The time has come for giants to launch baseballs into the night sky. Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby arrives Monday evening at Nationals Park as a leather-smashing appetizer for the 89th All-Star Game on Tuesday.
The Derby since 2015 features eight players each with four minutes to hit as many home runs as possible. They all get a 30-second timeout during the round to catch their breath. When to take that timeout is up to the hitter.
That format has changed the calculus for Derby participants. Over the three years of the new format, the number of long balls required to win the event has varied widely. Todd Frazier needed only 39 in 2015. Giancarlo Stanton bashed 61 in 2016 and Aaron Judge hit 47 last year.
But more consistent results have come from the college ranks, which use the same format. Twenty homers per four-minute round is usually enough to win the bracket-style event. Air Force first baseman Nic Ready hit 21 in the final round to hold off Clemson’s switch hitting shortstop Logan Davidson for the 2018 title.
We asked both Ready and Davidson the keys to mashing taters in a televised competitive batting practice. They pointed out five keys to success.
You better be in really good shape if you want to compete in this kind of event.
For Ready, taking some vigorous rounds of batting practice at elevation — the Air Force Academy is 7,258 feet above sea level — was enough to stay in shape, but just to be sure, he limited his rest between four-minute practice rounds to only a couple minutes. Hitters normally rest for closer to 15 minutes after strenuous sessions in the cage.
But muscle soreness, even after one or two rounds, is the larger hurdle, both Ready and Davidson said. The pair averaged about 120 swings per round. The next day, sometimes even after the round, both hitters could feel it, and Major Leaguers on Monday night likely will, too.
“The hands and forearms and legs were a lot more tired the more rounds you went,” Davidson said. “I guess adrenaline will only take you so far.”
That’s why swing is so important. Hitters who qualify for the Derby are strong enough and skilled enough with a bat to go yard from any part of the strike zone. Players call it “muscling a ball” out of the park. It involves taking a heavier swing and launching at the ball more with your arms rather than letting momentum from your legs carry the bat.
Ready and Davidson both said they tried not to muscle balls out in the Derby. Instead, they wanted to take easy, balanced swings that are just as powerful and less taxing.
“We could rush or try to muscle balls and the end of rounds get like that a little bit, but taking a nice smooth swing and really catching it, that’s going to be the difference between hitting two or three more home runs,” Ready said.
Multiple “muscled” swings quickly sap energy away from hitters and can even throw a batter out of his usual form. Derby participants, Ready and Davidson said, should consider the whole four-minute round when taking swings and try to preserve energy accordingly. “Muscling” a ball just isn’t worth it.
Hitters can pick their own pitchers for the Derby, and a considerable amount of preparation goes into coordination between the two.
Davidson took most of his swings from the left side of the plate, while Ready batted right-handed. Both wanted the ball pretty much in the same spot: belt-high on the inner half of the plate. That way, if the pitcher missed a spot, he’d be more likely to miss out over the plate and into a zone where Davidson and Ready could hit with power.
Practice rounds are just as important to pitchers to learn their batter’s hot spots as they are for batters to work on a home run swing.
“If you can’t get in a rhythm with that guy, it’s going to be a tough day,” Ready said. “A lot of your success is in the hands of your [batting practice] thrower.”
The tempo at which pitchers deliver the next ball is just as crucial as location. Pitchers aren’t allowed to deliver the next pitch until the last batted ball has landed.
But offer the next pitch too soon and a batter might not be ready in the box, or the fast pace might tire a hitter out. Throw the next pitch too late, and a batter won’t have as many opportunities to go deep as his competitors.
Ready wanted his pitcher to deliver pitches as quickly as possible. He relied on his conditioning to not get fatigued during the round and valued that constant pace to establish a rhythm.
“You want to be almost mid-windup as that ball hits the ground,” Ready said.
Davidson was more wary of pace. He and his pitcher started at a brisk clip, but as the rounds wore on, Davidson asked his pitcher to tamp down the velocity of each pitch. That gave Davidson more time to size up each ball on the way to the plate and an extra beat to relax and catch his breath in the box.
The timeout for both Ready and Davidson was the Derby’s game-changer, and likely will be for the pros Monday night, as well.
Ready went three minutes into each round before taking his timeout. He attributed his winning strategy to resting up and then pummeling the ball in the final minute of each round.
“We just wanted to finish strong with a minute knowing we could get a good six, seven out in a good minute,” Ready said.
Davidson planned to take his timeout when he started feeling tired during his round. He came out batting right-handed but could tell early on he wasn’t lifting the ball well from that side of the plate. So he took an early timeout and switched to the left side of the plate. He smacked 40 dingers in the next two rounds.
The timeout doesn’t have to be all about conditioning, Davidson cautioned. Sometimes it’s worth taking time to evaluate your round and try something different.
“The timeout is definitely a feel thing. It really comes down to when you get tired and how you’re hitting at the time when you’re tired,” he said. “If you’re tired and you’re still hitting home runs, you’re not going to take the timeout.”