The Home Run Derby was never intended to be taken seriously. Still, there is something about the glorified game of batting practice that tends to get under people's skin, bringing out the All-Star Break scrooges. "I expect the Home Run Derby will be boring and I'll leave early," is how Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Grienke put it to a reporter in 2018.
I want to love the Home Run Derby — I really, really do. I adore weird, dumb baseball. I like fanbases that ballot-stuff the All-Star Game, I go nuts for position players pitching, and my white whale is seeing a pitcher dinger live. Like everyone else, I salivated at the sound of a ball being obliterated by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. during his Home Run Derby trial run. But I find myself becoming a scrooge, too: Tonight's Home Run Derby will probably be boring, and I'll probably turn it off early.
So let's make it harder.
As I've argued before, home runs are dull. Baseball is a game enlivened by balls in play, something that is occurring less and less frequently. In May, baseball set a new record for the most home runs hit in one month, then broke it again in June. During MLB's London debut, the New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 17-13 in their first game, which lasted a bottom-numbing four hours and 42 minutes; by comparison, the Los Angeles Rams only lost to the New York Giants 17 to 10 in London in 2016 — and that was an NFL game. "I don't know what I'm witnessing but the way the ball is coming off the bat right now is extraterrestrial," Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after his team combined with the Chicago White Sox for a total of 2,029 feet worth of dingers in one windy game last month.
Recent rule changes to the Home Run Derby have definitely improved the game with the addition of a timer, earned "bonus time" for moonshots, and a bracket system. But the tweaks haven't been enough; 2018's field was historically weak, and the best hitters often don't want to participate (who can blame them?).
One alternative that has gained some traction among fans is to take sluggers out of the Home Run Derby entirely. Instead of having Christian Yelich, Carlos Santana, and Ronald Acuña Jr. clobber balls out of the park like it's any given Monday, put in Trevor Bauer, Max Scherzer, and yes, even Grienke. Make it the Pitcher Home Run Derby! While even a slim chance of a pitcher injury occurring during my newly-inaugurated PHRD is likely enough to ensure this will never actually be adopted, it would improve on one reason why the Home Run Derby is boring: It's so easy. If people who were less accustomed to hitting balls out of the park were to be the ones taking swings, each dinger would feel more like the sort of victory it ought to be.
Likewise, you could leave in the star sluggers and make the pitching more difficult. Because having Chris Sale throw outside of the regular season — and risk injuring his arm — would never fly, instead MLB could bring in fledgling Little League pitchers to lob balls, or maybe just pull people randomly selected from the crowd. Yeah, it'd be an absolute mess, as most ceremonial first pitches illustrate, but it would at least add an element of comedy to the whole thing.
Another idea would be to remove the fences altogether. In the earliest games of baseball, there weren't boundaries to mark the end of the field of play; it wasn't until the construction of New York's Union Grounds in 1862 that "the idea that baseball, the game of infinite space, should be played in an urban structure of very finite space" came to be, writes Paul Goldberger in his excellent book Ballpark. The Home Run Derby could likewise be complicated by being played in an enormous field. Sure, it'd be harder to accommodate spectators, but making the Home Run Derby a competition about the furthest a ball can travel, rather than merely requiring it to clear a fence, would be an interesting twist as well as a clever nod to its pastoral roots.
Or perhaps MLB could make the goal of the Home Run Derby about control and erect massive targets at which the hitters would aim. They could just rename the whole event the Babe Ruth Derby after his 1932 called shot. Admittedly, for anyone who isn't the greatest ballplayer to ever live, this might not work out so well; as SB Nation notes, even the best batters only have a modicum of control over where a ball goes. The Babe Ruth Derby would probably be more like a lottery of utter chance, but hey, the regular derby is silly enough as it is, why not embrace it?
Finally, MLB could shake things up by having derby batters hit only with their opposite hand. While this would give an advantage to already-good switch-hitters like Francisco Lindor, Asdrúbal Cabrera, or Santana, who happens to be in the 2019 Home Run Derby anyway, you'd at least be able to slow Aaron Judge down a little.
Otherwise — short of eliminating the Home Run Derby altogether or sitting through its drudgery — there's only one other good idea: Fix the regular season so homers become rarer and more exciting. Only by making adjustments to put more balls in play when it isn't a home run derby will the actual Home Run Derby become fun again.