Matthew Leach

Predicting Derby winner an inexact science

Leach: Predicting Derby winner an inexact science

Predicting Derby winner an inexact science
If you're looking to handicap Monday night's State Farm Home Run Derby, well, good luck. The annual contest has defied prediction for the most part.

Winners have included such big-time sluggers as Ryan Howard (58 homers in the year he won) and such line-drive hitters as Justin Morneau (23 in his winning season). They've been right-handed and left-handed, infielders and outfielders, batting practice monsters and guys who don't put on spectacular shows at 5 p.m.

There are a couple of things you can look for, of course, starting with fitting the player to the ballpark. But Kauffman Stadium is a symmetrical park, not especially favoring lefties or righties, so that may be out the window. In the end it could be as simple as who gets hot. But we can take a look at some theories.

One notion is that you need to pull the ball to win. After all, it's a lot farther to the wall in center field than down the line. That's the opinion of Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, among others.

"Andre [Ethier] would be really good in that," Mattingly said. "Matt [Kemp] is not good in a home run contest. He doesn't pull. Try winning that contest going to right-center. All the guys who win pull everything."

And although there may be some truth to that once the contest begins, a player's in-season tendencies don't tell us a great deal about how he'll fare in the Derby. Of the last 20 players to reach the final round, pull hitters and up-the-middle hitters are both well represented.

Last year's winner, Robinson Cano, pulled 67.9 percent of his regular-season homers in 2011, a huge ratio. But the runner-up, Adrian Gonzalez, hit just a little more than 40 percent of his regular-season homers to the pull side, and more than a quarter of them to the opposite field. Ryan Howard won the Derby in 2006, when nearly 40 percent of his homers were hit the opposite way and a little more 15 percent were pulled.

If you're looking for a trend, here's one: Six of the past seven Derby winners have swung left-handed. But of the 20 finalists from the past 10 years, it's a more even breakdown: 10 lefties and 10 righties. More accurately, 10 left, nine right and one switch-hitter, but Lance Berkman hit right-handed in 2004 at Minute Maid Park, taking aim at the Crawford Boxes.

That brings us back to the ballpark. It does seem to matter how players are suited to the parks. For example, Morneau, a left-handed hitter whose power came to the pull side in 2008, triumphed at Yankee Stadium, home of the short porch.

Meanwhile, the final in San Francisco in 2007 featured two right-handed hitters. AT&T Park is notoriously tough on left-handed hitters not named Bonds, with a high wall in right field. The power field by the Bay is left field, despite the siren call of McCovey Cove.

And maybe, just maybe, practice can help. Giancarlo Stanton, considered one of the favorites this year due to his batting-practice shows, has been working to simulate Derby conditions. Hitters on Monday night will swing without a batting cage around them, so Stanton has been taking some rounds of batting practice without the cage.

"[Kemp] gave me a few things to know," Stanton told reporters earlier this week. "We've got to get a little bit of the feel. We can't just go with the way I take BP and change things up that day. You've got to get a little practice when you do something like that."

It makes as much sense as anything.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.