Odds for tonight's home run derby
Hometown superstar Albert Pujols is the odds-on favorite
Carlos Peña's the best AL contestant; Nelson Cruz is a darkhorse candidate
If Brandon Inge were to win tonight, he'd be the unlikeliest champion ever
ST. LOUIS -- Of this we can, we think, be fairly certain: The winner of the 2009 Home Run Derby will be a first baseman. And of this we can be almost as sure: He will be a first baseman from the National League.
The NL contingent consists of a quartet of in-their-prime first basemen -- Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard and Adrian Gonzalez -- who arguably rank as the league's four most feared sluggers, whereas the Junior Circuit's contenders appear to be decidedly more, well, junior. Two of the American League's participants, Joe Mauer and Nelson Cruz, have hit fewer than 60 career home runs (Mauer's got 59, Cruz 43), and only Carlos Peņa, the competition's fifth first baseman, has a 30-homer season to his credit (he has two of them). The NL's foursome, meanwhile, has combined for 16 30-homer seasons, and has hit nearly twice as many career dingers (806) as the AL's quartet (404).
Missing from the American League side, either because they declined to participate or are simply not here, are bombers like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, '08 champion Justin Morneau and Josh Hamilton, who might still be completing his first round from last year had that competition been held at the new Yankee Stadium, instead of the old one. Things could have become very bleak indeed for the AL ("Now stepping to the plate ... Jason Bartlett!") had Cruz and Peņa not been added to the roster as injury replacements, and then agreed to compete in the Derby.
We could pretend that predicting the winner of a Home Run Derby is a scientific process. We could get into the weather (predicted to be perfect here when the event begins tomorrow night, 84 degrees and bone dry), we could get into dissecting the ballpark (Busch Stadium is usually slightly more of a pitchers' park than a hitters' park, and its dimensions are essentially symmetrical), we could get into which participant might be the least annoyed by hearing Chris Berman bellow the word "back" 1,600 times over the course of a few hours.
You know what? Let's pretend! Herein, SI.com's extremely scientific projection of the results of this evening's slugfest (from least likely to win to most likely). Eat your heart out, Nate Silver
BRANDON INGE, TIGERS 3B
Inge enters the competition on something of a roll, as he hit a pair of homers against the Indians on Sunday to lift his season total to 21, just six off his career high. He's having a superb season, and is at age 32 a deserving first-time All-Star due both to his power numbers and his virtuoso play at third base. Were he to win this Derby, though, he'd certainly be the unlikeliest champion ever.
NELSON CRUZ, RANGERS RF
Cruz isn't a rookie -- he appeared in 176 games over four seasons before finally, at age 28, breaking out this year in Texas -- but he's by far the least experienced of any of the Derby participants, and that doesn't bode well. Just ask Evan Longoria, who finished last in the competition as a true rook last year (he hit three out of Yankee Stadium), or Nomar Garciaparra, who as a rookie in 1997 couldn't muster even one. Cruz has immense power, however, and if he overcomes his jitters and gets into an early groove, watch out.
JOE MAUER, TWINS C
Despite his power surge in May, Mauer remains a groundball and line-drive hitter -- his 31.6 percent fly-ball rate ranks him in the bottom quartile of the 190 players who have made more than 250 plate appearances this season -- and that type of player doesn't normally thrive in Home Run Derbies. Of course, Mauer is so talented that he might be able to adjust his swing for the purposes of the competition, as Bobby Abreu, another groundball-and-line-drive-type, did when he hit a ridiculous 44 balls out of Comerica Park in 2005. Abreu, though, famously struggled after that display (he hit .304 before the Derby, .268 after it), and the Twins can be forgiven if they're hoping that Mauer doesn't change a thing and honorably bows out in the first round.
ADRIAN GONZALEZ, PADRES 1B
Gonzalez got off to a scorching start this season, mashing 20 home runs by the end of May, but he's been pretty awful since then: four homers in all of June, and none so far in July (a drought that has contributed to his putrid .401 OPS this month). His utter lack of protection in San Diego might be weighing on him, as might the fact that he plays in the cavernous Petco Park, and the Derby could be just what he needs to regain his power stroke (the opposite of how it usually works, I know). An interesting note, as reported by Lee Jenkins in a recent issue of SI: Gonzalez attributes his development into a bona fide slugger in part to his Derby competitor Ryan Howard, who in the middle of a July 2007 game advised him to switch to a heavier bat.
CARLOS PEŅA, RAYS 1B
Peņa is a first-time All-Star, like Inge and Cruz, but he's got a somewhat more consistent track record than either of them. Also, unlike Mauer, he's an extreme fly-ball hitter: his fly-ball rate of 54.5 percent is the fourth highest among big-leaguers who currently qualify for the batting title, and is the highest among the eight players in the Derby (Pujols ranks second, at 47.6 percent). If an American League player is to win the competition for the third year in a row, it will probably be Peņa, the last man added to the roster.
PRINCE FIELDER, BREWERS 1B
He hit just three out in his only other Derby appearance, in 2007 in San Francisco (a debut that, he's probably happy to note, was considerably better than that of his dad, Cecil, who put up a goose egg at Wrigley in 1990). He's also yet to master Busch Stadium, where he has just five dingers in 101 career at-bats. Still, Fielder is a much more controlled and mature hitter now than he was two years ago -- he's somewhat quietly putting together a phenomenal season in Milwaukee, after regressing a bit in '08 -- and one imagines that nerves will be less of a factor than they were back then. A definite threat, and, at the least, he's always fun to watch.
RYAN HOWARD, PHILLIES 1B
For whatever reason, Howard seems to love Busch Stadium: He's a career .381 hitter at Busch (his highest batting average in any stadium in which he's played more than three games) and has hit seven bombs here in 63 at-bats. His overall OPS+ is disconcertingly trending down -- it was 167 in 2006, his MVP year, but has dropped each season since then (he's at 120 in '09) -- but that won't matter much in the Derby. He's the only contestant in this year's competition who has won it before (in '06), and he has to be considered the second favorite, behind only the great ...
ALBERT PUJOLS, CARDINALS 1B
It's too perfect, right? The game's best hitter, aiming for his first home run derby crown in his home ballpark, in front of his adoring fans ... The pressure might be too intense for most, but Pujols, of course, is only questionably mortal, and I can't imagine that there's ever been a heavier favorite to win any Derby than Pujols in '09. Of course, that probably means that Inge will run away with this fluky thing -- but Uncle Albert is the pick.
Interested in Ben Reiter's up-to-the-minute musings on the derby and everything else? Follow him on Twitter at SI_BenReiter.
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