Jays From the Couch uses hitting data to decide who would win an All Toronto Blue Jays Home Run Derby
The Toronto Blue Jays are represented at the 2017 All Star Game by Justin Smoak and Roberto Osuna. While this is exciting, many people find the actual game to be less of a highlight of the mid-summer festivities than the Home Run Derby. And, after the show that Aaron Judge put on in Miami this year, that opinion is not about to change any time soon.
After watching the Derby, I started thinking: Who would win in an All Blue Jays Home Run Derby? Now, Toronto does not have an Aaron Judge on their team, which makes this an exercise with no immediate answer. Before embarking on the search, we might have an idea, but that would leave it up for debate. Rather than simply throw out a debatable hypothetical that wouldn’t get us anywhere, let’s look into some data to see if we can find a winner.
To start, we need a field of eight sluggers. So, we have (in no particular order) Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar, Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales. This is leaving out guys like Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, which makes sense. They might surprise in this event, but let’s be real, here.
Now, guys like Jose Bautista have been prolific home run hitters in the past. He is far from that this season, but in the context of a derby, he would not be out of place. And, someone like Josh Donaldson might be someone you place your bets on based on his home run prowess. But Kendrys Morales has such an effortless power stroke that he could easily put a few on the board in the early rounds. And, despite his unwillingness to participate in this year’s derby, Justin Smoak seems to have that natural uppercut home run swing. So, how do you pick a winner?
Well, we first must concede that this is a purely goofy, fun exercise and therefore should be taken as such. Let’s be honest, predicting a winner in this would take into account so many factors that can’t be looked up in data bases. For example, with a time limit on each round, someone like Morales would likely grow more tired than Bautista or Pearce. Pillar has such a violent swing that a derby might simply not be for him. Then, there is the whole ‘trying to hit home runs’ thing that hitters say is a bad idea. We’re taking real game data and applying it to a fictional fun event, which is not good science. But, it makes for great speculation.
In order to come to some kind of conclusion, I had to settle on a few pieces of data that would likely show how a hitter might perform in a derby. Firstly, I looked at each player’s HR/FB% from Fangraphs. This gives us an idea of how easily they hit home runs. The higher the number, the more their fly balls go for home runs. I used the career numbers for each player as that would account for periods of highs and lows. Given that the ball is served up on a platter in a home run derby, I looked at the player’s ISO (power) on balls thrown down the middle via Brooks Baseball. I also consulted Baseball Savant to find players’ Exit Velocity (EV) on those balls thrown down the middle, which kind of supports the power component. Both of these results came from 2016 totals. That gives a full year of data while being as recent as possible.
It would appear that Donaldson would be a safe bet to hoist the trophy. He’s got the highest exit velocity on balls down the middle that goes nicely with the highest career HR/FB%. He’s hitting the ball hard and his fly balls are leaving the yard at a higher rate than the competition. His power on balls down the middle is rather significant, as well.
But, don’t count out Joey Bats! His exit velocity is not that far behind The Bringer of Rain, nor is his HR/FB rate. And, he hits for more power on balls down the middle. A surprise on this list might be Tulo and his 95.2 mph exit velocity. His ISO is lower than the leaders, but his HR/FB rate is rather nice. He could pull off a good run of bombs to make things interesting. Martin could also make a run at a second round appearance, depending on his randomly chosen opponent. If he’s up against Pillar, he has a good chance.
Morales has very good numbers that might make him a favorite in this event. And, if the old rules were followed of taking as long as you want and hits were either homers or outs, he might have a shot. But, his ability to crank as many as fast as he can in a set time makes his success questionable. If you were placing bets and looking for that dark horse to really bring in the money, you might want to look to Steve Pearce. His exit velocity is right up there with Bautista, as are his other numbers. So, he would be an interesting one to come out of nowhere.
I’m going with a Final Four of Bautista, Donaldson, Tulo and Pearce. To make the final decision, we’ll combine the above with the other factor that determines the ability to hit home runs: launch angle (via Baseball Savant).
Ideally, a good home run launch angle falls between 25-50 degrees. Now, we’ve seen many a home run come on more of a line drive (especially from Bautista) angle (10-25 degrees), so for our purposes, we want to see a guy who is right around that 25-50 degree mark, but we could also open it up to 15 or 20 degrees.
Based on the 2016 launch angles each player put up, we would be treated to a Joey Bats/ Bringer of Rain finals. While Pearce continues to surprise in every area we’re looking at for this exercise, he doesn’t stack up against these two home run hitters. These two would likely been the two you would have chosen from the outset.
So, who would win this epic battle? If we’re going to apply some realism to this unrealistic exploration, you likely have to go with Josh Donaldson winning it all. Bautista doesn’t seem to be himself this year. He is collecting his home runs (he’s got 14 thus far in 2017), but there is just a feeling that he is losing a step. Though, if we’re being fair, Donaldson sure has lost a bit on account of his leg issues. We should also add that all of the above info has come form game data, which is completely different than the context of a home run derby. For that reason, it is a safe bet that both of these sluggers would put on a show.
*Featured Image Credit: Credit- Bliss Nogueira UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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