The Home Run Derby Field Looks Loaded
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: Filling out the Home Run Derby bracket, British fans bantering Angel Hernandez off the pitch, Joey Votto and Kiké Hernandez wasting some hecklers, and much more.
If you have any feedback, questions or angry rants to send my way, please don’t hesitate to hit me up via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter.
And a programming note: Nine Innings will be taking its own All-Star break during All-Star week. I’ll be back with a fresh column on July 16.
This Week In … The Home Run Derby!
The Home Run Derby, also known as the only part of All-Star Week worth watching (okay, the Futures Game is cool, too) has announced the first six of the eight men who’ll be participating. It’s a who’s-who of beefy dinger dudes: Carlos Santana, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Pete Alonso, and Josh Bell (and also less large lads like Christian Yelich and Ronald Acuña Jr., who are nonetheless good at hitting bombs).
I have no complaints with the group so far, given that they’re all masters of power and distance. But Nos. 7 and 8 have yet to be announced and won’t be until Wednesday night. Mike Trout won’t be there, unfortunately. Nor will Cody Bellinger. Excellent sluggers like Joey Gallo, Shohei Ohtani, Luke Voit, Gary Sanchez and, uh, Ketel Marte are either interested or hoping for an invite. And there are several more huge homer hombres who haven’t yet surfaced in the Derby rumor mill: Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Moustakas, Jorge Soler, Freddie Freeman… the list goes on.
The Year of the Rabbit Ball has made it that much harder to build a Derby field, if only because you have more good candidates than open spots. When everyone’s hitting for power, it’s hard not to feel like a deserving name is going to get left out. But alas, only two spots remain, and I don’t envy those who have to narrow down the field.
Were it up to me, I know who would be a stone-cold lock to get one of those spots: Dan Vogelbach. The Mariners’ All-Star first baseman is a massive slab of homer-crushing meat with a violent uppercut swing that turns balls into putty. What’s more, he’s exactly the kind of man to fill the Matt Stairs-shaped hole that exists in baseball. Men like John Jaha or David Wells, or Prince Fielder in his belly-shaking prime; MLB needs these physical specimens back in the spotlight. So Vogelbach gets the nod.
As for the eighth and final place, a suggestion: a play-in tournament for the Derby. Like the NCAA tournament’s First Four, you take the four players with the highest home run totals who aren’t already in the field and have them go head to head for the last spot. Air it on Sunday night after the Futures Game instead of the Celebrity Softball Game; hell, take the MVP of the Celebrity Softball Game and have them take part, too. Why not? All-Star Week is supposed to be fun and stupid. Either way, this gives the competition some drama and widens the field at the same time, allowing more players to take part, even if only for one round.
Regardless of who gets chosen, the Derby will be a fun time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go light a candle for Big Dan.
This Week In … Vladimir Guerrero Jr.!
It was a good week for Vlad Jr., who hit .300/.391/.500 over six games, including a homer and a double, but his overall line is as appealing as a cup full of mud: .251/.323/.419 with twice as many strikeouts as walks and only eight homers in 54 games. It’s impressive for someone who’s still not 21, but as I’ve noted before, the promise with Guerrero was fire and blood, not smoke and bruises.
The solace you can take is that plenty of future stars get punched in the mouth their first trip through MLB. Randy Johnson couldn’t throw strikes over his first four seasons. Roberto Clemente hit about as well as Alcides Escobar when he debuted at 20 years old. Mike Trout is a robot sent from the future to conquer the game, and even he was utter butt in his abbreviated rookie year, slashing .220/.281/.390 in 40 games. (Granted, he then hit .326/.399/.564 the next season at age 20, because he’s Trout.) Ty Cobb, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount … those are just a handful of the Hall of Famers who fell flat on their faces when they reached the bigs.
If there’s a silver lining for Guerrero, it’s in those future superstars who also found the majors to be the hardest thing imaginable. And in Vlad Jr.’s case, there are signs that he’s doing better than the stats: His expected numbers (via Statcast) are better than his actual figures, suggesting the tools are all there. Maybe the All-Star break and the Home Run Derby will recharge his batteries and take some of the pressure off. If they don’t, though, and Guerrero finishes the year with a line that inspires more shrugs than shrieks, don’t lose hope. Plenty of others have proven that you can stumble at the start of your career and still end up winning the race.
This Week In … Fernando Tatis Jr. Should Be An All-Star!
Fernando Tatis Jr. should be an All-Star! Okay, so maybe the stats don’t back it up (or the lack thereof, given that he missed over a month with injury). But when there’s a player in the league who can do this:
Then you should probably find room for him in your contest of stars where the whole point is excitement and fun, because this young man is nothing but excitement and fun.
This Week In … Being 'Stupid as ----'!
A Pedro Strop-Yasiel Puig feud is pretty much the Sophie’s Choice for baseball fans who scream about Playing The Game The Right Way. It’s also a bizarre one on its face, as Strop and Puig don’t have any kind of history. Nonetheless, the two got into it Saturday at Great American Ball Park after Strop plunked Puig with a 3–0 pitch in the bottom of the eighth. Puig slowly ambled toward the mound saying some angry things, leading to benches clearing but nothing more.
So what was behind Puig’s anger? He told reporters afterward that he was simply irked at wearing one for no reason. Strop, though, thinks it’s because Puig is a few crayons short of a full set.
Strop’s insult isn’t quite as catchy as Max Muncy’s napalm drop of “Go get the ball out of the ocean,” but honestly, it’s refreshing in its honesty and straightforwardness. Calling someone “stupid as f---” is a rock-solid burn that doesn’t need context to work. It’s a prime example of Talking Trash The Right Way: relatable, simple, and workmanlike. And it’s also very funny.
This Week In … A Bit of Umpire Banter!
MLB’s inaugural London Series was a smashing success, assuming the league defines success as “hosting two Coors Field games in England, and also Freddie Mercury beating Winston Churchill and the Loch Ness Monster in a race.” The scores and messy, idiotic stats were the biggest news, but overall, the experience seems to have been a positive one, and it gave fans the phrase “absolute box office” (as well as the soothing sound of “Didi Gregorius” in a British accent). And even though British fans don’t seem fully up on how this whole rooting for baseball thing works—given the preponderance of split Yankees/Red Sox attire and this terrifying level of joy over a ball—they did get one thing completely right.
Good job, England.
This Week In … Joey Votto!
Joey Votto isn’t here to take your crap, hecklers. For proof, here’s him responding to some dude behind a dugout with eloquence and wit.
Is this the most scholarly way to pass along your displeasure? No. Is this the most efficient and effective way to tell someone to get bent? Absolutely. Plus, as a Canadian, Joey Votto is legally barred from using expletives stronger than “heck” or “darn,” so this is about as rude as he can get before being stripped of his citizenship.
This Week In … Telling Hecklers To Cram It!
Votto wasn’t the only player who got the best of a loudmouth in the stands last week. Last Thursday in Colorado, Dodgers utility infielder Kiké Hernandez was hearing it from some fans in the seats right by the visitors’ on-deck circle at Coors Field. Mind you, they weren’t exactly spouting the witticisms of the Algonquin Round Table—mostly variations on Hernandez being small (which, while he’s not exactly a giant, he’s not Jose Altuve either).
Either way, Hernandez got the last laugh and then some. With two on and a one-run Dodgers lead, he cranked a pinch-hit homer off Wade Davis and capped his trip around the bases with some aggressive blowing of kisses to the dudes who had been riding him.
Somehow, despite having melted into puddles of shame after that homer, those guys were able to recognize that Hernandez got them good and gave him a tip of the cap (and got a wave back). The moral of the story, though: If you’re going to heckle, at least be funny enough so that when a player dunks you into the Earth’s molten core, you don’t feel that bad about it.
This Week In … This Week’s Worst Play of the Week!
This Week’s Worst Play of the Week is a semi-recurring segment in which I highlight the week’s worst play of the week. If you have a good candidate, hit me up on Twitter!
The Cubs’ Adbert Alzolay is a pitcher, and nothing proved that quite as much as this at-bat against the Braves last Tuesday. With the bases loaded and one out, Adzolay was asked to lay down a bunt, because apparently he can’t be trusted to do anything more than that. As it turns out, even that was a step too far.
The ensuing disaster wasn’t entirely Adzolay’s fault. Javy Baez on third presumably was going on contact and simply got hung out to dry when Adzolay missed the bunt. Willson Contreras deciding to rumble off second and over to third, though … that’s just all kinds of dumb, even if he did almost beat the throw (and his immediate point to the dugout to say, “I’m safe,” only for Joe Maddon not to bother checking, is a nice one-two comedy bit). Regardless of who screwed up worse, though, this multi-player TOOTBLAN is a deserving winner of This Week’s Worst Play of the Week.
This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!
Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of old 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my work desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Rafael Palmeiro, 1B, Texas Rangers (Donruss 1991)
If you’re so inclined, you can buy the very card I’m writing about online for two quarters. A copy of the card autographed by Palmeiro will set you back a little further—two sawbucks, to be exact, over on Ebay.
There’s no reason for this card to cost any more than a dollar or two. The only baseball cards nowadays worth anything are rare variants or those from rookie years, and Palmeiro’s is neither. It was simply a snapshot of a young and developing power hitter right as he turned the corner into a consistent performer—one who would go on to have a brilliant career that today counts for seemingly nothing.
By all accounts, Palmeiro was fueled by slights and insecurity, constantly believing that he was both overlooked and not good enough. As Palmeiro’s wife, Lynne, told Johnette Howard for a feature in a September 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated, “He’s liable to come home and say, ‘I can’t hit, I forgot how to hit!’…. I said, ‘Rafael, you can’t just forget.’ And he said, ‘No, I can’t help it. I really think I did.’”
That obviously wasn’t true. From 1990 through the turn of the millennium, Palmeiro was one of the best hitters in the majors. But how much of that was aided by chemical supplements is an open question, and one that ultimately stained his career.
Palmeiro hit 569 career homers and finished with more career Wins Above Replacement than Eddie Murray, Hank Greenberg, and Harmon Killebrew. Yet he faded into the ether once the steroid accusations began and has remained in a kind of limbo ever since. In the world of baseball cards, Palmeiro’s barely worth a dollar. In the end, he was both overlooked and not good enough.