Fauber: Will big changes help HR Derby?

Baseball has always been a sport filled with tradition, and any attempts to make changes to the game that seems to grind against that tradition is generally met with plenty of criticism.

But when it comes to one of Major League Baseball’s premier events — the Home Run Derby — there has seemed to be a growing call for change by fans everywhere.

The MLB has been listening. The Home Run Derby, which has undergone some minor tweaks here and there but has remained largely the same for as long as I can remember, will look much different when the 2014 edition of the annual power showcase rolls around on Monday.

For those that aren’t aware, some new rules for the Derby were recently unveiled as MLB attempts to speed up the event and reinvigorate some interest in the contest.

In its new format, the Derby will now consist of 10 participants (five from the American League and five from the National League) and will last a total of four rounds, and each participant will have only seven “outs” in each round instead of the traditional 10. The top home run hitter from each league (we’ll call them AL1 and NL1) in round one gets a bye to the third round, and the next two top home run hitters (AL2/AL3 and NL2/NL3) from each league advance to round two. The Derby then enters a bracket-style format in the second round, with NL2 and NL3 facing off for the right to challenge NL1 in the semifinal round and the American League participants doing the same. That leaves one participant from each league to square off in the championship round for the right to be crowned Home Run Derby Champion.

Simple enough, right?

I’ll admit, when I first read the changes I wasn’t thrilled. And I’m still not sold on this new format. But I understand why the MLB has decided to drastically change the face of the Home Run Derby.

Personally, the event has lost some of its appeal to me and I just can’t seem to get as excited about it now as I did when I was younger. I did enjoy last year’s Derby, but mainly because it was the first time in years that I had actually sat down to watch the contest and it brought back a sense of nostalgia.

The fact that the Home Run Derby’s format was so simple didn’t bother me as a kid — it was enough to sit there and watch the game’s greatest sluggers knock the cover off the baseball. And though part of me wants the Derby to remain the same just to maintain that sense of traditionalism, the adult television viewer in me is clamoring for more entertainment.

But are these new rules the answer?

One of the biggest gripes about the Home Run Derby has been about the length of the competition, and the MLB is supposedly trying to shorten the event with its new rules this year. Sure, the outs have been reduced from 10 to seven, but an extra round and two more competitors have been added. Those rule changes seem to be counteracting each other.

I’m also strongly opposed the concept of the bye after the first round. If I’m watching the Home Run Derby, I want to see home runs, not watch the two best sluggers that night sit out a whole round of competition. And that’s not to mention that it creates unbalance in the competition. Part of the intrigue of the Derby is seeing who can outlast the rest of the pack during the bat-swinging marathon. Allowing two participants to rest up for an entire round puts the other competitors at a serious disadvantage.

So how would I make the Home Run Derby better?

Let’s start by operating the entire event in a bracket format — everybody loves a good bracket. Head-to-head match-ups are much more exciting than everyone vs. the field.

Bring the number of participants back to eight players (four from each league) and allow the fans to vote for whom they’d like to see in the Derby. There are always going to be a few of the big names in baseball who decline the invite to the Home Run Derby, and the MLB can’t force players to participate, but at least then the next player in line will be someone the fans voted for.

Once the players are selected, determine each player’s seeding (No. 1 through No. 8) through some sort of formula while tossing out league affiliation. This could be done in a variety of ways, but one way to do it would be to look at the previous three years of a player’s career and weigh in factors such as home runs hit during that span, average home run distance, accolades won, past Home Run Derby performance, etc. That might sound like a lot of work, but baseball revolves around stats and numbers more than any other sport. It would work.

To shorten the competition, allow each participant a max of 20 swings per round. That would give room for some of those impressive home run rallies that we all love to see without dragging things out.

And let’s reward participants for hitting long home runs. I don’t watch the Home Run Derby to see 330-foot home runs sneak over the wall — I want to see someone crush a ball 500 feet. The MLB could develop a points system for scoring home runs. Instead of each homer being worth the same amount, make 350-foot home runs worth a point and 500-footers worth five. Award two, three or four points for homers in between depending on their distance. The player with the most points in a round wins and advances to the next.

Of course, none of this will matter if the MLB’s top sluggers continue to decline participation in the Home Run Derby for fear of messing up their swing, which could send the Derby into a situation similar to the NBA’s dunk contest. But if the league is going to continue to hold the competition, it needs to find a way to keep fans interested and entertained.

As a baseball fan, I hope this year’s tweaks to the Home Run Derby are a step in the right direction.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com