All statistics are current through July 3, 2012.
The whole All-Star star break is kind of a joke. We let the fans and the players pick “the best” to represent each league in a grudge match that “counts,*” but like a high school or national election, it is the popular who always seem to win. Derek Jeter (15th among qualified shortstops in WAR (+1.0) this season, batting .267/.318/.342 since May 1) is the starting AL shortstop while Yunel Escobar (+1.5 WAR) is left off the roster and not-even-top-10-but-just-as-valuable-as-Escobar shortstop Rafael Furcal is the NL’s starting shortstop ahead of better performing players like Starlin Castro, Jimmy Rollins, Jed Lowrie and Ian Desmond.
The token representation system would rather have the Cubs represented by Bryan LaHair (+1.1 WAR). Heck, do we even need this charade that every team must be represented? I mean did the 2010 version of Marlon Byrd really need to make the roster over Carlos Gonzalez? If the All Star game really “counts,” then shouldn’t the best of each league be squaring off instead of the beauty pageant we put on every year?
*Note: who wins the World Series “advantage” is only an “advantage” if the series goes to Game Seven. That has happened only once (last year) since the whole “it counts” thing began in 2003. If the Series goes less than seven games, the “loser” of the All-Star game actually has the upside of “home field advantage” given the two-three-two ballpark system in place.
The Home Run Derby’s set-up is no less puzzling. While it is nice that the contestants are no longer confined to All-Star selectees, the rule letting last year’s top-scoring league representatives choose the field is equally bizarre. What standards govern who is to be selected? Are we looking at batting practice power (if so, then where is Ichiro Suzuki?)? Are we looking at raw power (if so, then where are Josh Hamilton, Adam Dunn, Ryan Braun, Curtis Granderson and Joey Votto)?
Are we basing the NL selection solely on whether the player’s name has “Carlos” in it (if so, where is Carlos Ruiz?)? Why does there have to be four players from each league if the Home Run Derby doesn’t count for anything other than pure ratings—especially if players from the real “home team” routinely fail to make the rosters (though, to be fair, no one wants to see Billy Butler hit 10 doubles and then sit down).
It is nice to see Giancarlo Stanton finally playing this year, but where is Bryce Harper? While Harper’s longest home run this year would be shorter than any of the current contestants, and while his isolated power and at-bats per home run rate would trail the current group of players, his raw power is flat out impressive. Harper’s longest home run might be shorter than any of the current eight contestants (at 438 feet), but his average home run distance (420.1 feet) is the greater than any of them.
Moreover, his average speed of the ball off the bat (107.7 mph) would also lead the current Home Run Derby contestant crowd—all the more impressive considering that only 46 percent of all pitches thrown to Harper have been fastballs when something like 60 percent of all the pitches thrown this year have been fastballs. Among all qualifying hitters, only Alfonso Soriano (who can hit only fastballs) and Hamilton (who absolutely crushes them) have seen fewer fastballs than Harper this year. This speaks miles to Harper’s bat speed, an important attribute in a contest like the home run derby where change-ups are lobbed and the batter needs to supply more “counter kinetic” energy to drive the ball the distance. My best guess, however, is that Matt Kemp does not read FanGraphs.
That rant aside, let’s break down the 2012 Home Run Derby. The National League is being represented by Kemp (captain), Stanton, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Gonzalez. The American League is being represented by Robinson Cano (captain and 2011 Home Run Derby champion), Jose Bautista (who embarrassed my predictions last year), Mark Trumbo and Prince Fielder.
Let’s begin with the change in ballpark from Chase Field to Kauffman Stadium.
Last year at Chase Stadium, the roof was closed. This year’s contest is outdoors. That is an important factor because, beyond things such as as wind, temperature and humidity are key variables to flyball distance. Research from 20 years ago indicates that the difference in flyball distance between 50 degree and 90 degree temperatures varied by 16 feet, while more recent studies have shown that every 10 degree change in temperature above/below the low 70s results in a three to five-foot change in expected flyball distance.
A few feet might seem negligible, but anyone who watches the Home Run Derby knows that plenty of fly balls either just make it or just miss the wall throughout the competition. An open roof in the high 90s last year could have had much different results than a closed roof with controlled comfortable temperatures and neutralized humidity. This year, Weather.com is projecting thunderstorms and a high temperature of 91 and low of 71 at Kauffman Stadium for the Home Run Derby, with expected humidity ranging between 49 percent and 63 percent.
Another key factor this year is going to be the ballpark dimensions. You can see, pictured below, the dimensional differences between the two parks (courtesy of Hit Tracker):
Kauffman Stadium is one of the hardest ballparks in the major leagues to hit home runs in. StatCorner says it has a home run index of 73 for left-handed batters and a factor of 85 for right-handed batters. Neutral is 100; anything below that is bad news for batters. By comparison, Chase Field’s home run park factor is 114 for left-handed batters, and 102 for right-handed hitters.
That means that, in theory, right-handed batters should have the upper hand this year. Second, were all else equal, we should expect fewer balls hit to result in home runs this year. But of course not all is equal. We have new contestants and even those returning are a year older and in different physical condition. Further, the sample size of events occurring is small enough that anything is possible.
Noting that anything can happen, and adding the disclaimer that predicting a Home Run Derby is more random than predicting the outcome of a single baseball game, let’s break down the statistics of this year’s contestants. First, let’s look at some comparable player data, starting with the standard numbers:
|Name||Team||Age||LHB/RHB?||HR||AB/HR||HR/OFFB||2012 ISO||Career ISO||xBH|
There are some things to note, besides Kemp’s arguably playing-time-skewed numbers. First, at least on the surface, Fielder looks like the “odd man out” this year with his low isolated power rate since his rookie season in 2005. Fielder, by a mile, has the highest at-bat per home run rate of any participant (at 25.3). Cargo, spacing 17.4 at bats between home runs, has the second highest rate. Still, Fielder is safely middle of the pack in terms of average home run distance and longest home run of the season.
Further, as noted below, Fielder is tied with Stanton with the second highest ball-off-the-bat speed of any participant (50.8 percent of all pitches seen have been fastballs). Fielder has the longest and most consistent record of legitimate power of any of this year’s contestants, is in his prime, has four no-doubt home runs this year and is the only contestant with zero “lucky” or “just enough” dingers. Equally encouraging is the fact that Fielder’s overall power numbers are suppressed by a power-less April (.136 ISO). I would not count Fielder out as a dark horse to win, save for the fact that Kauffman Stadium’s original ballpark name was “death to lefties.”
On the opposite spectrum from Fielder is Trumbo, a total wild card for me. While possessing good pop (.223 ISO last year, .300 ISO this year), he does not possess the best contact skills (74.6 percent this year against an 80-plus percent major league average). Trumbo tends to swing and miss a lot (12.3 percent career whiff rate versus a 8.5-9 percent annual league rate), and a lot of his success in the derby will likely hinge on whether he properly squares up the ball. I guess that can be said about any derby participant, but the peripherals make it seem even more true for Trumbo.
Lastly, what is up with Beltran? He’s 35 years old and injury prone, but playing like it’s 2006 all over again. Can he be trusted and stay healthy in the second half? These are questions without clear answers, but the numbers show that Beltran is showing excellent power from both sides, and he’s always had good laser beam power. Beltan’s biggest weakness in the derby might be his relatively low flyball rate (39.6 percent) and higher than average popup rate (12.5 percent).
Next, let’s look at some “advanced” home run statistics of each, courtesy of Hit Tracker, starting with average true home run distance and longest home run distance:
|Name||Avg True HR Dist||Longest HR|
|Matt Kemp||400.2 feet||454 feet|
|Giancarlo Stanton||406.4 feet||462 feet|
|Carlos Beltran||408.9 feet||464 feet|
|Carlos Gonzalez||412.4 feet||445 feet|
|Robinson Cano||406.8 feet||440 feet|
|Jose Bautista||403.3 feet||455 feet|
|Mark Trumbo||420.1 feet||459 feet|
|Prince Fielder||413.0 feet||456 feet|
Average speed of home runs off of bat:
|Name||Off Bat Speed|
|Matt Kemp||101.8 MPH|
|Giancarlo Stanton||107.1 MPH|
|Carlos Beltran||104.5 MPH|
|Carlos Gonzalez||106.0 MPH|
|Robinson Cano||105.2 MPH|
|Jose Bautista||106.5 MPH|
|Mark Trumbo||107.2 MPH|
|Prince Fielder||107.1 MPH|
And a breakdown of each player’s spray chart:
I had to put Beltran in his own special chart because he’s a switch hitter. Here’s his spray chart:
|%Right Field||%Center Field||%Left Field|
Kemp’s had a lot of opposite field power this year, and that could work to his disadvantage in the Home Run Derby this year. However, Kemp’s 2009-2011 spray chart shows Kemp has plenty of pull and dead-center power, so I wouldn’t be worried about what his 36-game sample size says about his tendency to hit opposite field home runs this year. CarGo has ample dead-center power too, which in theory should work to his advantage as a lefty in Kauffman, but his home (.305 ISO this year, .287 career) versus away (.190 ISO this year, .166 career) splits indicate the park might turn out to be a true challenge to his chances of getting past the first round.
I would likely put my money on Stanton or Bautista. I really like their raw power, handedness and bat speed. But then again, I said that about Bautista last year, and he did not make it out of the first round (and Robinson Cano won the derby).
As always, leave the love/hate in the comments below. You can catch me on ESPN Radio 1420 Honolulu this Friday July 6 at 2:30 PM discussing the home run derby. Catch the feed live online by clicking here.