last night’s event was a good test run for how this event may go in the future. In fact, performances from several of the participants displayed a helpful case study for how to tinker with the model so it best meets its potential.
But speaking from only experiencing one such newly-formatted derby, my commentary must be less evidence-based and more in the realm of logical/hypothetical.
The bracket is definitely a major shift from the derby of years past, and it’s almost surely here to stay. That’s mostly a good thing, though there’s definitely room for improvement.
Same number of outs overall. When redrafting the format of the event, the number of outs for each batter in each round was pared down so as not to significantly increase the length of time. The previous format saw eight batters in the first round, four in the second, and two in the final. Each participant in each round had 10 outs, totaling 140. The number of total outs actually stays the same because there are seven outs each in every round — ten participants in Round 1, four in Round 2, four in Round 3, and two in the final. In theory, this means the derby will last near the same length, though it could affect how well slow starters do.
More participants, more rounds. Each league now has five hitters instead of four. This allows two more sluggers to step in and increase the competitive feel. Five players are battling for the coveted No. 1 spot/ (Again, in theory. Last night’s top Round 1 finishers didn’t fare too well later on.) Maybe that increases home run totals that are otherwise decreased by having three fewer outs per round, maybe not. We’ll need a few years yet to know.
As a bit of a corollary, the increased number of participants and decreased number of outs makes a swing-off more likely. We saw one for the No. 3 spot for each league after Round 1 last night, and that may continue to be a trend, due to the conditions.
Less time standing around, trying to fill air time. The focus can now really be on what’s going on at the plate. Dropping from 10 to seven outs is a more significant change than it looks on paper, especially if a batter struggles to find his groove. Each swing becomes far more important. Shorter rounds also provide an obvious bonus to the league, though — more breaks. This could translate to more commercial time in the same slot. (Last night’s derby seemed to go quicker than I expected — but perhaps that was because the weather forced the league to move things along fairly quickly once it was clear enough to start.) That may be where the biggest increase in the length of the event can be seen. At least everything will keep moving when the cameras are rolling, though.
Hitters will be fresh for longer. Batters will not have as many outs to work with, but that also means there’s less of a fatigue factor overall. Seven outs probably translates to fewer home runs in a given round, but it also means fewer swings. Because there are more hitters in Round 1, some of those who go near the middle of the round should be fine when it’s time to bat again. Of course, having fewer swings also gives a shorter break later on in the event, but less stamina is required because each individual performance is shorter.
It’s important to note here more fully that the bye can be a double-edged sword. Especially because other batters have not had as many swings as they would in past years, fatigue may not be as much of a factor, and being cold from a long wait could have more of an impact. It can be difficult for those who sit out to get back into things, as was witnessed with Giancarlo Stanton last night. He wasn’t able to hit a single home run in the third round after winning Round 1. Perhaps in future years four hitters will move on with a seeding system.
The two batters who compete in the final will have had a maximum of 28 outs in the tournament — and those with byes can win with 21 outs. In years prior, the total was always 30. That drastically changes the complexion of the derby.
The benefit of early home runs is truly felt in a bye — but the new format could diminish that positive. Older formats gave absolutely no benefit to the first round winner, then allowed first-round home runs to carry over into the second round. The carry-over was supposed to help those who had a clear advantage over the other hitters, but also helped those with middling totals. Now the derby is in a bracket setup with the two leagues on either side. The top three totals in each league advance, with the Round 1 winner sitting out until the semifinal. This theoretically gives a major advantage to whichever hitter comes out on top early. One big negative? Being No. 2 in Round 1 by only a home run or two could feel painfully close.
If this year’s derby was any indicator, though, getting a bye could be a bad thing. After nearly two hour waits, Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Bautista fell in Round 3 to hitters who had batted more recently. It may require more data to verify, but early signs seem to indicate that fatigue is not as big a factor as a long layover in the new format.
Less time for a hitter to get into a groove. Players who hit more home runs later in their part of a round will not have the benefit of those three final outs. That could decrease the total number of home runs, and some who might have otherwise impressed late could end up being derby flops. To solve this, you’d have to increase the first round to 10 outs to ease every hitter into the derby, but that somewhat defeats the purpose of all the changes.
Determining of participants. Okay, this aspect stayed the same this year, but it still warrants criticism. This event seems more appropriate for fan votes to have a serious impact than the All-Star Game, but fans have less impact in many ways. This event, far more than the All-Star Game, is created for fans. It’s meant to be purely for entertainment value, yet fans are not the ones ultimately determining participants. Yesterday I discussed the problem with making a game recognizing players’ excellence about who the fans like — there’s no such problem here. This bracket is comprised of All-Stars, and the fans should have free reign. (Captains? Really?) A note to the next commissioner: If you want to have a big crowd-pleasing event for the money and ratings, this is the place. Not the All-Star Game.
Chris Berman. What he does well, he may be great for. But “back, back, back” hardly qualifies as great baseball commentary. As the All-Star-Game is in theory meant for excellent players, the three-day period should take the opportunity to continue to promote excellence. The league — and ESPN — should push for the use of great local (with perhaps deference to radio) broadcasters, those who have devoted themselves for the sport. I’d love to see that for both the derby and the All-Star Game itself, as fans can learn a lot more from announcers who research only baseball day in and day out for eight months. But that probably won’t happen, at least not soon.
The positives certainly outweigh the negatives. Though a number of issues still exist with the format, there’s a lot to be excited for in the future with this event. Hopefully the next commissioner steps up to the plate and helps deliver the right improvements to make this an even better event in years to come.
Dan Johnson is editor-in-chief of Three for Ten Sports and former managing editor of The Collegian at Grove City College.