- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
Since his debut in 2019, nobody in baseball has hit more home runs than New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso. Nobody has come close, actually. Alonso’s 130 homers outpace the second-most-prolific home run hitter, Eugenio Suarez, by 19. Alonso has 24 more homers than Aaron Judge, 32 more than Bryce Harper, 35 more than Juan Soto and 36 more than Mike Trout.
“It’s the most addicting feeling,” Alonso said. “I mean, I can’t get enough of it. I don’t know if there’s anyone that loves hitting homers more than I do.”
Never does that love manifest itself better than at the Home Run Derby, the All-Star week showcase in which Major League Baseball’s greatest home run hitters show out. As well-rounded a hitter as Alonso has become — his .268/.344/.527 line in a depressed offensive environment this season is a testament to that — the annual midsummer reminder of his longball prowess is set for another go-around Monday at Dodger Stadium on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET.
Winner of the last two Derbies in 2019 and 2021, Alonso is primed to make history with a third straight. Only Ken Griffey Jr. has taken three Derby titles, and he did so in 1994, 1998 and 1999. Though Alonso, 27, has plenty of time to match Junior’s total, he’d rather go the three-peat route.
To do so will take strategy alongside skill. And in a recent interview with ESPN, Alonso peeled back the curtain on how he approaches the Derby and what it takes to win, whether you’re a seasoned big leaguer or a rookie in search of glory. Behold, only a few hours before he puts them to the test: Pete Alonso’s 10 Rules to Win a Home Run Derby.
Rule No. 1: Hydrate like crazy
Winning a home run derby starts days before the event itself, Alonso said. He makes sure to eat well and grab a few extra hours of sleep. Above all, though, he drinks water like he’s suffering from a personal drought.
The Derby’s new format, instituted in 2015, places the eight participants in a seeded bracket. Each competitor swings for three minutes, with one 45-second timeout per round. Then he receives 30 seconds of bonus time — and can earn another 30 seconds if, in the first three minutes, at least one homer travels 440-plus feet.
“People think that the Derby’s a power showcase, but I think it’s more of an endurance competition,” Alonso said. “Thing is, it’s not just the day before. It’s a couple days before for me. I always try and be the most hydrated person I can be because when you’re out here sweating, especially now in the summer, it gets to be a lot. And then you start feeling fatigued if you’re not [hydrated]. So I just want to be able for my body to bounce back, recover and be able to sustain a high energy output.”
Rule No. 2: Get moral support
For those who have the gumption to enter a home run derby, know that the backing of friends goes a long way. And when you’re Pete Alonso, your friends are Mike Piazza and Mark McGwire, the latter of whom won the 1992 Derby.
“I thought they were pretty much superheroes, and to be able to reach out to both of ’em [is amazing],” Alonso said. “Mark actually texted me the other day, and he’s pretty excited that I was gonna participate in the Derby. So it’s really amazing that for me, I have a relationship with my childhood idols.”
Rule No. 3: The opponent doesn’t matter
Alonso is the No. 2 seed in this year’s Derby, which ranked hitters based on their first-half home runs. Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber leads the field, followed by Alonso, Corey Seager, Soto, Jose Ramirez, rookie Julio Rodriguez, Alonso’s opponent, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Albert Pujols.
It would be easy, and natural, for Alonso to fear Acuna — his first-round opponent (the 7 seed, with eight home runs this season). Acuna’s prodigious power stroke and youth — he’s 24 — are the sort of combination that plays well in this event. But he is Pete Alonso, and everyone else isn’t, and that sort of self-assurance goes a long way.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter who I’m facing because I’m just out there and focusing on my job at hand, which is whatever number is set, I just need to hit one more than that,” he said. “So I don’t really pay attention to who’s doing it. I just want to hit one more than whoever I’m facing.”
Rule No. 4: Find the right pitcher
Not everybody, Alonso acknowledged, can get the best batting-practice pitcher in the world — a pitcher willing to fly in from Europe for the event. Dave Jauss, the former Mets bench coach and current pitcher in Home Run Derby X, MLB’s attempt to make the Derby an international event, turned into a temporary celebrity last year when he grooved pitch after pitch into Alonso’s nitro zone.
“He knows where it is just right,” Alonso said. “Right over the middle of the plate and right in the bread basket. As much as I have to hit ’em, the pitcher’s gotta throw ’em. It’s just as nerve-wracking for the pitcher as it is the hitter, because the pitcher has a responsibility to throw the ball over the dish. When you have 40, 50,000 people with their eyes on you and breathing down your neck, so to speak, it can be difficult.”
Rule No. 5: Know your zone
In timed derbies, it’s not only imperative for a pitcher to find the hitter’s sweet spot but for the participant not to swing at substandard pitches. Remember, a pitcher must wait until a flyball lands to throw the next offering. High flies that fall short of the fence are killers.
“Basically I’m just looking for a pitch in my area,” Alonso said. “I have an area I’m looking for the ball to be in. So that’s gonna be my go-zone. Pretty much my entire load is trying to see the ball in my area. And then, once I finally get into that loaded position, if I like what I see, you should see my hips, my core, my legs rotating back and through the baseball.”
Rule No. 6: Stick to your swing
For all the consternation over whether the Derby can ruin a player’s swing — plenty of evidence shows that participants’ offensive numbers decline after the break … and plenty of examples exist of players’ offense improving — Alonso rendered the point moot by trying to replicate his in-game swing in the exhibition.
“When I take batting practice, I try and take game-like swings,” Alonso said. “I want to be quick and concise to the baseball but also adding that similar effort level. Because I want to practice in a similar tempo [as] the way that I play.
“The swing is almost like a fingerprint, where every single baseball player is different. In baseball, there’s a lot of comparisons. No one’s the same. People can be strikingly similar. But I think that the swing is one of those things — it’s almost like a baseball player’s thumbprint.”
Rule No. 7: Use your timeouts smartly
A well-timed timeout can be the saving grace for a player’s chances at the $1 million first-place Derby prize. Participants can use it for any number of reasons — he’s off to a bad start and wants to change his juju, he needs to calculate the pace he needs to hit to surpass an opponent or, typically, he’s simply tired.
“I know it sounds like a super simple answer,” Alonso said, “but when I’ve taken time out, it’s like, OK, I need to take a breath. I need to reset. Or like last year: I went past the halfway mark because we were in a really good groove. As soon as the groove ended, it’s like, OK, let’s take a time out here, catch our breath and then cross the finish line. So I think timing the breaks correctly is huge.”
Rule No. 8: Let your emotions out
Trying to calibrate all of the feelings a derby brings still challenges Alonso. He doesn’t have any special technique to calm the nerves. So he embraces all of them — and, in the process, likens himself to a carbonated beverage.
“There’s excitement,” Alonso said. “There’s doubt. There’s antsiness. There’s reservedness. It’s just like a whole soda bottle of emotions. And then when you go out there and hit, by the time you shake it up and let the top off, it’s just this release of emotions. And that’s when, for me, when I’m in my groove, it just naturally comes out.”
Rule No. 9: Hit tanks
Look, home run derbies are not for the meek. It takes a special sort of confidence to step into a batter’s box and whack a ball over the fence. But come on. The fence is merely an arbitrary measure of distance. As memorable as homers in bunches may be, the truly legendary performances come from the guys who hit the ball the farthest.
Alonso embraces this ethos. In the finals last year against Baltimore’s Trey Mancini, Alonso’s first swing brought his longest homer of the Derby: 509 feet. Later that round, on the cusp of clinching the victory, he destroyed another ball: 115 mph off the bat, 508 feet before it landed. His 74 home runs in the event traveled a total of 6.35 miles — an average of 453 feet per homer.
Dodger Stadium presents a particularly appetizing opportunity for Alonso. Six times in history has a batter hit a ball over the outfield pavilion and clear out of the stadium: Willie Stargell twice, Piazza, McGwire, Giancarlo Stanton — who nearly participated in this year’s Derby but pulled out this week — and Fernando Tatis Jr. Alonso, a believer in the idea that the league uses extra-springy balls for the Derby, wants to be the seventh.
“People tell me all the time that with the Derby balls and the environment that I’d probably be able to put one in the parking lot,” Alonso said. “So I think that’d be fun. Hit one actually outta the stadium.”
Rule No. 10: Have a blast
Perhaps this one is obvious. The Home Run Derby is an inherently fun event, and regardless of the conflicting emotions, the out-of-your-control variables, the perils of hydration, it should be a good time. Relish the long ones. Be thankful for the fence-scrapers. Laugh at the bad swings. And, above all, enjoy it.
“I’m there to win,” Alonso said. “I’m doing it to win, and it’d be great, but ultimately I’m gonna be having a wonderful time. I’m gonna be able to help support some people in need. It’s gonna be a blast.”
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