One of the most fun nights of the Major League Baseball season is nearly upon us, and one of our own will be in the thick of the festivities. After turning down multiple past invitations, Guardians All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez is slated to perform in Monday’s Home Run Derby from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Cleveland’s star player will make his fourth All-Star appearance on the following night, but this is his first chance to level as many long-balls as possible against some of the game’s most elite power hitters. He enters play on Sunday with 19 home runs on the regular season and is fifth in the American League in homers since 2019.
Ramirez will enter Monday’s competition as the 5th seed and will be paired against Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto in the first round of the eight-player tournament. Soto is making his second-straight appearance in the competition, having bested Shohei Ohtani in a first-round face-off that he eventually won in a swing-off. He did fall in the second round to eventual champion Pete Alonso.
Soto vs. Ramirez is an interesting match-up in that while both players are certainly capable of prodigious power, it is not the flagship attribute for either of two of baseball’s best offensive players. Ramirez is largely a gap hitter, constantly at the top of the league in terms of doubles. Soto has the best eye in baseball, constantly at the top of the league in walks and on-base percentage. Both are certainly capable of putting the ball over the fence, but neither are pure power hitters. Their games are more well-rounded. Honestly, in a way, the Derby probably isn’t their best showcase. Regardless, both are great personalities and showmen for the game. Their competition should be stiff.
If Ramirez is able to triumph over Soto, he would then face the victor of the one-seed vs. eight-seed match-up of Kyle Schwarber and Albert Pujols, respectively. Pujols, who returned to the St. Louis Cardinals for his final season as a pro, was named to the National League All-Star team by commissioner Rob Manfred as a bit of a lifetime achievement award. His appearance in the derby is in a similar vein. He will be the oldest participant in the history of the Derby. His five home runs season-to-date would be the fewest of any participant in history as well (assuming he doesn’t homer this weekend.) I don’t like writing anyone off in a competition as random as the Home Run Derby, especially someone who is fifth all-time on the home run list and who is making his fifth appearance in the derby itself, but I don’t see Pujols finding lightning in a bottle and beating Schwarber.
Schwarber, to his credit, will be a tough hitter to top regardless of his competition. He currently leads the NL in home runs with 28, powered by the 17 he has hit since June 1st alone. Monday will be the second time Schwarber appears in the contest as he was the runner-up in 2018, losing to current teammate Bryce Harper in the final. Maybe more notably, Schwarber’s swing and hit profile this year could be the best suited for success among all the contestants. He leads the field in average exit velocity, average hit distance and barrels per ball in play. Schwarber also has had the best on-the-field power-related statistics over the last month. He has been tops in home runs, isolated power and slugging percentage since June 16.
It’s highly, highly likely that if Ramirez is able to vanquish Soto, he will face Schwarber. And if that ends up the case, he will subsequently have his hands full. Philadelphia’s outfielder appears to be the favorite (and it would not be the first time he helped see to Cleveland’s demise). Still, Ramirez’s best chances appear to come from the same place as any past derby contestant: get into a groove, get hot and find your home run swing. It can really be that simple. Ramirez is likely to hit from the left side as he has more power historically from that side. If he can find his pull swing and hit enough high line drives over Dodger Stadium’s right-field fence 330 feet away, he can stand a chance.
David and Goliath may be appropriate, especially considering the literal physical size of both Ramirez and Schwarber. In the event that Ramirez can slay the giant, it opens him up to face the remaining half of the field in the final.
Here’s who that half of the field comprises of:
The two-seed, Alonso, the Mets first baseman has a lot of buzz as the two-time reigning champion. He looks to become only the second player to ever win the contest three times (Ken Griffey Jr.). The self-proclaimed “best power hitter on the planet” also holds the record for most homers in a round, which he accomplished in the first round last year. However, his on-the-field stats this year don’t suggest he is a favorite. Alonso will be an experiment on how much past success and experience matter in the Derby.
The three-seed is Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager. Seager is making his return to Chavez Ravine after leaving in the off-season for a 10-year mega deal in Arlington. The departure seemed cordial, so considering that no current Dodgers are participating, he may have the hometown crowd behind him. Seager has hit 21 home runs this season and is far and away on pace to smash his career record of 26 in a season. Only Schwarber has averaged hitting the ball further per ball in play in 2022. I think there is a lot in his favor to suggest he has a great chance to win the tournament.
Six-seed Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez is the 14th rookie in the history of the Derby to participate. He will try to become the third ever (including Alonso) to win the contest. The fourth youngest player in the history of the tournament is the AL’s June Rookie of the Month and comes in swinging a hot bat. He has pure power potential. His first Major League homer traveled 450 feet and he has hit 15 since joining the Mariners in May.
And that leaves the seven-seed, Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. This will be his second appearance in the Derby, as he was toppled in the second round by Alonso in 2019. He’s off to a slow start in terms of homers in 2022, having only hit eight. That could be in part because he hasn’t recaptured his power following his recovery from an ACL tear in 2021. Said recovery also delayed his start to the 2022 season. Still, his eight home runs average a longer distance than anyone else’s in baseball in 2022. Plus, his barrel rate on balls in play is only topped by Schwarber. When he has gotten a hold of one, he has hit some no-doubters.
Any of the four could meet Ramirez in the final though I believe Seager and Rodriguez have the best combination of raw power, on-the-field results and intangibles to succeed. Ramirez will have to keep that high line-drive power swing going throughout the tournament to either topple the possible favorite returning home from Texas or the young phenom that can hit the ball a mile (or any of the contestants for that matter).
In all honesty, Hosey’s odds are probably long to win the whole thing. He’s only hit three home run since June 16th. He ranks last among all players in the field in terms of average exit velocity and barrels per balls in play. It’s been suggested that he has been battling an injured hand for weeks.
However, if his hand were that bad, would this really be the year that he would decide to break the seal and be part of the Derby? He’s been offered before, but this is the year he is jumping in. Everything about the Guardians third baseman’s behavior on the field screams “reckless abandon,” but I have a hard time believing he would be taking cuts on Monday if he didn’t have a clean bill of health.
And with that being the case, perhaps there is a bit of history on his side.
In 1995, Albert Belle came into the All-Star Break with 14 home runs, a strong number for the Indians clean-up hitter of the time, but nothing compared to the 36 that followed for him in the second half. Belle entered that second half of the season fresh off of a second-place finish in that year’s Home Run Derby. Belle fell short of defeating Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas in the final but actually hit the most total home runs in the contest. He attributed his second-half “home run stroke” to the Derby, claiming that the contest helped him find a power swing that carried him the rest of the year. The mercurial power-hitter would make history that year as the first player ever with 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a season (ironically, also in a season affected by labor disputes- like 2022).
Ramirez isn’t exactly the same hitter or ballplayer as Belle. Far from it in some instances. But that doesn’t mean the same principles couldn’t apply. The Home Run Derby is a wide-open contest full of potential. Ramirez just needs to find that swing. And if he does, look out! It very well could lead him to victory. Maybe even to a second-half power surge.