Another year, another Home Run Derby

Another year, another Home Run Derby. One of baseball’s oldest exhibitions isolates, singles out and puts on display one of the most entertaining aspects of the game: the long ball.

In the “post” steroid era, home runs league wide have not been as prodigious as they were 15 years ago. The 40-home run hitter is not a common thing these days. Let us not forget that Barry Bonds led the major leagues only twice in total home runs in a single season during his 21-year career (1986-2007) despite owning eight seasons of 40 or more home runs.

However, the first half of 2013 has seen a renaissance of sorts in home runs. This year, 2,804 home runs were hit in the first “half” of the season. Last year, that number was 2,592. In 2011 it was 2,428, and in 2010 it was 2,500. The number of first half home runs in 2013 is 12 percent higher than it was between 2010 and 2012.

Heading into the break, 14 players have 20 or more home runs. Two have 30 or more, and four have 25 or more. Last year, 12 players crossed the 20 home run threshold by the All-Star break. None had 30. (Josh Hamilton came the closest, with 27.) In 2011, there were even fewer 20 home run hitters at the All-Star break—only 10. One, Jose Bautista, had 30 or more (31 to be exact). In 2010, the year Bautista hit 54 home runs, nobody had even 25 at the All-Star break. Only 11 had 20 or more homers in the first half that year.

So 2013 is not quite a return to the glory days—in 2000, there were 3,311 first half home runs and as recently as 2009 there were 2,707— but it is nice to see an uptick in four baggers in the renewed “era” (pun intended) of the pitcher—the “post-Jermaine Dye era,” if you will.

This year’s Home Run Derby features a nice mix of newcomers, such as phenom youngster Bryce Harper and pull-power monster Pedro Alvarez, and veteran Derby contestants/former winners, such as Prince Fielder and Robinson Cano. While one should not bet on any single person to win (I would imagine the volatility is worse than betting on single game outcomes, plus gambling is illegal in many states…), here is some fun analysis of the park and players involved for your own edification.

Citi Field

Built in 2009, Citi Field initially proved to be one of the more aggressive pitcher-friendly parks in the major leagues. Robbing hometown superstar David Wright of many documented would-have-been home runs, the Mets moved in the fences last season. This resulted in an addition 46 home runs at Citi Field last season that would not have cleared the park under the old dimensions.

Nonetheless, Citi Field still rates as a pitcher’s park in which it is relatively difficult to hit home runs. This season, 83 of the major leagues’ 2,804 home runs (2.96 percent) have been hit there. Citi Field has the 11th fewest home runs of any major league park this season. On a per game basis, Citi Field has the 10th fewest home runs.

The distance from the plate to dead center is 408 feet. The non-symmetry of left and right fields (left field is practically a straight line, while the right field fence zig-zags) and closer distances of left center and deep left center to the plate theoretically give the right handed hitters (Wright, Michael Cuddyer and Yoenis Cespedes) the advantage in tonight’s exhibition.

However, based on the mapping of season-long home run batted ball data over the dimensions of Citi Field (courtesy of Home Run Tracker), only two players, Prince Fielder and Chris Davis, would have seen their home run totals impacted by more than a single long ball. And even then, the field’s impact on these two hitters would have been to rob two home runs. Based on this batted ball mapping, it appears that Robinson Cano would be the hitter Citi Field would have the most impact on (by a wide margin; he has the most “barely cleared the fence” home runs (four) according to the Citi Field batted ball data juxtaposition).

Pedro Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez is one of the big reasons that the Pirates are neck-and-neck with the Cardinals for the best record in baseball. Despite batting just .200 during the first two months of the season, he is currently at .250 with 24 home runs. Though he is prone to struggle with strikeouts (his 32.6 percent rate is third highest in the majors, behind Chris Carter and Mike Napoli), his power tends to persist. Despite his April/May struggles, Pedro still hit a combined 10 home runs during those two months. He is about as legit a 30-plus home run hitter as exists in major leagues today, and his 24 home runs are second in the National League behind Carlos Gonzalez’s 25 (he is tied for fifth for the major league lead with Adam Dunn and Raul Ibanez).

Two-thirds of Alvarez’s homers have been pull homers, which in theory should work against him tonight. However, all but one of his right field homer runs this season would have been still been a home run at Citi Field. That other one would have barely missed. Alvarez has no “lucky” home runs (a homer that would not have cleared the fence had it been struck on a 70-degree calm day) and is tied for the major league lead in “no doubt” home runs (those that cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet past the fence) with nine. Based on his PITCHf/x data, Alvarez would be best served by his pitcher throwing fastballs (particularly the two-seamer) tonight.

David Wright

Wright is no stranger to the Home Run Derby and will be the hometown favorite (and National League captain) of this year’s event.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, every single one of David Wright’s home runs this season would have cleared the fence at Citi Field. All but two of Wright’s home runs this season have been to the left half of the field, and the Mets likely redesigned the fences with Wright’s swing propensity in mind. This would theoretically be to Wright’s advantage.

However, Wright has hit the fewest number of home runs per plate appearance this season, spacing out his home runs every 30.7 plate appearances. Only two other Derby contestants (Fielder, with a rate of 26.4 plate appearances per home run, and Cespedes, with a rate of 22.7 plate appearances per home run) have plate appearances per home run rate of even 20. The major league average rate this season is 38.3. Let’s not be too hard on him, however, as Wright hit the longest home run of any Derby contestant this season with a 464-foot blast on May 3. Based on his PITCHf/x data, Wright would be best served by his pitcher throwing change-ups tonight.

Bryce Harper

Only 20 years old, Harper is the youngest player in the Derby by a mile, and the second-youngest player in the Derby’s history (Ken Griffey Jr. was younger in his 1990 appearance). Even before signing as the No. 1 overall pick a few years ago with the Washington Nationals, Harper was famous for his tape measure home runs. Harper is one of the game’s most exciting hitters, and he still has plenty of room to grow as a player.

That said, 2013 has been a slight disappointment. After belting nine home runs with a .344 batting average in April, Harper cooled off in a big way before landing on the disabled list for several weeks due to a knee injury. Harper hit below .200 in what limited playing time he saw in May and July; he has a .300 wOBA since April ended.

Despite his post-April struggles, Harper still has 13 home runs in only 58 games played this season. That is a 162-game pace of 36. His .259 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average, which measures power based on extra base hits) ranks third in the Derby behind Chris Davis (.402) and Alvarez (.266), well ahead of the guy with the fourth highest ISO, Michael Cuddyer, who owns a .239 ISO this season. Citi Field would not have robbed Harper of a single home run this season. He is the only player other than David Wright in the Derby who can say that.

Harper’s sweet swing and quick bat will be on display tonight, and if past home run exhibitions are any indication of what to expect, you should anticipate an exciting showing. Based on his PITCHf/x data, Harper would be best served by his pitcher throwing fastballs (particularly the two-seamer) tonight.

Michael Cuddyer

If you did not know the 2013 season stats of any player this year and had to guess who has the lowest ISO of this year’s Derby participant, Michael Cuddyer would be your first guess. Owner of a .187 career ISO at age 34, Cuddyer is having a career year with the Rockies. He is batting .330 (he has never even batted .300 in any single season) with 16 home runs this year over 74 games played, matching his 2012 home run total in 27 fewer games. Cuddyer has flashed power potential in the past, blasting 32 home runs for the Twins in 2009 and 24 home runs back in 2006, but he only has one other season in which he eclipsed the 16 home run threshold (he hit 20 in 2011, his last season with the Twins).

Cuddyer’s bat speed and home runs totals are middle of the road among the Derby’s contestants this year, but his power this season has been legit. None of his homers have been of the “lucky” variety. Coors has certainly had an impact on Cuddyer’s power numbers, but Citi Field’s impact on his power production projects to be marginal provided he tries to pull the ball. Based on his PITCHf/x data, Cuddyer would be best served by his pitcher throwing change-ups tonight.

Prince Fielder

Fielder won the Derby at spacious Kaufmann Field last year against all odds. However, there are plenty of reasons to think he will not repeat as champion in 2013. First, despite a respectable home run pace in the 25-30 range, Fielder has the second lowest plate appearances per home run rate among this year’s contestants. Furthermore, three-quarters of Fielder’s home runs this year have been to right side, which works against him at Citi Field.

Fielder is one of two players in this year’s Derby who would have had more than one home run hit in the first half robbed by Citi Field. Further, he is the second most likely player to be impacted by the park’s dimensions behind Robinson Cano. Add to this that Fielder has the lowest isolated power number of any Derby participant by (.190), the shortest average home run distance of any Derby participant by five feet (396.2 feet), and the slowest ball-off-the-bat speed for his home runs this season of any Derby participant by at least one mile per hour (102.4 mph), Fielder is my pick for least likely to win— this despite having the second longest home run of any Derby participant this season (460 feet).

Based on his PITCHf/x data, Fielder would be best served by his pitcher throwing change-ups tonight—though I think the fastball would be the better option given his bat speed (i.e., less force would be required to be generated on his own).

Robinson Cano

A few years ago, I pegged Robinson Cano as the least likely player to win the Home Run Derby and he not only proved me wrong, but he made my cautionary prediction look flat out ridiculous. However, once again, I must caution folks from picking Cano to win this year’s Home Run Derby.

First off, Cano has the most “lucky” home runs of any contestant this year, with four. He does, however, own six “no doubt” home runs this season and the third most homers of the Derby’s participants. Mapping of Cano’s home run batted ball data over Citi Field’s dimensions indicates that he is the player most likely to be impeded by the park’s dimensions. Although the park would have robbed him of only one home run, another four would have just barely reached the fence. Based on his PITCHf/x data, Cano would be best served by his pitcher throwing change-ups tonight

Yoenis Cespedes

Somewhat of a baseball rock star due to his YouTube video advertising, Cespedes was a force for the Athletics in his rookie season last year, launching 23 home runs in 129 games played. This season, Cespedes is on pace to hit at least as many home runs, but his power is down slightly overall (from a .214 isolated power last year to a .195 isolated power this year) due to a decreased doubles and triples pace.

Although Cespedes possesses the second lowest ISO of the Derby’s contestants, he also owns the greatest average home run distance of this year’s contestants as well as excellent bat speed. Based on his PITCHf/x data, Cespedes would be best served by his pitcher throwing fastballs (particularly the two-seamer (is there a pattern here?) tonight.

Chris Davis

Davis is not a fluke. He’s not on steroids a la Brady Anderson. He is just a late bloomer a la Jose Bautista who is finally putting it all together.

Davis’ power tool has always been legit. In 2008, his age 22 season. he swatted a combined 40 home runs between the majors and minors. Davis struggled to repeat his 2008 major league performance between 2009 and 2011, but he still hit a combined 27 home runs between the majors and minors in 2009 and a combined 29 homers 2011. Last year, Davis belted 33 home runs while batting .270/.326/.501. This year, he has bested his last season total by four home runs in 44 fewer games. That’s down right beastly. He has eight “no doubt” home runs.

Davis has 13 more home runs than the contestant with the second most (Alvarez). Both Wright and Harper have 13 home runs on the season! Davis’ first half pace has been fun to watch, as he is tied for second with the most number of home runs hit by the All-Star break in a single season (only Barry Bonds, with 39 in 2001, had more). His 93 RBIs make him the sixth player in major league history since 1939 to record 93 or more RBIs before the All-Star break.

For all his home runs, however, he yet to hit one 440 feet this season (neither has Harper or Cuddyer). While Alvarez is the only Derby participant this year to crush fastballs better than Davis, the PITCHf/x data indicates that Davis would be best served hacking at change-ups tonight. The average number of runs created by Davis per 100 times the change-up is thrown to him is 5.4. Wright is the second best change-up hitter in the Derby, and he produces an average of “only” 3.5 runs per 100 change-up thrown to him.

Conclusion

Picking a winner is a total crapshoot, but if I had to pick my two favorites, they would be Harper and Alvarez. My least favorite two players to win it would be Fielder and Cano. I will be rooting for Chris Davis.

Enjoy the Home Run Derby tonight!

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