Lesser Known Stars Take Derby Stage, and That’s Okay

Last Wednesday, MLB announced the eight participants for the glorious tradition that is the Home Run Derby. Along with the NBA Slam Dunk contest, the Derby stands as the most anticipated and highly-viewed all-star skills competition across all major North American sports. The "baseball is boring" crowd can say whatever they would like, but watching pros mash balls with all their might deep into the night is just good old-fashioned fun.

However, much like the dunk contest, there is growing unrest that the game's greatest sluggers, much like the NBA's most high-profile dunkers, are routinely passing on the home run contest for fear of injury, adverse effects to their swings, etc.

This year's contest boasts just one true national household name in host Washington's resident superstar Bryce Harper, joining a group of talented but relatively unknown bombers. The Twitterverse was lit this week with cries that the lack of known superstars was bad for the game, and will hurt interest in one of MLB's top showcases at a time of year when baseball dominates the national sports scene.

But is that really the case? Sure, there's no denying that most of the country will respond with blank stares when one mentions names like Rhys Hoskins and Max Muncy, but is that really going to prevent them from watching?

One could look at the cumulative 625 career home runs of the eight-player field (average of 78 per player) and say these competitors haven't exactly established themselves as generational sluggers, but you only need to look as far as the last few Derbies to see that this year's field is not unprecedented in terms of their relative inexperience.

Last year's Home Run Derby, which featured the likes of super sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, was the most watched contest since 2009, trouncing the 2016 Derby's viewership by nearly 40%.

The cumulative career home run total of last year's participants? Just 649 (average 81 HR per player), and that number was heavily skewed by Stanton, who had more than double the career bombs of any other player in the contest. No one on Earth outside of Miami had ever heard of Justin Bour (and it's debatable that casual fan base even knew who he was) and he blasted 22 homers in the first round. Judge, who truly arrived as a national star following his winning performance, had just 34 career home runs heading into the Midsummer Classic.

The point? The Home Run Derby is no longer the showcase of already established sluggers, but a platform to introduce the game's rising stars to the national audience.

The 2016 Derby introduced us to Dodgers superstar Corey Seager, then just a rookie, who mashed 15 home runs in a thrilling first round showdown with Mark Trumbo. That year also saw Adam Duvall, hailing from a market as obscure as they come in Cincinnati, belt 26 homers on his way to a semifinal appearance.

2015 saw Dodgers rookie Joc Pederson take down an established superstar in Manny Machado and a first-ballot Hall of Famer in Albert Pujols on his way to an appearance in the finals, where he was narrowly beaten 15-14 by Todd Frazier in a thrilling finale.

See the pattern here?

Okay, I get it. From a nostalgic standpoint its tough to beat Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Ken Griffey Jr. at the height of their powers going upper tank at Veterans Stadium in 1996, or Sammy Sosa hitting a ball 847 feet (or something like that) in Milwaukee in 2002. But that was the era of the superhero slugger, and the game has changed since then.

So rather than lament the fact a casual baseball fan has no idea who Jesus Aguilar is (hint: He leads the NL in homers), we should be excited to see what budding stars like Hoskins and Alex Bregman can do on the big stage, and bask in the randomness of Muncy, who appears on his way to the most out-of-the-blue 30-homer season in recent memory.

If anything is strange about this year's Derby, it's the fact that Bregman is the only representative from the typically power-heavy American League. Seven of the top 10 MLB home run leaders hail from AL teams, so it is somewhat curious that Bregman was the only player from the Junior Circuit to accept an offer to participate. Joey Gallo is playing home run derby every time he steps to the plate anyway, and it would be an accomplishment for his batting average to fall any lower than it already is, so where you at Joey?

I'll let you know if Joey gets back to me on that. Until then, sit back, crack a cold one, and enjoy professional athletes hit a tiny ball really far with a stick. You never know who's going to become the next sensation.

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