Bryce Harper recently told The Washington Post he would participate in the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park later this month, but only if he made the National League all-star team. That isn’t in doubt anymore.
Despite a June swoon that has dropped his batting average into the low .200s, Harper remained in third place among NL outfielders in the fan vote to start the game, according to the tabulations Major League Baseball released Monday. He led the fourth-place outfielder, Charlie Blackmon, by more than 400,000 votes. Voting ends Thursday. The lead appears insurmountable.
So Harper will play in the All-Star Game at his home ballpark on July 17, which means he will participate in the Home Run Derby on July 16, which makes the people at MLB headquarters very happy.
Other superstars have already disclosed they don’t plan on taking part in the event. Mike Trout said he won’t. Aaron Judge did, too. Boston Red Sox teammates Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez declared they’ll pass. Giancarlo Stanton said he hasn’t thought about it.
Baseball boasts other players with big home run totals. A few are also big names that could participate in the derby. But Trout, Judge, Stanton, Betts, and Martinez are five of the most popular sluggers in the league. Their absences lower the star wattage.
“We have never expected, nor have we experienced, situations where the same guys come back year after year after year after year,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said at the conclusion of the owners’ meetings on June 14. “We have a lot of great players out there, a lot of players who can put on a display in terms of a Home Run Derby … it may not be Aaron Judge, but we will have a complement of players who can put on a great Derby.”
Still, MLB has been concerned. Members of the league office have placed calls recently to club officials across MLB asking if they could inquire about their sluggers’ status for the Derby, according to people with knowledge of the situation. That call was made to the Nationals before Harper committed with the caveat.
On Sunday, Harper told The Post he committed to the Derby because he insisted he would do it in Washington once the city was awarded the All-Star Game in 2015. His father, Ron, will pitch to him.
“The past couple years I said that I was going to do it,” said Harper, who was named one of MLB’s all-star ambassadors along with Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman on Tuesday . “Especially it being in my ballpark, our ballpark. But, yeah, I think that if it wasn’t at our ballpark, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I just think I owe it to the fans to do it. I’m looking forward to having it there and doing it there.”
It’ll be the second time Harper has participated in the contest; he finished second to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013 at Citi Field. That experience informed Harper’s thoughts on whether participating in could impair his swing for the second half, a circulating theory that has discouraged players from partaking. Harper said swinging so many times with the required violence took its toll. He was sore the next day. But he isn’t worried about the exercise damaging his swing.
The numbers in 2013 suggest the impact wasn’t discernible. A 20-year-old Harper batted .264 with an .893 OPS and 13 home runs in 58 games before the all-star break. He hit .283 with an .819 OPS and seven home runs during the second half. Five years later, Harper is batting .217 with an .848 OPS and 21 home runs through Monday.
“I’m just going to go out there and just swing,” Harper said. “I don’t really look at how I’m going to swing or if I’m going to change my swing or anything like that. Your swing is your swing.”
Judge won last year’s Derby before trudging through a dismal second half, but the Yankees outfielder didn’t connect his struggles to his participation. And if they were related, he has flipped the switch back in the first half this season — the reigning American League rookie of the year entered Monday with 22 home runs and a .961 OPS. What the Derby definitely did do, however, was help make Judge, a giant with mammoth power, a premier star in a league starving for them.
“I think the Home Run Derby is a unique opportunity,” Manfred said. “We hear a lot from players about marketing — marketing players. The Home Run Derby, in the context of a team game, is a unique opportunity to market your individual brand. And I think our players are very, very prudent, they’re very savvy from a business perspective, and I think there’s a lot of exciting, great players who are going to seize that opportunity to market their individual brands.”
It just so happens Harper, an impending free agent, might be the most marketable player in the majors. He has underperformed this season, to the point that there’s a chance he wouldn’t make the all-star team if not voted in by fans. But those 21 home runs are an NL high — he smashed No. 21 against the Red Sox on Monday — and he boasts the star power the league covets for one of its marquee events.
“It’s going to be a blast,” Harper said. “I think being able to do it in the nation’s capital, at Nats Park, in our home ballpark, have my dad throw to me for the second time, it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m just looking forward to being a part of it and getting some cheers from the crowd, and hopefully having some fun.”