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Major League Baseball should try individual skills competitions

MLB should look to competitions that can happen without violating social distancing in order to get their stars back in the spotlight.

T-Mobile Home Run Derby

Over the weekend, the President of the United States held a conference call with the commissioners of all the major domestic sports leagues. While some details have leaked out about the conversation, including how the President is hopeful that leagues are playing in front of fans by August and September, other stories about internal discussions also came out.

One that I found interesting was how the NBA is looking to set up a game of H-O-R-S-E between some of its highest profile stars, with ESPN as a partner. This is a path that Major League Baseball in general, and the Yankees in particular, could use to get their stars back in front of a sports starved public.

A home-run derby instantly came to mind. This is a competition that could be played in an isolated ball park none of the competitors, cameramen or production staff required to break social distancing guidelines as they are spread across a baseball stadium.

What I picture is not exactly the competition from the day before the All-Star game in July, as that is a one-night event that has leaves players exhausted by the end of their night. I have in mind the version of home-run derby that aired in 1960.

That version included many of the best players of the day, including future Hall-of-famers Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Duke Snider. The format included the players going head-to-head for nine innings, with three non-home runs constituting the outs for the inning. It was made for TV, could easily be adapted into a round-robin or bracket format that could be played out over several weeks.

The Yankees would have numerous candidates for such a competition including past participants Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, and Luke Voit. The Yankees’ roster is not short of power hitters, and if everyone involved wanted to have fun and include more players they could have each team fashion a lineup of three players that rotate through the game.

Could there be an additional competitions for the pitchers? Teams and players would probably cringe at the thought of a hardest pitch competition, but could we see pitchers trying to paint the corners? Many fans around baseball are familiar with the heat maps of hitters. Could we see pitchers confronted with hypothetical heat maps, and a scouting report and then try to exploit that by hitting their spots with the most precision, and their opponents weakest pitch.

This could be a fun experiment, that would show off the skill level of major league pitchers, but also keep the environment controlled to protect their arms.

Baseball Savant

I’m sure some guys with backgrounds at Driveline Baseball type facilities like Trevor Bauer, and Adam Ottavino already have competitions in mind based on their extensive time in pitching labs that could be turned into made for TV competitions.

Are their additional skills that could be tested? Pop times for catchers measure how long it takes for them to get a ball to second base after it hits their glove. Most scouting reports have it listed, and it could be turned into a competition. Who can “steal” second the fastest? In the KBO, they have a bunting competition, where players aim for targets with their bunts to see who can do it most accurately. This offseason on twitter I’ve seen players knock frisbees out of the air, and make full length baskets off a hitting tee, so maybe a trick shot contest game of H-O-R-S-E could be set up. Not every idea here might be a winner, but they can all be done with limited interaction between participants while providing real competition.

From the athletes’ standpoint, the players likely being hurt the most over the coming months are baseball minor leaguers. They make a small salary to start with, and stand a very real chance of losing their entire seasons at many levels. The Yankees own the YES Network, which will be looking for fresh content in the space that is generally filled by Yankees baseball, replays, and analysis hows. They could potentially extend these competitions to the Yankees’ minor leaguers, while filming them inside the team’s complex in Tampa.

Last season Dermis Garcia won the Florida State League home run contest, while Mike Ford finished second in the Triple-A version. Chris Gittens led the Eastern League in home runs, while other players in the system like Josh Breaux, Anthony Garcia, and Jacob Sanford have drawn rave reviews for their raw power which could lead to some fun home-run derby moments. While I doubt this programming would do incredible ratings, it would provide a fresh looks at some players in the organization while generating some revenue that could help support all of the Yankees’ minor leaguers.

Professional sports can do more than just fill the void left by their absence. In recent years we have seen the “Stand up to Cancer” campaign highlighted at the World Series. Numerous charities can be helped through the spotlight that sports can bring. Events like this can quickly help bring awareness to charities around the country in serious need right now.

Baseball should take a page from what the NBA is considering and look into skills-type events that can be run with little interaction between participants. This will get the stars of the game back in front of the fans while also filling in the void of sports that we currently have.