Despite the wishes of Madison Bumgarner, he won’t participate in the 2016 Home Run Derby, and likewise for the handful of other high-profile hurlers who spoke up to declare they wanted to swing for the fences as well. The Giants weren’t keen on the prospect of their ace lefty’s participation, but ultimately it was the Major League Baseball Players Association that vetoed the inclusion of him and other hurlers on the grounds that they didn’t want to take away spots from position players. While the league reportedly considered the prospect of a separate all-pitchers Derby, it ultimately nixed the idea for this year.
Still, it’s fun to ponder the prospect of such an event, if only because there appears to be enough interest from players and fans to make it a reality next year. What follows here are some thoughts about what shape it might take.
First, the format. Last year’s eight-hitter bracket, featuring seven head-to-head matchups in a single-elimination arrangement, was a big improvement upon the interminable seeding rounds of years past. So was the time limit, particularly when weather concerns shortened each round from the planned five minutes to four and simplified a bonus time structure that had even the Big Four accounting firms scratching their heads; the modified version awarded additional time for shots estimated at 425 feet or more by Statcast.
For this hypothetical All-Pitcher Home Run Derby, I’ll stick with the eight-man bracket but shorten the rounds further to three minutes apiece so the participants don’t get too tuckered out, with an additional 20 seconds per long-distance drive. Using 425 feet as the threshold might be too extreme; via a search on Baseball Savant, in two years of Statcast, just five pitcher drives have gone that far, including two by our participants. Four hundred feet, a distance achieved 25 times by pitchers in 2015–16, isn’t far enough, particularly as that would basically double-count any homer to the power alleys or centerfield in Petco Park (390 feet to left-center, 396 to center, 391 to right-center). A 415-foot threshold, achieved a total of 11 times by nine pitchers in the past two seasons, seems like a good compromise.
As for the participants, Bumgarner is obviously in, as he started this whole conversation. He leads all active hurlers in career homers (13) and has hit .233/.276/.439 with 11 homers in 212 plate appearances over the past three seasons, good for a 96 OPS+—slightly better than former teammate Pablo Sandoval (94) and current teammate Angel Pagan (93). Last week in Oakland, manager Bruce Bochy became the first skipper in 40 years to waive voluntarily the DH rule in an AL park so that Bumgarner could hit for himself; he went 1 for 4 with a double and a run scored in a 12–6 win. Bumgarner also routinely puts on a show in batting practice and is the one pitcher with multiple drives of 415 feet in the Statcast era—three of them, with a long drive of 417.7 feet.
So who else gets the call? Here are my picks for the other seven contestants, and since this is a flight of fancy, I’m ignoring the fact that one of them is currently on the disabled list—call this an early layout for next year’s All-Pitcher Home Run Derby at Marlins Park, complete with the Marlinator (or Dinger Machine, as it’s sometimes called) activating for every bonus drive.
Jake Arrieta, Cubs
The reigning NL Cy Young winner was among those who spoke up as wanting to participate in the Home Run Derby if Bumgarner were allowed to join. Though he’s just a .184/.223/.296 hitter for his career, he’s at .305/.375/.500 with two homers in 41 plate appearances this year and four homers in 124 PA over the past two years, including a 440-foot monster shot off the Diamondbacks’ Shelby Miller on April 10. He’s got to be there.
Bartolo Colon, Mets
In the troubling year of 2016, few things have brought the citizens of our fragile country together the way that the first career home run of this 43-year-old cult icon did. Here’s his 365-foot drive, hit off the Padres’ James Shields on May 7 at Petco Park:
Colon’s actually a rather terrible hitter, with a career .093/.100/.118 line in 269 plate appearances, though he’s “improved” to .125/.133/.182 in 96 PA over the past three seasons, with three extra-base hits. He’s never walked, but there are no bases on balls in the Derby, just hacktastic fun, and nobody brings more of it than Big Sexy. Even commissioner Rob Manfred knows that.
Yovani Gallardo, Orioles
It’s been a rough season for Gallardo, who’s been lit up for a 6.10 ERA in eight starts and spent eight weeks on the disabled list due to biceps tendinitis. He’s made only nine plate appearances in the past two seasons with the Rangers and Orioles, but he homered 12 times—a total that ranks second among active pitchers—in his previous eight seasons with the Brewers and is a career .201/.228/.336 hitter, good for second in slugging percentage among those with at least 50 PA.
Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks
Overlooking the fact that he’s currently on the DL with an oblique strain, Greinke is one of the game’s elite hitters among pitchers: He owns a career .226/.265/.332 line with six homers in 384 plate appearances. His slugging percentage is third among those with at least 50 PA, his 64 OPS+ and 16.7% strikeout rate are second, and his 3.6 batting WAR is tied for first. Get well soon, buddy: This event needs you, preferably with those long, flowing locks.
Mike Leake, Cardinals
A career .209/.230/.303 hitter with six homers and 24 extra-base hits in 441 plate appearances, Leake is tied with Bumgarner for third in batting WAR among pitchers with 3.5. He’s one of five pitchers with multiple 400-foot homers in the Statcast era, with a long of 407 feet off of Shelby Miller—who’s apparently the pitchers’ palooka—on April 30, 2015.
Noah Syndergaard, Mets
A career .184/.235/.342 hitter in 89 plate appearances, “Thor” is the current god of thunder among pitchers, in that he leads in both slugging percentage and isolated power (.158). He’s hit only three major league homers, but two of them came in a May 11 game against the Dodgers in which he drove in all four runs in a 4–3 victory:
That made Syndergaard the first pitcher since 2007 with multiple homers in one Game. His other shot, off the Phillies’ Sean O’Sullivan on May 27, 2015, is the longest of his career, estimated at 428 feet.
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
Another hurler who spoke up as wanting in on the Derby action, Wainwright is a must-have here. No active pitcher has collected more hits (109), extra-base hits (38, including seven homers) or RBIs (49) than Waino, who owns a .197/.223/.295 line in 619 plate appearances, and his 3.6 batting WAR is tied with Greinke for the lead among pitchers.
The limitations of the eight-man field mean some tough choices, but in case any of these pitchers couldn’t rise to the occasion or get the permission slip from their teams, I’ll offer a couple of alternates. Arguably, the Cubs’ Travis Wood (.181/.207/.315 in 305 plate appearances) deserves a spot here, as he’s third in homers (nine) and fifth in slugging percentage among active pitchers; it’s his 40 OPS+ (15th) that led me to relegate him to standby status. Likewise for the Yankees’ CC Sabathia (45 on a .219/.226/.325 line with three homers in 118 PA). He’s fourth in slugging percentage but hasn’t collected an extra-base hit since his late-2008 run with the Brewers and is just 2 for 26 as a Yankee.
The All-Pitcher Home Run Derby probably wouldn’t be a ratings bonanza, but like Colon and the general concept of pitchers hitting, it undoubtedly carries some cult appeal. Make it happen, Mr. Manfred.