It’s getting tougher and tougher to hate on the Home Run Derby.

An event that began in 1985 as a novelty -- baseball’s dinger-filled answer to the NBA Slam Dunk Contest -- the Derby morphed into a snooze-fest by the early 2000s. In recent years, though, it has undergone a resurgence, with rules changes making it more watchable.

But credit MLB for putting the proper sluggers on the Derby stage. In 2017, the country got its introduction to Aaron Judge. Last year, we saw Bryce Harper in what turned out to be his last big event in Washington. And last night it was difficult to look away from Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso, two rookies who figure to be faces of the game for years to come.

The 90th All-Star Game will be played tonight, and the Phillies will have one representative: catcher J.T. Realmuto. It marks his second career All-Star Game. He attended last year as a member of the Miami Marlins.

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— Scott Lauber (slauber@inquirer.com)

Bryce Harper wasn't selected to participate in the All-Star Game this year, but his face (third from the left) is being used to market the festivities in Cleveland.
MATT BREEN / Staff
Bryce Harper wasn't selected to participate in the All-Star Game this year, but his face (third from the left) is being used to market the festivities in Cleveland.

Here’s why the All-Star Game needs Bryce Harper

In 2005, Ken Griffey Jr. was batting .287 with 17 homers and an .875 on-base plus slugging percentage through 83 games for the Cincinnati Reds. But when it came time to select the National League all-stars, Griffey was excluded.

Let it be said, then, that Bryce Harper isn't the first marquee player to be left out of an All-Star Game.

It also can be argued that Harper’s play isn’t deserving of all-star recognition. In the first season of his 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, he’s batting .253 with 16 homers and an .839 OPS. He has been worth 2.0 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, tied for ninth among NL outfielders. Not horrible, but below his usual level.

Last time we checked, though, the All-Star Game is a promotional event. Major League Baseball supposedly wants its biggest names and most recognizable faces to participate. Harper qualifies on both counts, so much so that he’s pictured among other players on a billboard in downtown Cleveland. There are even Harper banners hanging from light posts.

Swell. There's only one problem: Harper isn't actually there.

It should come as no surprise that agent Scott Boras believes Harper was snubbed, as my Inquirer colleague Matt Breen reported yesterday. But a case can be made that Harper is baseball’s most marketable player even though he might not be among its 10 best.

As I wrote over the weekend, Harper is a brand unto himself, with a dozen active corporate partnerships, including several companies (Jaguar, Hallmark, Acuvue) that don’t typically work with athletes. Later this year, he will become the only active baseball player with a signature line of non-cleated turf trainers as part of his deal with Under Armour.

Last year, commissioner Rob Manfred talked openly during the all-star break about MLB's desire to help build Mike Trout's brand and expressed disappointment over Trout's lack of interest.

Harper’s brand couldn’t be stronger, yet the league didn’t see to it that he be showcased in the All-Star Game. Never mind that 75 players have been named all-stars, including injury replacements, and he has numbers that are at least passable. Or that MLB shrewdly included hyped rookie Vlad Guerrero Jr. in the Home Run Derby even though he isn’t an all-star.

Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

But hey, at least Harper’s picture is plastered all over Cleveland.

The rundown

Before he was the Phillies’ lone All-Star representative, Realmuto was quarterback of the Carl Albert Titans in Midwest City, Okla. He emerged as a leader on that team: “He’s not a vocal guy, but whenever he says something, you listen,” said one high school teammate. Breen spoke with his classmates about one unrivaled moment on the run to the state championship during Realmuto’s senior year.

With one of his last swings for the Phillies, Carlos Santana smashed a TV in the clubhouse. He’s back with the Indians now, and naturally, he’s an all-star. Breen caught up with Santana and asked about his one-and-done Phillies tenure.

The All-Star Game is in Cleveland, but our Frank Fitzpatrick found former Indians star Rocky Colavito at home in Berks County, where he has lived for decades in virtual anonymity.

In case you missed it last weekend, I asked around about Aaron Nola’s recent reversion to his Cy Young-worth form of 2018. The explanations that I got ranged from better fastball command to, well, it was bound to happen eventually.

Important dates

Tonight: J.T. Realmuto represents Phillies in the All-Star Game in Cleveland, 7:30 p.m.

Friday: Phillies return from all-star break to host Nationals, 6:05 p.m.

Sunday: Ryan Howard retirement ceremony before Phillies vs. Nationals, 1:05 p.m.

Monday: Dodgers visit Citizens Bank Park for a four-game series, 7:05 p.m.

Ryan Howard won the Home Run Derby at the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ryan Howard won the Home Run Derby at the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.

Stat of the day

In the second round of the Home Run Derby last night in Cleveland, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Joc Pederson put on a power display. Guerrero went deep 40 times to Pederson’s 39, then lost to New York Mets rookie phenom Pete Alonso in the final round.

The rules of the annual homer-hitting contest have changed in many ways over the years, moving recently to a head-to-head and timed format. But the action has picked up, too. Consider this: Former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard hit a grand total of only 41 homers in his three Derby appearances, including his 2006 championship in Pittsburgh.

It’s no wonder the Big Piece was so impressed with what he saw from Vlad Jr. and Pederson.

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: It seems as though the Phillies’ young starters have regressed this year rather than improve. The young Atlanta pitchers are doing well. Could it be that the Phillies erred in releasing Rick Kranitz as pitching coach? Atlanta grabbed him almost immediately after his release in Philadelphia. I enjoy your work with the Inquirer. -- Jim A., via email

Answer: Thanks, Jim, for your kind words and the question. It’s certainly fair to wonder if the Phillies picked the wrong pitching coach by letting Kranitz go and promoting Chris Young. A quick comparison of the staffs:

  • The Braves rank 11th in the majors in ERA (4.20); the Phillies rank 19th (4.64).
  • The Braves rank 17th in FIP (4.45); the Phillies rank 28th (5.06).
  • The Braves rank 24th in walks per nine innings (3.63); the Phillies rank 14th (3.34).
  • The Braves are tied for 9th in homers per nine innings (1.23); the Phillies are 29th (1.72).
  • The teams are tied for 16th in starters’ ERA (4.56).

OK, so the Braves have their pitching issues, too. You’re correct in saying that the Phillies’ young pitchers -- Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, in particular -- haven’t gotten better under Young, but then the Braves would say the same for Mike Foltynewicz’s regression under Kranitz. It really comes down to this: The Phillies preferred Young’s analytical and scouting eye to Kranitz’s approach as a traditional pitching coach.

And regardless of what you think of that decision, it might also wind up coming down to this: Maybe the Braves’ young pitchers are simply better than their Phillies counterparts.