The Home Run Derby Takeaway
Before discussing any of the implications of this year’s Home Run Derby—and you know where this is going—it’s worth taking a step back and considering what the annual event means to the game of baseball.

More than any other day during the major-league season, the Derby enables both players and fans to kick back, relax, and watch the balls fly. There are no rivalries to stand in the way of friendships, no heated arguments with umpires, and no careers hanging in the balance. On the day of the Derby, David Ortiz can hug Robinson Cano, and no one at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium will flinch.

The All-Star Game used to be that way, but now that home-field advantage in the World Series hinges on its result, the stakes and tensions have both been raised. Since then, the Home Run Derby has in some ways become analogous to the National Football League’s Pro Bowl, where unwritten restrictions on defensive players essentially produce a touchdown exhibition. To some fans, the home run/touchdown bonanzas, during which normally ultra-competitive players fraternize like old college roommates, are boring and meaningless. To others, those all-in-the-name-of-fun events, which occasionally produce compelling storylines, are important parts of every season.

I’m still writing, and you’re still reading, so it’s safe to assume that we both fall into the latter category. And in that case, it’s worth considering what we remember from past Home Run Derbies. If I put you on the spot, you probably could not tell me who won the 2002 Home Run Derby, who the runner-up was, or where it was held*—and, 10 years from now, you may not remember that Prince Fielder beat Jose Bautista in this year’s final round. But you probably remember Josh Hamilton’s 28-homer opening round at Yankee Stadium in 2008 and Robinson Cano celebrating his victory with his father and Derby pitcher, former major leaguer Jose Cano, in 2011.

*If you’re wondering, that was Jason Giambi over Sammy Sosa at Miller Park.

With all of that said, come back to the 2012 Derby: What will our most lasting memory of it be? The question is almost rhetorical. We can probably all agree that the boos raining down on Robinson Cano as he was announced, and the Bronx cheers he heard after each out during his homer-less opening round, are both what we will most remember and what we least want to remember. Clearly, what happened at Kauffman Stadium last night was bad for baseball—and, as is the case with anything that is bad for baseball, admitting it raises the question of what should be done to remedy it.

Here’s my take, and I encourage you to comment with yours.

The fans in Kansas City last night had the right to boo Cano for any reason—whether it was because he failed to offer Royals designated hitter Billy Butler a spot on his Derby team or because they believe he prefers Memphis-style barbecue sauce to their own. Fans pay for admission to the ballpark, and as long as they are not being abusive toward their fellow fans, they have the right to express their feelings about the players and their actions. Meanwhile, I do not think those expressions have a significant effect on the outcome of the event—at least, not as significant an effect as a player getting three hours of sleep after playing four games in three days—and even if they do, fans who have an interest in the outcome have the right to try to produce it.

And that’s where the problem arises. By instituting the “team captain” aspect of the Derby, where one player from each league selects the other three, in 2011, Major League Baseball created an opportunity for fans of a particular player (or team) to feel slighted by the captain’s decision not to include him. Because Cano chose Jose Bautista, Prince Fielder, and Mark Trumbo, instead of kick back, relax, and watch the balls fly, the Derby became kick back, relax, watch the balls fly, and boo Robinson Cano. It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt, and Royals fans were hurt.

But the Derby is the one event during the Major League Baseball year where no one is supposed to be hurt. One way to remedy the problem, advocated in this column by Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports, would be to require that a player from the host city’s team be placed on the Derby squad every year. That would silence the boo-birds at future host cities, but there are two notable issues with this solution.

  1. Suppose that this year’s Derby had been held at Dodger Stadium, and further, suppose that Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier—who are currently on the disabled list—had both been unable to participate. The Dodgers’ third-leading home-run hitter is A.J. Ellis. Would you like to see Ellis in the Home Run Derby, if the alternative is the fourth-best slugger in the National League?
  1. If the hometown player requirement were used in conjunction with the team captain system, two players on one of the teams would be locked in every year, leaving only two spots for the rest of the league. Suppose that Cano was the team captain, and that he was forced to choose Butler this year. Forgetting about any other worthy American League sluggers, which of Bautista, Fielder, or Trumbo would you exclude?

All of that boils down to this simple notion: We want the four best sluggers available representing each league. And earmarking three of the eight spots would often push the outcome away from that.

My solution would be to do away with the team captain system entirely, and to either return to fan voting or simply use the top four available players on the home-run leaderboard from each league on a certain date. The result with the latter option would have been rather similar to the teams selected by Cano and Kemp, though a different champion would have been crowned, because Fielder is currently 18th in the American League.

But remember that, come 2022, the winner of the 2012 Derby may no longer matter. The baseball world’s impression of the Kansas City fans—an impression they have seldom had the opportunity to make on national TV—is likely to prove prove more lasting.

And that’s plenty of motivation for Major League Baseball to restore the Home Run Derby to what it should be: An exhibition of power, all in the name of fun.

What to Watch for During the All-Star Game

  • Perhaps living in the Bay Area and watching Giants games regularly led National League manager Tony La Russa to develop a man crush on Matt Cain. Or, perhaps, with months of free time to ponder his lineup, the semi-employed skipper decided that, if possible, he wanted his starting pitcher to have previously worked with his starting catcher. Whatever his reasoning was, La Russa chose Cain over R.A. Dickey, Stephen Strasburg, and the other senior circuit candidates, matching the righty up with Buster Posey, who called his perfect game on June 13. The first two innings will render the verdict on one of the future Hall of Famer’s last important decisions.
  • Meanwhile, American League manager Ron Washington has elected to counter with Justin Verlander—a fine choice by any measure, but especially considering his history against the players in La Russa’s lineup. The National League starters who have previously faced Verlander are a combined 6-for-42 (.143) in their prior meetings, and the player with the most experience against him—Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, who will bat second in his return to his previous home at Kauffman Stadium—is just 4-for-22.
  • The newly crowned Home Run Derby champion, Prince Fielder, hit what proved to be the deciding homer in last year’s All-Star Game in the bottom of the fourth inning, putting the National League ahead, 3-1. That three-run shot was the first home run ever hit by a Brewers player in the Midsummer Classic, and Fielder—who will bat fifth in Washington’s lineup—now has a chance to make more history. No player has gone deep in consecutive All-Star Games after changing teams between those seasons, and no Tigers player has gone deep in an All-Star Game since Lou Whitaker in 1986.
  • Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is an All-Star for the second consecutive season, but he issued a walk and recorded only one out in last year’s game, an appearance that the 24-year-old would surely like to improve on tonight. Kimbrel enters the break on an incredible run: In 19 appearances since May 18, each of which lasted one inning, he is 14-for-14 in save chances and has recorded a 33-to-0 K/BB. That’s not a misprint—Kimbrel has struck out 33 batters since he last issued a walk, and that last walk came nearly two months ago, on May 15. Expect La Russa to turn to the hard-throwing righty in the stickiest situation the National League encounters tonight.