Yesterday, the bracket for the 2021 Home Run Derby at Coors Field (the field Home Run Derbies were made for) was filled out when Washington’s young superstar Juan Soto and Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo announced that they’d be competing in the annual slugfest.
This lineup is absolute fire, though not perfect. I would’ve preferred to see Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper and Washington’s Kyle Schwarber instead of Salvador Perez and Juan Soto, but we got Harper and Schwarber in 2018, so they can take a backseat for now. Maybe Vladdy Jr. could have made his second appearance, but still — fire.
Every one of these guys is a bonafide powerhouse and, aside from 2019 Derby Champ Pete Alonso (there was no 2020 Derby due to COVID) looking to defend his crown, this is every contestant’s first Derby appearance. So, what’s going to happen? Let’s try to break this thing down and figure out who to bet on.
The main statistics we need to look at to determine who will walk away victorious are launch angle, exit velocity, and barrel percentage. How often do these hitters make the best possible contact with the ball, and when they make that contact, do they launch the ball at high speeds and at a home run angle?
Exit velocity and barrel percentage are pretty easy to observe. You want to barrel the ball up as often as possible, and obviously, the harder you hit the ball, the better. You can never have too high an exit velocity. But what is the best angle to send the ball? Well, per Baseball Savant, the best launch angle for home runs is 29 degrees. At an exit velocity of 100 miles per hour, batters are hitting dingers at 51.2 percent clip — the highest of any angle.
At 110 mph, every single ball hit this season at a 29 degree angle has left the yard.
Ohtani currently leads MLB in barrel percentage among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, and he’s blowing away his competition. Ohtani is barreling balls thrown at him 25.9 percent of the time — over five percent higher than the next qualified hitter: Fernando Tatis Jr. (21.3 percent). The other derby competitors rank as follows:
Gallo — 5th (19.4 percent)
Alonso — 12th (15.7 percent)
Perez — 22nd (14.1 percent)
Olson — 25th (13.9 percent)
Mancini — 30th (12.8 percent)
Soto — 46th (11.2 percent)
Story — 83rd (9.0 percent)
Obviously, it will be easier for each player to make good contact on Home Run Derby balls, since they’re lobbed in by a pitcher trying to help the batter hit bombs, but this is still a good indication of how well players can make adjustments to pitches on the fly. Ohtani blows the competition out of the water.
Next up, exit velocity. The harder the ball’s hit off the bat, the further it flies. Makes sense.
The top Derby competitor in this category is once again: Ohtani. The Angels’ slugger ranks 8th in Major League Baseball in average exit velocity, and is one of only three players to have hit a ball at least 119 miles per hour off the bat this season. The other two being Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge — each of whom have won a Home Run Derby of their own (Stanton: 2016; Judge: 2017).
Salvador Perez (12th in average exit velocity), Joey Gallo (17th), Juan Soto (18th), and Matt Olson (28th) are the only other competitors in the league’s top 30. Every other competitor ranks outside the top 50.
Lastly, launch angle. We’ve already established that 29 degrees is the best launch angle for home run hitting. While no hitter in the league is anywhere close to averaging that angle, the closest to that magic number is Joey Gallo, who launches balls at an average of 21 degrees — good for 6th in the league. Ohtani is second among Derby participants sitting at a cool 17.7 degrees — 20th in MLB. Matt Olson and Trevor Story are right behind with average angles of 17.3 and 17.2 respectively.
So, after all is said and done, Ohtani should be the clear favorite. After all, Sho-Time does lead the league in home runs. According to Action Network, Ohtani has +400 odds to walk away with the trophy — the highest of anyone in the field.
In the three major categories for determining viability in the Home Run Derby, Ohtani ranks first, first, and second among Derby participants. That begs the question: Is there anyone in the league who could stack up to Ohtani? Is there anyone out there who ranks ahead or close to Ohtani in all three categories? Yes there is, and it’s probably not who you think.
Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino surpasses Ohtani in two of the three categories. Although the Rays’ backstop has recorded only 204 plate appearances this season — thus leaving him off the leaderboards I was referencing earlier — Zunino is barreling balls at a 27.5 percent clip, over a point and a half higher than Ohtani. Zunino is also the hitter who’s been launching balls closest to the magic 29 degree launch angle. Currently Zunino is averaging a 26.6 degree angle. While he does leave a little bit to be desired in the exit velocity category, Zunino still ranks within the league’s top 30 among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. In terms of max velocity, he has launched a ball at 117.3 miles per hour off the bat this season — good for sixth in MLB.
Unfortunately, Zunino will not be stepping up to the plate for the 2021 Home Run Derby. Among the hitters who are, after taking into account all of the data, Ohtani seems like the best bet. As much as I’d like to see Trey Mancini walk away with the trophy less than a year after beating colon cancer, he probably has the worst odds to win given his numbers. As of right now, I’m predicting an Ohtani-Olson final, with Ohtani walking away with the trophy. This should be a great one. I’m looking forward to it.