CLEVELAND – OK, so technically speaking Peter Alonso won the Home Run Derby.
Credit the Mets rookie for an impressive performance and give him $1 million in prize money. He earned it.
But Alonso wasn’t the one who hit a derby record 91 home runs Monday, electrifying the crowd at Progressive Field with a performance we’ll remember for years. No, that was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the youngest player ever to compete in the derby.
Not only did Guerrero Jr. impress the fans in Cleveland and the collection of all-stars watching along the sidelines, he revealed himself to be one of the game’s most exciting young players for fans watching worldwide.
“He was the star of the show,” said John Schneider, the Blue Jays coach who managed Guerrero Jr. at double-A last year and pitched to him on Monday. “He was awesome.”
“It’s rare. It’s kind of like once in a generation,” added Blue Jays all-star Marcus Stroman. “He’s on that edge. He’s got that potential to be extremely great.”
Safe to say Guerrero Jr. won himself a few fans Monday (not to mention, $500,000 in prize money).
“People were talking trash that he shouldn’t be in (as a non-all-star),” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He proved a lot of people wrong. He showed the world that he’s coming.”
The son of a Hall of Famer, Guerrero Jr. made an immediate impression. In the first round, he hit 29 homers, breaking Josh Hamilton’s single-round record of 28, set in 2008. But it’s what happened next that may prove to be as memorable as Hamilton’s performance at Yankee Stadium.
Facing Joc Pederson of the Dodgers, Guerrero Jr. rattled off 29 more homers, matching his first round total. But Pederson hit just as many, leading to the first of three tie-breakers.
“Calm down,” Stroman told Guerrero Jr. between rounds. “Relax, chill, you’ve got it, you’re killing it, you’re the man.”
In the first tiebreaker round, both hitters went deep eight times. That led to a second tiebreaker in which each player had three swings. Both homered on one of three chances, leading to a third tiebreaker. This time, Guerrero Jr. out-homered Pederson two to one.
“I knew he was going to do that, to be honest,” Stroman said. “He’s meant to play this game.”
For the 20-year-old third baseman, beating Pederson was the highlight of the night. He started dancing. Meanwhile, those nearby could only marvel at what they had seen.
“He’s ridiculous,” Schneider said. “It’s so fun to watch from my view (behind the L-screen) because I know I’m not going to get killed. It’s cool to have that view, man, it’s awesome.”
“That’s a powerful man. He touches it and it leaves,” Bregman said. “That was impressive.”
Along the third base line, other American League all-stars were just as impressed.
“It’s almost like they’re little leaguers watching big-leaguers,” Stroman said. “Which is pretty insane to have the group of all-stars over there in awe of Vladimir Guerrero when he’s only 20 … they’re looking at him like ‘wow.’ That tells you enough right there.”
Still, another round awaited Guerrero Jr., whose father won the 2007 derby over Blue Jays outfielder Alex Rios. By this point in the night, Guerrero Jr. had taken dozens and dozens of max-effort swings. The more tired he got, the further inside Schneider tried to locate his pitches.
“The volume is so much and the adrenaline is so much,” Schneider said. “It’s hard to keep repeating that.”
To his credit, Guerrero Jr. came close. Even though he was visibly exhausted, he hit 22 home runs in the final round, setting a high bar for Alonso.
“He did it on adrenaline,” Schneider said of Guerrero Jr. “That second round was so physically and mentally exhausting, but he still put up 22. Not many people did that at all.”
“I feel very, very proud of John Schneider right now,” Guerrero Jr. added afterwards through interpreter Hector Lebron. “We’ve been connected for a while. The pitches were right there. Sometimes a little bit outside, but it’s OK. I guess he got tired a little bit too. John Schneider and I, we’re great together.”
Moments later, though, Alonso had topped Guerrero Jr.’s total to win the derby.
“I gave all I had,” Guerrero Jr. said. “I just feel proud of hitting 91 balls because I broke the record.”
About an hour after the derby ended, Guerrero Jr. finally had the chance to watch some derby highlights by his locker. Seemingly exhausted but content, he looked at his phone. A few steps away, his BP pitcher reflected on the significance of the 20-year-old’s performance.
“It’s great for him individually,” Schneider said. “It’s great for the Blue Jays collectively to get a little bit of attention and hopefully for Vladdy have a little bit of momentum going into the second half. It was a cool event for him, and a cool event for the organization.”
Even beyond that, it’s great for the sport to have a young star show off at one of MLB’s marquee events. The likes of Schneider and Stroman have seen his potential for years. After Monday, every baseball fan knows what Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can do at the plate.
As Schneider says, “Belt high, middle-in. See you later, ball.”