The best Home Run Derby moments ever

July 11th, 2023

Being a great Major League hitter requires so many skills: supernatural hand-eye coordination, extreme patience, sublime strike zone recognition, precise swing mechanics, etc. That’s why the best sluggers log countless hours of work in the cage.

But as much as we love seeing that work reveal itself across the season, let’s be honest: we also love seeing these sluggers hit balls as far as they possibly can. The Home Run Derby is as fun as it is simple (see ball, crush ball), and it has created some electric moments dating back to its first installment in 1985. The 2023 rendition of the Derby lived up to the hype, with exhilarating performances from first-time champ Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Julio Rodríguez's single-round record of 41 home runs and Adley Rutschman's switch-hitting pop.

Here, in reverse chronological order, are the Derby moments that come to mind most.

Adley dazzles as a switch-hitter
Year: 2023
Derby Champ: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Why we remember: In his first Derby performance, Adley Rutschman shined when he pulled double duty hitting home runs from both sides of the plate. In the first round, Rutschman clubbed 21 home runs as a lefty in the first three minutes of the round. When his 30 seconds of bonus time came, Rutschman literally flipped the script by hitting six home runs as a righty. 

Luis Robert Jr.'s 28 home runs that proceeded Rutschman ultimately ended his night after one round but it didn't take away from Rutschman's electric performance. The O's superstar did his best to become both the first catcher and switch-hitter to win the competition outright.

Julio's hometown heroics
Year: 2023
Derby Champ: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Why we remember: Some players are built for the Derby; Julio Rodríguez certainly fits that bill. In front of his hometown Mariner fans, who showered him with "Julio" chants throughout, Rodríguez set a single-round record by crushing 41 home runs in the first round. It was a memorable performance that saw him hit a whopping 16,556 feet of home runs in a single round.

Just one year after hitting 81 Derby homers at Dodger Stadium, the third most by any player ever in the competition, Rodríguez followed it up with arguably an even more impressive performance. What's next for Julio in the Derby is unclear but what is clear is his knack for shining in this competition.

Albert's final Derby
Year: 2022
Derby Champ: Juan Soto
Why we remember: After being picked for the 2022 All-Star Game as a legacy selection, Albert Pujols decided to participate in his fifth and final Home Run Derby as well. "The Machine" was well-oiled at 42 years old, but he put on a show nonetheless. Midway through his first round, All-Stars from both sides mobbed Pujols at the plate, giving him one last ovation.

That moment propelled Pujols to a swing-off with Kyle Schwarber, where he hit seven homers and took down the top seed. His 20 home runs were the most he'd hit in a single round since a 14-homer semifinal he had way back in 2003. He eventually fell to the soon-to-be champion and fellow Santo Domingo, D.R., native Juan Soto, but not before hitting another 15 dingers to bring his all-time Derby total to 106, the second-most all-time.

Polar Bear Pete goes back-to-back at Coors
Year: 2021
Derby Champ: Pete Alonso
Why we remember: Alonso was the defending champ following a one-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he wasn't the biggest storyline coming into this Derby. That was Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, who had put up a Major League-most 33 homers while also enjoying a strong season as a starting pitcher, on his way to AL MVP honors. The inviting mile-high air at Denver's Coors Field also drew a ton of interest.

Alonso put the spotlight back on him quickly, however, launching 51 long balls with shocking ease across the first two rounds combined (including a first-round record 35 dingers) to cruise into the final. Alonso's opponent, Orioles slugger Trey Mancini, made for a phenomenal story himself, belting his way to the finals just one year after a colon cancer diagnosis. Mancini put up a very strong total to begin the final showdown with 22 homers, but Alonso breezed to 17 in regulation time and then homered on each of his first six swings in bonus time -- sealing his back-to-back Derby titles with plenty of time left on the clock.

Guerrero, Pederson stage dinger duel for the ages
Year: 2019
Derby Champ: Pete Alonso
Why we remember: This night honestly contained three separate all-time Derby performances. The victory for Alonso catapulted a once-unknown rookie to superstardom, much as it did for Aaron Judge two years earlier (see below), and Alonso finished 2019 with 53 homers to pace the Majors and eclipse Judge’s rookie record by one.

Alonso’s final-round triumph over fellow rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was scintillating enough, but it wasn’t even the best round of the night. That would be the semifinal battle between Guerrero and Joc Pederson -- likely the best Derby battle we’ll see for years to come. After Guerrero smacked a new single-round 29 homers to beat Matt Chapman in the opener, he and Pederson each clubbed 29 more in the semifinals. That set up not one, not two, but three swing-off tiebreakers to finally determine a finalist, with Guerrero finally prevailing, 40-39. Vlad Jr. and Pederson shared an exhausted hug when it was all over.

Bryce rallies late in D.C.
Derby Champ: Bryce Harper
Why we remember: Something about the Derby inspires superstars to do superstar things.

The entirety of Nationals Park was behind Harper for several reasons. His free agency was looming after the season, and Nats fans were anxious to convince Harper to stay in Washington. Plus, after years of clamoring, one of baseball’s most hyped and prodigious sluggers was finally swinging in the Derby.

Everything led to the final round when Harper, trailing Kyle Schwarber by nine homers with 50 seconds remaining, made up the difference with a breathtaking run and pulled even as the buzzer sounded. Then, Harper ended it with the second swing of his 30-second bonus round, creating pandemonium in the nation’s capital.

‘All Rise’ for the Judge in Miami
Year: 2017
Derby Champ: Aaron Judge
Why we remember: New York’s rookie arrived at Miami’s loanDepot park as a bona fide sensation -- not only for his staggering 30 home runs before the break, but also for the awe-inspiring exit velocities and distances that, beside his future teammate Giancarlo Stanton, no other slugger brought to the table.

With a wave of hype sweeping him into the 2017 event, Judge somehow still delivered. The hulking 6-foot-7 slugger walloped nearly two miles of homers, including 16 with exit velocities of 115 mph or harder and four 500-plus foot blasts (topping out at 513 feet), and became the first rookie to win the Derby outright. He finished the ‘17 season with a then-rookie record 52 round-trippers for the Yanks.

Big G gives Statcast a workout
Year: 2016
Derby Champ: Giancarlo Stanton
Why we remember: Stanton is, outside a few challenges here and there from the likes of Judge or Joey Gallo or others, the exit-velocity king of the Statcast Era. So it was only right that Stanton’s crowning moment coincided with Statcast’s first Derby showcase. The uber-powerful slugger homered on 24 of his first 30 swings and cleared the fence 41 total times across the first two rounds. He then added 20 more dingers in the final to defeat Todd Frazier for the trophy.

Stanton made pitcher-friendly Petco Park look like a bandbox. He hammered 11 homers of 440 feet or longer -- including two 497-foot homers (one that cleared the center-field batter’s eye) -- and topped out at a 120.4 mph exit velocity in an utterly dominant performance.

Josh Hamilton’s 28 in the Bronx
Derby Champ: Justin Morneau
Why we remember: The only flaw with Josh Hamilton’s then-unprecedented performance was that it came too early. The Rangers star belted a mind-boggling 28 home runs -- including one blast that nearly sailed out of old Yankee Stadium and elicited its own standing ovation -- in the opening round of the 2008 Derby, assuring that the night was his no matter what happened later. In fact, that’s exactly what happened: few remember that Twins star Justin Morneau, not Hamilton, took home the trophy.

Abreu shocks the field
Year: 2005
Derby Champ: Bobby Abreu
Why we remember: An underappreciated star throughout his career, Abreu entered the 2005 Derby with a high mark of only 31 homers in any of his prior nine seasons. Abreu then topped that total in one night, bopping 24 first-round homers and finishing with 41 total long balls for the upset victory. Fellow star Venezuelan Johan Santana received a phone call from his father back home, letting he and Abreu know that the country was “paralyzed” by Abreu’s dominant performance.

Sosa steals the show
Year: 2002
Derby Champ: Jason Giambi
Why we remember: If you don’t remember or know about Sosa’s 2002 Derby performance, you have no excuse now.

It wasn’t so much the volume of Sosa’s first-round performance at then-Miller Park in Milwaukee (he finished it with 12 homers), but more about where these dingers went. One ball hit the top of the Bernie Brewer slide. Another hit the very top of the center-field video scoreboard. And several more flew out the back windows and out to some lucky fans standing outside a domed stadium. Estimates from that day had Sosa bashing seven 500-plus foot blasts, including a neck-craning 524-footer that stands as the longest Derby dinger ever measured -- Statcast Era or prior.

“I actually felt bad for Giambi,” Marlins All-Star Mike Lowell said of the 2002 Derby champion, “and he won."

Indeed, this was unquestionably Sosa’s event – the winner said so himself.

“I don’t think anything can hold him,” Giambi marveled, “except Yellowstone.”

McGwire rents space on Lansdowne Street
Year: 1999
Derby Champ: Ken Griffey Jr.
Why we remember: This was an absolutely loaded Derby field, headlined by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the summer following their Hollywood 1998 home run record race. With Fenway Park serving as the idyllic backdrop, McGwire claimed the spotlight by making the Green Monster look like a mere garden fence. No light tower atop the Monster or pedestrian behind it on Lansdowne Street was safe from McGwire’s mythic moonshots. Big Mac got so hot that Pedro Martinez playfully stole his bat to give Sosa, his fellow Dominican, a better chance. Griffey walked away with the trophy, but McGwire was the star of stars.

Griffey rises to the challenge
Year: 1998
Derby Champ: Ken Griffey Jr.
Why we remember: Griffey became the first slugger with multiple Derby titles after coming away victorious in the mile-high air at Coors Field, but he almost didn’t participate at all. Griffey initially declined his invitation after his Mariners had played late on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball two days prior, and he was booed for that decision at All-Star batting practice. A conversation with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson reportedly changed Griffey’s mind, and once he was in, he figured he might as well win the thing.

Griffey hits the warehouse in Baltimore
Derby Champ: Juan Gonzalez
Why we remember: We can’t run down the Derby’s top moments without recognizing the event’s most prolific champ -- although this is actually one Derby in which the three-time winner didn’t claim the trophy. Still, this one produced Griffey’s most memorable Derby clout: a long ball that completely left Baltimore’s Camden Yards, crossed neighboring Eutaw Street and hit the B&O Warehouse on its iconic brick wall. Griffey is still the only player to hit the warehouse with a homer on the fly in either Derby or game action, making the achievement only more amazing as time goes by.