On Monday night, baseball’s eyes were turned to Kauffman Stadium to watch some of the game’s biggest sluggers smack BP pitches into the bleachers in the Home Run Derby. It’s far from the highlight of the All-Star Break, but it’s a fun warm-up for the Midsummer Classic and oohing and aahing at the mammoth moonshots never gets old.
Unfortunately for fans of 22 teams, participation in the derby is limited to just eight players, so even in a fair world you’re looking at a hometown contestant only once every four years. Unsurprisingly, no Indians players were selected to this year’s dinger derby. But that got me thinking: Which Cleveland hitter would be best suited to win a home run derby?
I should preface this by noting that there is no magic formula for winning the derby. The best hitters don’t always win; heck, even the guys who hit best that night don’t always win (Josh Hamilton, anyone?). There’s a certain type of player that we might thoroughly expect to do well, but in a contest where everyone packs prodigious power, those kinds of differences don’t matter as much as things like how the pitches are coming (a huge factor that always seems to get lost in the shuffle) or how the player is feeling that night.
So how do we pick the Tribe’s optimal derby contestant? Looking at the team’s best hitters this year would be a good start. Personally I’d go with Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley were also in the discussion in our midseason Wroundtable survey as well. But would any of them be good contestants?
I’d say not. For starters, Brantley doesn’t have much power at all, and while Kipnis is known for his pop he hasn’t really shown it this year (.143 ISO, .419 SLG). Choo and Cabrera are bigger sluggers, but neither of them are primarily power hitters either. In a contest where all the pitches (theoretically) come right down the middle at the same speed, knowing to lay off a breaking ball out of the zone or time an off-speed pitch doesn’t really matter.
The first guy on the roster you think of when you’re talking about raw power is Travis Hafner. In addition to having the second deck of the right-center field stands named after him because of his proclivity for hitting the ball there, he leads the team with his .197 ISO, and his .853 Power Factor shows that what we see as pop isn’t just contact ability. He’d be a solid choice for the derby, and if he’s having a good day he’d definitely be the most fun to watch.
Another possibility is Carlos Santana. A year ago I would have picked him for sure—he was, after all, the most powerful catcher in baseball. But, as every Indians fan knows, he just hasn’t been the same hitter in 2012. As Brian noted last week, Santana’s struggles at the plate are largely physical as his injuries have affected his mechanics and impeded his ability to time his swing for off-speed pitches. Such issues wouldn’t matter as much in a home run derby, but if nothing else they’d increase his chances of having a bad night. We’ll pass on him.
How about Jose Lopez? He’s hit a number of memorable home runs this year, right? Well, yes, but that number is four. Popular perception of Lopez (even among Tribe experts) is way, way too high. Yes, power is Lopez’ most redeeming attribute, but even so he’s slugging just .422. It’s hard to imagine him putting on a show in a dinger derby.
So who would be take, besides Hafner? Here’s an interesting idea: Shelley Duncan. Everyone knows he has great raw power—he has an .860 career Power Factor and he’s averaged 27 home runs per 600 plate appearances in his career—and in a home run derby that’s all that really matters. Let him find his groove against easy BP without worrying about breaking balls and he’d be rocketing them out of the park.
Speaking of Quad-A players, the best derby contestant in the organization might not be on the active-roster. I’m talking about Matt LaPorta, who’s slugging .575 and averaging more than a homer every 15 at-bats for the Triple-A Clippers. Call him a mistake-pitch hitter or say he can’t handle breaking balls, but in a home run derby he’d see nothing but straight, juicy, not-too-fast fastballs. Let him loose in a competition like that and he’d be fun to watch.
So what’s the verdict here? When Hafner is at his best there’s no one on the team that knock ‘em out like him, but unfortunately he isn’t on all the time. With apologies to Duncan and Pronk I think I’d go with LaPorta in a home run showdown, though if someone else were to step up I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.
What do you think? Which Indians hitter would fare best in a home run derby?