By Matthew Harrington
Monday night, the annual tradition of launching baseballs into the atmosphere like NASA satellites will commence once again, as the MLB’s greatest current sluggers converge at Target Field in Minnesota for the 2014 Home Run Derby, a rocket launch to the 2014 All-Star Game Festivities in the Twin Cities.
Sure, Jose Bautista, Giancarlo Stanton and Yoenis Cespedes are going to put on a show, launch tape measure bombs and make Chris Berman yell “Back, back, back!” more times than a construction foreman guiding a reversing dump truck. Absolutely the field is filled with deserving candidates worthy of the honor to compete for the superfluous, superlative title of home run champion. The only problem is, National League captain missed a great opportunity to invite an unexpected participant; San Francisco Giants 2014 All-Star Madison Bumgarner.
With Bumgarner having pitched in Sunday’s first-half finale, he won’t be available to perform his duties in the Mid-Summer Classic Tuesday night, he’ll instead be replaced by teammate Tim Hudson. It’d certainly free him up for Monday Night’s fireworks display though, and here’s why he should be included.
Consider this blind sample:
Batter A – 13.33 at-bats per home run
Batter B – 16.81 at-bats per home run
Batter C – 27.46 at-bats per home run
Batter D – 14.76 at-bats per home run
Batter E – 19.05 at-bats per home run
Batter F – 28.58 at-bats per home run
The figures for batters B though F are this year’s National League Entrants in the home run derby Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Morneau, Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Frazier and Yasiel Puig in that order. Subject A, the leader in long ball frequency amongst the above sample group, is Bumgarner. Over 40 at-bats this season, he has exited the park three times.
There are no doubts that Tulowitzki, NL leader in home runs (21, tied with Stanton) selected an entertaining senior circuit squad. Justin Morneau represents the veteran savvy, having won the 2008 Derby at Yankee Stadium after hitting four balls out of AT&T Park in the previous iteration. While other players were still adjusting to another season on April fourth, Stanton already showed his penchant for the tape-measure poke, launching the longest NL home run of the season an astounding 484 feet. Puig brings the flair, ranking fourth in the Majors in average distance per homer (417.3 feet) while Frazier brings the backstory. Tulowitzki selected Frazier based off a leadoff home run the Reds third basemen hit…for New Jersey in the Little League World Series. Surely, the Colorado shortstop couldn’t be accused of not bringing the best to Minneapolis.
That being said, Despite playing in the very homer-unfriendly AT&T Park (ranked 6th in the NL in home runs hit this season), Bumgarner has excelled at the big fly at home in 2014. Following Sunday’s grand slam, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, a 387-footer off starter Matt Stites, the Giants All-star collected all three of his first-half dinger on the banks of McCovey Cove this season. None came cheap, with the average distance for MadBum blasts measuring in at 402 feet. That matches or is better than Morneau (402), Frazier (398.6) and Tulowitzki (398.4). Sure, it’s a small sample size, but it’s an impressive one no less, and one that started the train of though to invite the lefty-throwing, righty-hitting starter.
If a small statistical pool is troublesome, let’s shed some light on what Bumgarner has done with the bat in comparison to some of his teammates. The Hickory, NC native currently sits in seventh place amongst Giants hitters in offensive wins above replacement, ranking above Brandon Belt, Tyler Colvin and Brandon Hicks as well as five other position players with more at-bats than Bumgarner. In only 1/5th the numbers of opportunities of many of his teammates, Bumgarner and his .275 batting average and 12 runs batted in have proven he’s no slouch with the stick. Throw in that he’s pitched brilliantly, going 10-7 with a 3.47 earned run average and 127 punchouts over 128 innings.
While selecting a pitcher in the home run derby sounds outlandish in theory, in practice it would create quite a buzz for the event. No pitcher has ever participated in the event, a far more significant first than the change in format implemented this year. A move to segregated league brackets that will culminate in an AL bracket-winner vs NL bracket-winner final sounds mildly interesting for the sake of it being something new, but it still represents the same old Derby concept of mashers pummeling baseballs ad nauseum till someone emerges a victor.
Inserting a starting pitcher as a combatant into the fray would draw buzz. Fans would tune in, if not to watch with intrigue of what the seldom offensively-gifted could do, at least for the train wreck aspect. The fun of watching the Derby for some isn’t the amount of success the participants have, but rather the lack there of. Who didn’t have a laugh when Robinson Cano couldn’t clear the fence even once amidst a rousing round of jeers from those in attendance at Kauffman Stadium in the summer of 2012?
There are plenty of hurdles to even considering a pitcher for the annual laser show. First and foremost is the production from the position. Bumgarner is one of only seven NL pitchers with a homerun, and only Chicago’s Travis Wood has multiple jacks to join Madison. Bumgarner is also the only hurler with more than 10 RBIs this season meaning there’s a severe lack of offensive output league-wide from the NL’s ninth spot in the order. So forgive Tulo or any other future captain for not tabbing a starter to the team.
Dim positional offensive positivity aside, imagine the resistance a general manager and manager would offer. It’s hard enough to convince star hitters to take part for fear of ruining their swing for the second half. Now picture the long list of pitchers who have injured themselves over the years taken hacks at the plate. No front office would want to see their pitcher, whom they have invested millions of dollars in, injured in a meaningless exhibition for a skillset none to prevalent at the position with no consequence other than a hollow title.
But the All-star game isn’t about managers, or GMs, or the players to some degree. It’s about the fans, rewarding them with a chance to watch the best of the best, to dream about what an All-World outfield of Mike Trout, Bautista and Adam Jones. It’s about seeing the never-before-seen, the never-to-be-seen-again. Hopefully, one day, it’ll be about seeing a starting pitcher take his long ball hacks with the best of them in the Home Run Derby.