Home Run Derby: The world deserves an Ichiro vs. Aaron Judge matchup

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Someone is going to hit a ball 500 feet at the Home Run Derby this year. If the ball really is juiced – psssssst, the ball really is juiced – then pipe shots on a platter to the best power hitters in the world means finally, mercifully, the monstrosity in center field at Marlins Park will receive an assault commensurate to the one it has committed on our senses for the last five years.

The Derby reboot in 2015 – timed rounds, bonuses for long home runs – lent some temporary juice to an event that, like the Slam Dunk Contest, had grown tired. Here’s the truth: No matter how much the formats are tweaked, the events are only as good as the participants.

Two of the eight in this year’s Derby are known. The first is Giancarlo Stanton. He may be the 500-foot favorite. He hit a ball 510 feet in the 2014 Derby and knows Marlins Park better than anyone. The other is Miguel Sano, the Minnesota Twins’ massive slugger. He may not be the first choice, but he’s a worthy one.

The other six spots are up for grabs, and as a connoisseur of the home run, I’ve taken it upon myself to come up with the perfect complements to Stanton and Sano. In order to do so, I looked at a pool of 20 players and assessed their worthiness. Here are the 20, followed by a first-round cut to 10 and then, ultimately, a rendering of the six who should be there the night of July 10.

Must-Haves

Aaron Judge: The Home Run Derby is supposed to be an event, right? Judge vs. Stanton in a long ball-hitting contest is about as close to a must-watch for casual fans as baseball can offer. Judge is a Yankee. He hits the ball harder than anybody – Stanton included. If Judge declines, the Derby will be far, far worse for it.

Cody Bellinger: Ditto Bellinger. Like Judge, he’s a rookie. Like Judge, he leads his league in home runs. He doesn’t hit the ball as hard or as far as Judge, but for pure aesthetics, his swing is Sistine Chapel-ceiling gorgeous. To miss those majestic, glorious shots deep into the night would be a shame.

Bombers

Joey Gallo: There is a good argument that Joey Gallo exists on this earth specifically to participate in the Home Run Derby every year. This season, he has 20 home runs, 13 singles, 11 doubles and two triples. As a bonus, he also would be the likeliest player to swing and miss in the Derby, which, in the rare instances it occurs, provides instant entertainment.

George Springer: He hits moonshots and lasers, pull side and oppo, upper tank and Crawford Boxes. Springer is one of the most versatile home run hitters in baseball. The only question is: Does the Derby really need a five-tool slugger?

Bryce Harper: Only once has Harper participated in the Derby, during his second season, and he lost in the finals to Yoenis Cespedes. He is the most well-known player in baseball. Big events that are so well-suited to Harper practically demand his participation.

Kris Bryant: The last time he was in the Derby, it was a feel-good story, with his dad pitching to him. He lost in the first round. Surely he’s got more in him.

Not Happening, But …

Mike Trout: Please. Just heal in time. Really, it’s OK to come back from a wrist injury to play in an exhibition contest that past participants fear led to a poor second half. (Note: It doesn’t. The Derby Curse is not real.) What’s that? He’s not going? No chance in hell? Fine. What about …

Freddie Freeman: Nope. Not him, either.

Deserve Consideration

Eric Thames: Here is a 30-minute audition tape. Tell me this guy shouldn’t be in the Derby.

Marcell Ozuna: Two Marlins in one Derby? If Stanton didn’t exist, Ozuna’s chances might be a lot better.

Logan Morrison: Just imagine the headline possibilities! Ex-Marlin returns to location of immense frustration and shoddy ownership, reminds city that doesn’t care about baseball who he is. Oh, and with 22 homers for the Rays this year, he deserves strong consideration.

Joey Votto: He’s so disciplined at the plate, you’re almost afraid he’ll take half the pitches and bomb out in the first round. An invite for Votto would serve as recognition of how incredible a hitter he is, though, and allow him to let go of the burdens felt to get on base and rip like there’s no tomorrow.

Justin Smoak: He’s a great story. He’s got a lot of home runs. The last-name puns are Home Run Derby-broadcast gimmes.

Mark Reynolds: Yes, Nolan Arenado could be the candidate from Colorado. He is the Rockies’ best player. And Charlie Blackmon could make a case as well. For pure, raw, unadulterated, distilled power, though, one cannot go wrong with Reynolds. He’s got the thunder to hit one 500-plus.

Gary Sanchez: Nobody hits them longer than the Yankees’ catcher, whose average home run this season has traveled 427 feet. In the Derby, distance matters.

Wild Cards

The pure joy of seeing the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Ichiro competing with the leviathans of the sport would be worth far more than the price of admission. (Getty Images)

Ichiro Suzuki: For a decade and a half now, the lore has been that Ichiro possesses incredible pull-side power but chooses to sheath it in favor of a slap-and-dash approach. The world deserves to see this. Not only would it allow Ichiro to stick around and give a speech to the National League the next day, the pure joy of seeing a 5-foot-9, 170-pound man competing with the leviathans of the sport would be worth far more than the price of admission. None other than Barry Bonds said he would win the Derby if he entered. This may be his final season in MLB. He plays for the Marlins. Do it. Do it before there’s no chance to do it again.

Jose Altuve: He’s small and hits home runs and that’s cool.

Scooter Gennett: His name is Scooter and he hit four home runs in a game and that’s cool.

Kennys Vargas: This season, 124 players have 10 or more home runs already. The number at the 2016 All-Star break: 129. By the end of this week, that number will be dwarfed. Perhaps even Vargas will get there. At seven home runs, he’s the only player on this list with fewer than 10. And yet one of those home runs went 483 feet, another 471 feet, and that distance along makes Vargas an awfully intriguing candidate.

Yuki Yanagita: I love the idea of bringing the Japanese leader as a wild card to participate in the Derby every July. The problem, of course, is that the leader often is a player who wasn’t good enough to make it in the major leagues. This year, it’s former Dodgers infielder Alex Guerrero. Among Japanese-born players, Yanagita is the guy, and he’s got some bona fides to go with his left-handed stroke: One time, he hit a home run that broke a scoreboard.

Paring Down the Field

Judge and Bellinger get byes. Maybe someday all three of the Vegas boys will face off, but this isn’t the year. Gallo and Harper advance.

Now we need three more from the NL and three from the AL. The NL field is deeper, no doubt. Votto told C. Trent Rosecrans to ”Just think of me as the Canadian Ichiro,” which makes me wonder if we should think of Ichiro as the Japanese Joey Votto. Anyway, they both deserve to advance. For the third, Thames and Reynolds are the two best candidates, and since the other four NL hitters are left-handed, Reynolds can be the righty complement.

Trout missing out hurts the AL. Springer’s breakout is worthy. The length of Sanchez’s homers makes him the same. And for pure salesmanship, Altuve is a marvel. Watching Altuve at 5-foot-5 do the same thing as Judge, who is 15 inches taller, would remind the world of how unique a game baseball really is.

The Verdict

Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Sano are in. Congratulations to Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, too. That leaves four spots.

Joey Gallo is to the Home Run Derby what a la mode is to a brownie. It’s perfectly fine without but so much better with. So what if Gallo is hitting below the Mendoza Line. He exists to hit long home runs at which the world gawks, and there is no better time than the Derby to gawk. Harper joins him, not just because he’s well capable of hitting balls far himself but because whenever he’s in something, it’s automatically an event.

Giancarlo Stanton hit a ball 510 feet in the 2014 Derby and knows Marlins Park better than anyone. (Getty Images)

As for the final two spots, there are no easy choices, particularly in the AL. Springer would be great. So would Sanchez. The spectacle of Altuve, though, is too delicious to pass up. He’s not the greatest home run hitter by any means, but his in-game power is very real, and he would be much more than a sideshow.

For the last spot, let’s remember: The duty of All-Star week is to sell baseball. It’s to re-engage a fan base that has grown old. It’s to make memories. And a 43-year-old, gray-haired wisp of a man depositing ball after ball into the right-field stands is, among many other things, memorable.

Make it happen, Major League Baseball. In the Year of the Home Run, give one of the coveted spots in the Derby to someone with only two this year. This may be Ichiro Suzuki’s last season in the major leagues, which means it may be the last opportunity to see whether the legend is true.

Can Ichiro beat Aaron Judge? The world wants to know. The world deserves to see.

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