Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Home Run Derby Must Showcase Young Stars

Major League Baseball recently unveiled a new format for its annual Home Run Derby, with participants now given a set amount of time in which to launch as many round-trippers as possible. This should make the event shorter, sharper, and much more palatable for television, but Commissioner Rob Manfred must also strive to make the Derby a showcase of the sport's brightest young stars.

By now, you're well aware of the narrative. Baseball is old, slow, anachronistic. The present generation yearns for instant gratification, rather than plodding mystery. Kids prefer the NBA's whiz-bang drama or the NFL's hyperbolic soap opera to MLB's unfurling poetry. The old ballgame, once America's definitive sporting fixation, is now forced to compete with video games, mobile phones and social networks for a share of our ever-diminished attention spans. Adolescents don't have time for baseball nowadays.

Yet, the Home Run Derby is baseball's one opportunity to be different; its one opportunity to be loud, brash, and self-aggrandizing. The act of witnessing a seamed ball fly over a stadium wall has captivated humans for more than a century, and the Home Run Derby plays on that fascination to create an inherently exciting spectacle. When people read box scores or watch baseball recaps, they typically skip to see if any home runs were hit. The Derby boils that interest down into one evening of entertainment, like a highlight reel brought to life.

Thus, the annual homer contest is arguably baseball's greatest weapon in the fight to win new and younger fans. It takes places in early July, when the other main sports are dormant, giving baseball a midsummer night under the brightest spotlight. Traditionally, the Derby rates reasonably well in terms of television viewers, which affords Commissioner Manfred a prime opportunity to entertain the nation, exhibit baseball in a positive manner, and, above all else, promote the game's most vibrant young superstars.

Right now, baseball is blessed with an extraordinary crop of fresh-faced wonder kids, but they're seemingly overshadowed by their contemporaries in football and basketball. From Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper, through Anthony Rizzo, Joc Pederson and Paul Goldschmidt, and on to Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant, baseball is well-endowed with rising stars, and the Home Run Derby would be an ideal platform for them to gain mainstream exposure and cultivate wide-reaching fanbases.

MLB has already taken a step in the right direction by dispensing with team captains for the Derby, meaning a new selection process is likely forthcoming. Accordingly, at this juncture, I believe it would be beneficial to install some kind of mechanism to ensure that younger players star in the event. Of course, such a process would be tricky. In no way do I wish to discriminate against older, more established players. After all, Albert Pujols expressed an interest in competing this year, which is fantastic. But I feel that ballplayers, on the whole, are very understanding of the game's current mission to entice fresh demographics, and placing the sport's next generation of heroes on a higher pedestal is undoubtedly a key component of that. Therefore, perhaps MLB could broker an unwritten agreement to limit each league to just one over-30 competitor per Derby where applicable, thus encouraging its more youthful icons to take a leading role.

Under these hypothetical rules, my ideal Home Run Derby Lineup would include Trout, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Miguel Cabrera from the American League, and Stanton, Harper, Goldschmidt and Pederson from the senior circuit. Of course, Stanton recently suffered a devastating hand injury, and is expected to be out for between 4-6 weeks, precluding his involvement in the Derby. In which case, I would draft in either Rizzo, Nolan Arenado or Yasiel Puig as a replacement.

Just imagine the excitement those rosters would generate. If we slot Arenado into the prospective National League lineup, the average age of my ideal Derby field would be 25, while the average home run total this season would be 20. Indeed, all eight players I've earmarked for Derby participation currently rank among the top 17 home run hitters this season, which further illustrates the prevailing trend of young players dominating the game, and continues to embolden the need for MLB to enhance the visibility of said players.

Ultimately, the Home Run Derby serves one purpose: entertainment. Many traditionalists loathe the event, and certain players avoid it like the plague, fearing irreparable damage to their swing. But in the current climate of fan interest, it would be remiss of Major League Baseball not to use the Derby as a marketing opportunity for the next wave of heralded ballplayers. People are going to watch, so why not have them watch the future heroes of our game?

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