By Dave Sheinin in Cleveland
At a certain point Monday night, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Joc Pederson traded home run blasts like celluloid prizefighters trading right hooks, it became clear that the 2019 Home Run Derby, silly and inconsequential as it is, would very likely surpass in sheer, unadulterated drama anything that might happen the next night in the 90th All-Star Game. And for that matter, the entire second half of the 2019 regular season suddenly had a surprisingly high bar to get over.
The epic Guerrero/Pederson swing-off in the first semifinal at Progressive Field marked the emotional peak of a night of massive power displays, which came midway through a 2019 season defined by the same. In a triple-overtime duel, in front of a sellout crowd that stood rapt throughout, Guerrero, the 20-year-old phenom son of a Hall of Famer, outlasted Pederson by a single home run.
But another prodigiously powerful rookie awaited in the final, and with Guerrero, the Toronto Blue Jays third baseman, apparently spent from his semifinal showdown, New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso edged him, 23-22, to claim the Derby title. It was no wonder Alonso raised his arms in triumph when his final blast sailed over the fence in left-center: The $1 million first prize was nearly double his major league-minimum salary of $555,000.
Alonso, 24, has already set the Mets’ franchise record for homers by a rookie, with 30 of them at the all-star break, and is taking aim at the overall franchise record of 41, held by Todd Hundley and Carlos Beltran, as well as Aaron Judge’s major league rookie record of 52.
Wearing custom-made “Polar Bear” cleats — reflecting his nickname — the burly first baseman came to the plate in the finals needing 22 homers to match Guerrero’s total that round and 23 to win. As the seconds ticked down under 20, he still trailed by a single swing, but two more mighty hacks produced two more homers for the win, and Alonso immediately moved in to hug his cousin Derek Morgan, a former collegiate infielder he recruited to pitch to him.
While Alonso totaled 57 home runs to claim the crown, a big part of the night belonged to Guerrero, who smashed 91 of them, an all-time Derby record under any format — 30 more than Giancarlo Stanton’s 2016 mark.
“Oh my God,” Alonso said when asked about Guerrero’s performance. “He was so fun to watch. I’m glad I didn’t have to face him in the earlier rounds. He probably would have knocked me out.”
Forty of Guerrero’s homers came in the semifinals, when he and Pederson, the Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder, found themselves tied at 29 after their four-minute rounds (plus 30-second bonus times), still tied at 37 at the end of one-minute tiebreaker rounds, and tied again at 38 at the end of a best-of-three-swings tiebreaker.
That sent them to another best-of-three tiebreaker, with Guerrero, batting first, going 2 for 3. Needing two homers in three swings to stay alive, or three in three to win, Pederson left the yard with his first swing, missed on his second and — with Guerrero creeping closer and trash-talking — sent a grounder to the right side on his final swing, a miss that ended the duel and sent Guerrero into the final. The combatants hugged at home plate at the end, and Pederson appeared genuinely crushed.
Guerrero hit 29 homers in winning his first-round matchup against Oakland A’s third baseman Matt Chapman, many of them epic blasts into the farthest reaches of the left field stands and concourses at Progressive Field. At least one bounced off a giant picture of Guerrero’s own face, on the massive video board above the bleachers. The longest among them measured 472 feet.
By midway through the second round, he had already hit more than the 45 that Bryce Harper hit in winning the Derby in 2018 at Nationals Park.
Major League Baseball attached the million-dollar payday to the Derby this year in an effort to entice the top sluggers in the game to enter, but the league may have to jack up the money in future years. A field already missing top names such as defending champion Harper, 2017 champ Aaron Judge and 2016 champ Stanton — none of whom earned an all-star nod — was also diminished when first-half home run leader Christian Yelich bowed out over the weekend with a back injury, and other top stars declined invites.
The best advertisement for the Derby, however, wasn’t the money — it was the show Alonso, Guerrero and the rest put on Monday night. It wasn’t exactly baseball (though in these homer-crazed times the line is blurred). But at its best, the Home Run Derby was every bit as compelling.
By Sam Fortier in Washington
Pete Alonso vs. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso took opposite routes to the Home Run Derby final.
In both rounds, Guerrero had slugged his way to records and withstood challenges from the second hitter. Alonso had charged from behind and crushed walk-off home runs just as the buzzer sounded. Alonso hadn’t needed either of his 30-second bonus rounds, and Guerrero had just taken three tiebreaker rounds in his last matchup alone.
After Guerrero’s record-setting first round with 29 home runs and his marathon second round with 40, it seemed possible that the same thing which happened to Josh Hamilton in 2008, when an iconic semifinal sapped the star of strength for the final, might be in play. Guerrero might be everyone’s next-day story, but someone else — such as Justin Morneau in 2008 — might swoop in for the final.
It looked even more possible early. Fatigue finally seemed to catch up to Guerrero during his first swings. He still mashed taters high and deep to left field, but more than usual ended up bouncing off the 19-foot-tall wall in left field called the "Little Green Monster." Guerrero looked exhausted but then, with about 90 seconds left, he took his second timeout. When he returned, he looked like his fully rested self. Guerrero rocketed out his lowest total of the night, 22, but it set the bar higher than Alonso had reached all night.
Alonso started slowly. He poked along and through the first two minutes. His cousin, who was pitching, seemed erratic. Alonso’s saving grace was his ability to poke outside pitches beyond the short right-field wall. With 1:02 left, Alonso trailed 22-18. He called timeout.
Alonso threw his arms in the air, urging Progressive Field to cheer him on. The crowd roared. With 20 seconds left, Alonso sent his 23rd and final home run into left center. He threw his hands in the air and his cousin jumped into his arms.
Alonso had his third straight walk-off and the Home Run Derby title.
Second Round Recap
Pete Alonso vs. Ronald Acuña Jr.
When Ronald Acuña Jr. finished his round with 19 home runs, it was tough to tell if it was a secure score. Pete Alonso had advanced through the first round with 14, but the Vladimir Guerrero Jr.-Joc Pederson heavyweight bout had recalibrated everyone’s expectations for what was possible in this Derby.
Unlike those iron men, the fatigue had seemed to set in for this matchup. At the end of his 30-second bonus round, Acuña waved meekly at the last pitch. Then Alonso missed on more than a half-dozen straight swings in the middle of his round. The Mets first baseman trailed by 11 home runs with 1:49 to go, and though he seemed in position to come back, he needed to make a push. Out of the timeout, Alonso crushed one home run. Then another. And another.
At the horn, Alonso crushed a 453-foot home run beyond the center field fence. It was his 20th, giving him a spot in the finals. Both hitters finished their rounds gassed, but Alonso had done just enough.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. vs. Joc Pederson
Guerrero: 40 home runs
Pederson: 39 home runs
Everyone thought Vlad Guerrero Jr. had broken his own record. At the horn on his bonus time, Guerrero smashed what looked like his 30th home run but it fell just short — and it ended up being one of the most important swings of the night.
Whereas Guerrero disregarded the 19-foot fence in left and bashed again and again over it, Joc Pederson played the park. The lefty was written off. He needed to set the record just to advance from the semifinal and it seemed improbable at best. Then he almost did it.
Pederson missed about the first half-dozen pitches of his bonus round but surged back just in time to hit the final two he needed to trigger the derby’s first swing-off. In his extra minute, Guerrero crushed another eight home runs in a performance almost as impressive as his regulation shot. Pederson came all the way back again. At the horn of his last minute, Pederson hit one that bounced off the top of the wall in center, tying them both at 37.
The round moved into the second tiebreaker, best of three swings.
Guerrero missed his first, crushed his second and watched his third sail deep into center field but fall just short. He’d set the bar, but for seemingly the first time all night, he seemed vulnerable.
Pederson took two pitches and blasted the third into center. He flew out on his second swing and he drilled the third one foul. After all that, they were still tied.
Guerrero had left himself vulnerable once, and he wouldn’t do it again. The 20-year-old hit his first two out and, even though he screamed at the last one, left his third swing just short in left. Pederson crushed his first for a home run then grounded the last two.
In one of the most impressive displays in Derby history, in one of the game’s best showcases of two young stars, baseball’s youngest and brightest had emerged the victor.
First Round Recap
Pete Alonso vs. Carlos Santana
Alonso: 14 home runs
Santana: 13 home runs
With a furious tear in the final minute, Pete Alonso nosed out Carlos Santana thanks to a home run to left field with a second left. The Mets first baseman had the 30-second bonus, if he needed it, but he bashed seven in just more than a minute to send him to the second round.
For Santana, playing at his home field in Cleveland, the night got off to a rough start. It took nearly a minute for him to put one out and get a roar out of Progressive Field. The normally patient hitter had to be aggressive, and he hit five in the next minute. He picked it up, but he finished with 13, the lowest total of the night. He also didn’t hit two home runs longer than 440 feet, meaning he was the first player who didn’t get a 30-second bonus at the end of his round.
One year after then-Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper won the Derby in his home park in dramatic fashion, there would be no hometown hero.
Ronald Acuña Jr. vs. Josh Bell
Acuña: 25 home runs
Bell: 18 home runs
Josh Bell, the Derby’s odds-on favorite to win the whole thing, according to the Westgate Superbook (+350), fell in the first round to Braves phenom Ronald Acuña Jr.
The 21-year-old, the competition’s second-youngest hitter, put up the competition’s second-highest total with 25 home runs. Unlike most hitters, who had attacked the pull side of the field, Acuña Jr. used the entire field and produced a balanced spray chart around Progressive Field.
Bell, a switch-hitter, chose to hit from the left side, playing into the short porch in right field. He made a late surge, getting to 17 home runs by the end of the clock, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. vs. Matt Chapman
Guerrero: 29 home runs
Chapman: 13 home runs
The Derby’s second leadoff hitter, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., might’ve known about the right-handed-hitter disadvantages. He did not care. He set a Home Run Derby single-round record with 29, and Matt Chapman never stood a chance.
In as impressive a display of raw power the Home Run Derby has ever seen, Guerrero Jr. bashed his way into the next round. The 20-year-old turned his first home run of the night into the longest of the night at 462 feet. Three home runs later, he reset the bar, this time at 476 feet, which broke the Derby distance record. Again: This was his first-ever round.
Joc Pederson vs. Alex Bregman
Pederson: 21 home runs
Bregman: 16 home runs
Joc Pederson, the first batter of the night, won by playing to the dimensions of Progressive Field. Both left and right field are 325 feet from home plate, but only left field has a 19-foot high wall known as the “Little Green Monster.” Therefore, the pull hitter automatically had an advantage over the right-handed-hitting Alex Bregman.
Pederson used the short porch and, though most of his 21 first-round home runs cleared with plenty of room, he also lined a few just over the wall. On his turn, Bregman lined a few over the wall but, nearly a half-dozen other times, he was not so fortunate.
After a home-run record-shattering first half in which games across divisions and leagues have sometimes felt like the Home Run Derby with a few more outs sprinkled in, baseball is dropping all pretenses Monday night.
The actual Home Run Derby is in Cleveland at 8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, and it features the youngest field ever in the event’s 34-year existence. It got a smidgen younger on Sunday night too, when Christian Yelich, the 27-year-old reigning National League MVP and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder, withdrew from the derby due to a sore back. Matt Chapman, the 26-year-old Oakland Athletics third baseman, replaced him. Yelich is leading the majors in home runs with 31.
Now, the odds-on favorite is Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman Josh Bell (+350), according to the Westgate Superbook as of 10 p.m. Sunday. Toronto Blue Jays rookie outfielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has the second-best odds at +450.
In the Washington Nationals clubhouse before a throwback game on Saturday, Vladimir Guerrero, his father and the former Montreal Expos outfielder, laughed when asked if he had a prediction for the event.
“I’m proud,” he said of his son.
The rest of the field consists of Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, Cleveland Indians first baseman and hometown representative Carlos Santana, Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who has the most home runs in the field with 30, the second-most in the majors.
Without Yelich, only two of baseball’s top six home-run hitters are participating in the derby, Alonso and Bell, who has 27 home runs. Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger (30), Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout (28) and San Diego Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe (27) won’t be there.
After tweaking the format several times in the last few years, this year’s derby will start with bracketed matchups and take place over three rounds. In each round, players have four minutes to hit as many home runs as possible and, if they hit two home runs over 440 feet, they receive a 30-second bonus.
If a tie occurs in any round, they will face one another again in a 90-second swing off. If a tie is still not broken, each hitter gets three swings. If a tie is still not broken, it will be a swing-for-swing sudden death.
Bryce Harper, the Philadelphia Phillies outfielder and reigning Home Run Derby champion, did not return to claim his top overall seed, so the order for the bracket was determined by 2019 home run totals entering last Wednesday’s games. Tiebreakers were determined by home runs since June 15, as noted in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. So, because Chapman replaced Yelich, he gets the No. 1 overall seed.
Home Run Derby 2019
LOCATION: Progressive Field, Cleveland
No. 1 Matt Chapman (21 regular season home runs) vs. No. 8 seed Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (8)
No. 2 Pete Alonso (28) vs. No. 7 Carlos Santana (18)
No. 3 Josh Bell (25) vs. No. 6 Ronald Acuña Jr. (20)
No. 4 Alex Bregman (22) vs. No. 5 Joc Pederson (20)