Friday, September 17, 2021
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Which MLB player takes the HR Derby crown?

Solo shot.
Illustration: Getty Images

Yesterday, the bracket for the 2021 Home Run Derby at Coors Field (the field Home Run Derbies was made for) was filled in when Washington’s young superstar Juan Soto and the Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo announced that they would compete in the annual slugfest.

Image for the article titled The HR Derby field is set, so who should take the crown?

Picture: Getty Images

This lineup is definitely brand, but not perfect. I would have preferred to see Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper and Washington’s Kyle Schwarber instead of Salvador Perez and Juan Soto, but we got Harper and Schwarber in 2018 so they can take the back seat so far. Maybe Vladdy Jr. could have made his second appearance, but still – fire.

Each of these guys is a bonafide powerhouse, and apart from the 2019 Derby Champ Pete Alonso (there was no 2020 derby due to COVID) wanting to defend his crown, this is each contestant’s first derby appearance. So what happens? Let’s try to break this thing down and find out who we can bet on.

The most important statistics we need to look at to determine who will win away are launch angle, exit velocity and barrel percentage. How often do these hitters create the best possible contact with the ball, and when they come in contact, do they shoot the ball at high speeds and at a home angle?

Output speed and barrel percentage are quite easy to observe. You want to barrel the ball up as often as possible, and the harder you hit the ball, the better. You can never have too high an output speed. But what is the best angle to send the ball? Per Baseball Savant, den best starting angle for home runs is 29 degrees. At an output speed of 100 miles per hour, butchers hit blades with 51.2 percent clips – the highest of any angle.

Image for the article titled The HR Derby field is set, so who should take the crown?

Screenshot: Baseball Savant

On 110 mph, every single ball hit this season at a 29-degree angle has left the yard.

Image for the article titled The HR Derby field is set, so who should take the crown?

Screenshot: Baseball Savant

Ohtani is currently leading the MLB barrel percentage among hitters with at least 250 record appearances, and he blows his competition away. Ohtani barrels balls thrown at him 25.9 percent of the time – over five percent higher than the next qualified hitter: Fernando Tatis Jr. (21.3 percent). The other derby competitors rank as follows:

Gallo – 5. (19.4 percent)

Alonso – 12. (15.7 percent)

Perez – 22. (14.1 percent)

Olson – 25. (13.9 percent)

Mancini – 30. (12.8 percent)

Soto – 46th (11.2 percent)

History – 83. (9.0 percent)

Of course, it will be easier for each player to get in good touch with Home Run Derby balls as they are lobbed in by a pitcher trying to help the batter hit bombs, but this is still a good indication of how well players can make adjustments to seats on the go. Ohtani blows the competition out of the water.

Then quit speed. The harder the ball hits from the bat, the farther it flies. Makes sense.

The top Derby competitor in this category is again: Ohtani. Angels’ slugger is 8th in Major League Baseball in average output speed, and is one of only three players to have hit a ball at least 119 miles per hour out of the bat this season. The other two are Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge – who have each won their own home derby (Stanton: 2016; Referee: 2017).

Salvador Perez (12th in average starting speed), Joey Gallo (17th), Juan Soto (18th) and Matt Olson (28th) are the only other competitors in the league’s top 30. Every other competitor ranks outside the top 50.

Final launch angle. We have already determined that 29 degrees is the best starting angle for home runs. Although no hitter in the league is anywhere near averaging this angle, the closest is the magic number Joey Gallo, who shoots balls an average of 21 degrees – good for 6. in the league. Ohtani is number two among Derby contestants sitting at cool 17.7 degrees – 20th in MLB. Matt Olson and Trevor Story are right behind with average angles of 17.3 and 17.2, respectively.

So when all is said and done, Ohtani should be the clear favorite. After all, the Sho-Time leads the league in home runs. According to Action network, Ohtani has +400 odds of walking away with the trophy – the highest of any in the field.

In the three main categories for determining viability in the Home Run Derby, Ohtani ranks as first, first and second among Derby participants. That raises the question: Iis there anyone in the league who can stack up to Ohtani? Is there anyone out there lying in front or close to Ohtani in all three categories? Yes there is and it’s probably not who you are think.

Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino surpasses Ohtani in two of the three categories. Although Rays’ backstop has only recorded 204 record appearances this season – leaving him off the charts I referred to earlier – Zunino barrels balls with a 27.5 percent cut, over one and a half points higher than Ohtani. Zunino is also the hitter who has launched balls closest to the magical 29 degree starting angle. Currently, the Zunino is averaging a 26.6 degree angle. While leaving a bit to be desired in the exit speed category, Zunino is still within the top of the league 30 among hitters with at least 200 record appearances. In terms of maximum speed, he has launched a ball of 117.3 miles per hour outside the bat this season – well for sixth in the MLB.

Unfortunately, Zunino will not step up to the plate for the 2021 Home Run Derby. Among the hitters who, after taking into account all the data, Ohtani seems like the best choice. As much as I would like to see Trey Mancini walk away with the trophy less than a year after hitting colon cancer, he probably has the worst odds of winning considering his numbers. From now on I predict an Ohtani-Olson final, with Ohtani walking away with the trophy. This should be great. I look forward to it.

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