By Rich Arleo
The Home Run Derby, a staple of MLB All-Star Weekend since its inception in 1985, is one of the more widely anticipated All-Star events in major sports. It’s a simple concept: fans love home runs, so fans love watching the best home run hitters hit a ton of them in a competition-style event. While the Derby has undergone a number of changes since its inception, its latest move to the current bracket format with a timer instead of outs has been very well received and created a number of great moments.
The 2017 Derby featured some of the best young sluggers in baseball, and the first-round bracket featured some incredible matchups. While everyone wanted a Giancarlo Stanton vs. Aaron Judge final, Judge’s New York Yankees teammate had something to say about that. Sanchez, the No. 8 seed, upset the No. 1 seed, 17-16, with Stanton falling seconds shy of drawing even. The other hometown favorite, Justin Bour, looked like he also pulled off a huge upset after hitting more first-round homers than anyone else, 22, before Judge could come to the plate. Judge, however, answered the bell on his way to an incredible victory in his Derby debut. Where does his performance rank in Home Run Derby history?
5. Bobby Abreu sets records in Detroit – 2005
In anticipation of the first World Baseball Classic, MLB added an international twist to this year’s Derby, inviting eight stars from eight different nations to compete. Representing Venezuela, Abreu entered the Derby after hitting 18 homers in the first half and earning himself a spot as the National League’s starting right fielder in the All-Star Game. Abreu began the contest with a bang, opening with a then-record 24 first-round homers (besting Miguel Tejada’s mark of 15 he set the year before). After hitting six more for a two-round total of 30 — which was already the new mark for single Derby homers — Abreu squared off against hometown hero Ivan ‘Pudge’ Rodriguez and cruised to an easy 11-5 win at Comerica Park. He ended the night with two new records and a shiny new trophy, but Abreu’s surprising ’05 performance is a big reason many believe in the “Derby curse” — a myth debunked by most statistical analysis — as he managed to hit just six homers in 322 plate appearances in the entire second half. Despite never hitting more than 31 homers in a single season, Abreu’s 41-homer performance in the ’05 Derby still ranks among the best ever.
4. Todd Frazier puts Cincy into a Frenzy – 2015
After finishing as the runner-up in the ’14 Derby, Frazier entered ’15 looking for a win in his home park as the No. 2 seed after hitting 25 first-half homers. Frazier was up against the No. 7 seed Prince Fielder, and the two-time Derby champ gave Frazier a challenge by hitting 13 homers. Taking pitches from his brother Charlie Jr. while being fueled by a raucous home crowd, Frazier mashed a first-round-best 14 homers to defeat Fielder and advance. After beating Josh Donaldson 10-9 in the semis with a buzzer-beating blast, Frazier matched up against Dodgers slugger Joc Pederson in the finals. Once again facing a tall task after Pederson hit 14, Frazier didn’t disappoint and sent the fans home happy with 15 final-round homers to earn the trophy. He and Pederson each hit 39 homers on the night, which stands as the fifth-highest Derby total.
3. Giancarlo Stanton hits 61 homers in San Diego – 2016
Ever since his MLB debut everyone knew the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Stanton was built for the Derby, but after a disappointing performance in his ’14 debut, Stanton missed the ’15 Derby with an injury and entered 2016’s something to prove. Stanton wasted no time making his statement, mashing 24 first-round homers (tying Abreu for second most in a single round). As the No. 5 seed, Stanton went first in each round so he didn’t have the luxury of taking it easy and had to set the tone each time. In the second round, Stanton hit 17 to topple the No. 1 seed Mark Trumbo. He then put on one of the best final round performances ever with 20 homers to set a new Derby record with 61 total home runs and defeat the defending champion Frazier.
2. Josh Hamilton lights up the Bronx – 2008
The Yankees hosted the Home Run Derby for the first time in the final year of the original Yankee Stadium, and it will go down as one of the best thanks to Josh Hamilton. A former first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Hamilton’s story of battling through drug addiction to make it back to the Major Leagues was gaining notoriety in the midst of his breakout year for the Texas Rangers. After putting together a decent rookie year for the Cincinnati Reds in ’07, Hamilton joined the Rangers and put together an unbelievable first half. He entered the Derby with 21 homers and 95 RBIs in 93 games, and he made the Bronx faithful swoon with a record-setting first round. Hamilton put on an absolute show with 28 homers — hitting 13 in a row at one point — to top Abreu’s single-round record of 24 in ’05. He elected to rest after just four homers in the second round since he already had enough to advance to the finals. Unfortunately, Hamilton didn’t have enough in him in the last round, losing to Justin Morneau 5-3 despite out-homering him in the Derby 35-22. Morneau may have taken home the hardware, but the ’08 Derby will always be remembered for Hamilton putting on a display of power that has yet to be matched.
1. Aaron Judge answers early challenge, then dominates – 2017
Leading up to the 2017 Home Run Derby, many anticipated a two-man battle between the defending champion Stanton and Yankees rookie phenom Judge. Despite Judge leading MLB with 30 homers entering the break, Stanton was still widely considered the favorite as the returning champ in front of his home crowd. Judge, in his first Derby, was seeded No. 2 and many expected an inevitable matchup in the final between the two favorites. Stanton, however, was upset by Judge’s teammate Sanchez. And in the final matchup of the first round, Marlins first baseman Bour had the fans in Marlins Park in the palm of his hands as he played to the crowd in the middle of hitting 22 homers. The impressive total, which is now the fourth highest in a single round, put all the pressure on Judge. It seemed as though the two favorites would be exiting early, but then Judge stepped to the plate and quickly changed the narrative.
A stunned crowd, who booed Judge as he came to bat against their hometown favorite, suddenly couldn’t keep from going wild as they watched Judge pepper the park with monstrous shots, including one over the structure in center field that measured 501 feet. One blast somehow hit the roof at Marlins Park, and it was surprisingly called an out even though it clearly would’ve left the park. With seconds to go, Judge hit his 23rd homer of the round to eliminate Bour and move on. From there, it was almost funny how easy it was for Judge. As the rest of the field tired, Judge just continued to crush baseballs. In the second round, fellow rookie Cody Bellinger went first and hit 12. Judge answered with 13 with a full minute to spare plus another 30 seconds of bonus time he earned by hitting two homers that traveled at least 440 feet. Then in the final round Miguel Sano led off with 10, which usually would be a solid number, but apparently not when you’re up against Judge. The broadcasters joked as Judge smiled while blasting 11 homers with two full minutes to spare. It was arguably the most dominant Derby performance ever, and while his 47 total homers are second to Stanton’s 61 in ’16, Judge still technically had another three minutes and 30 seconds of time that he didn’t even need. Had he gone first in each round and needed the full time, one would think Judge would’ve easily surpassed Stanton’s total from last year, maybe even reaching 70. Judge also finished with four homers over 500 feet, including the longest of the derby — 513 feet — in the second round. Given his dominance in his debut, Judge could be in for a long reign as Derby champion.