Perez Jr. edges Kjerstad for AFL Home Run Derby crown

November 6th, 2022

MESA, Ariz. -- It has been a big year for Mariners sluggers in Home Run Derbies.

First, Julio Rodríguez dazzled with 81 blasts in Los Angeles, including 32 in the opening round, before finishing second to Juan Soto in the final round. On Saturday, No. 21 Seattle prospect got to take his hacks.

“Honestly, I watched a couple videos before,” Perez said, fiddling with his backward cap in a Ken Griffey Jr. style. “This is my first time doing this, so I tried to get some inspiration from him.”

In this case, an M’s right-handed batter finished the job.

Perez defeated Orioles No. 9 prospect , 11-10, in the final round to win the 2022 Arizona Fall League Home Run Derby at Mesa’s Sloan Park. He finished with 32 homers across three different rounds, tied with Kjerstad for the most on the night.

The Venezuela native got off to a hot start with 13 homers in the first round, which lasted 2 minutes and 30 seconds for each of the eight competitors. That was the most of any round by anyone on the night, and he maxed out at 440 feet and an exit velocity of 112 mph (on separate homers) as he routinely pegged rockets onto the left-field berm.

“Since the beginning,” Perez said of when he thought he could win. “It felt really good in the first round and had a good rhythm. I was hitting for fun, honestly, and I wanted to stay in the rhythm. I knew it was going to be good, so I won.”

The 22-year-old outfielder followed up his first-round effort with eight more blasts in the 1-minute, 30-second second round, giving him 21 total. Meanwhile, Kjerstad was the most consistent hitter on the night, driving 11 over the fence in both rounds, while relying on his trademark upper-cut swing that made him a No. 2 overall pick out of Arkansas in 2020.

“That’s the name of the game,” he said. “That’s part of the reason I play baseball. I want to hit the ball far. I want to hit homers. Luckily, that’s part of my game, so it’s a lot of fun.”

Since Kjerstad’s 22 usurped Perez’s 21 among two-round totals, the Baltimore slugger was given the chance to choose when he took his final hacks and selected second. Perez told his derby pitcher, Junior Betances of the Guardians, that he preferred inside pitches he could yank, and the pair’s strategy continued to work with an 11 spot.

As Kjerstad looked like he was running out of time in the 90-second round, Fall League players from multiple organizations and AFL clubs gathered around Perez to celebrate.

The M’s slugger has certainly felt the love over the past week. On Friday, he was voted into the AFL Fall Stars Game by the fans as a Final 2 candidate, beating out three hitters from the American League.

Perez put himself on the radar in a big way during the regular season, when he finished with 27 homers between Single-A Modesto and High-A Everett. That bested his previous career high of 15, set the season before entirely in the California League. He’s shown his pop can play with three homers and a .443 slugging percentage over 18 games with Peoria during his time in the desert. But Saturday may have represented his true coming-out party on a stage with other big-name prospects.

“It’s very high, honestly,” Perez said when asked where the Derby win ranks on his list of baseball accomplishments. “Everything I can do for baseball and the fans, I’m happy. Honestly, it was my first time doing this, so it was pretty fun.”

He wasn’t alone in those sentiments, even among those who didn’t claim a Playstation 5 among their Derby winnings.

“Playing all the games out here and hitting home runs in the games is a lot of fun,” Kjerstad said. “But being out here in front of the crowd when your main objective is to put on a show off of a BP, that's definitely up there.”

But for anyone in Seattle concerned that Perez, who possesses good raw power even on his normal swings, will start swinging for the fences in games to maintain his Derby momentum, you can rest easy.

“I’m going to leave it in the Derby,” he said laughing. “They’re two different things, so I’m just going to leave it.”

The two-round totals for the other six participants were as follows:

Matt Mervis (Cubs): 19
Andy Pages (Dodgers): 15
Deyvison De Los Santos (D-backs): 14
Jhailyn Ortiz (Phillies): 11
Stephen Scott (Red Sox): 10
Edouard Julien (Twins): 3