Home Run Derby prize pool results in hefty payday for rookie MLB stars

Call it the Home Run Windfall.

Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby, staged this year with a sharply increased prize pool for participating players, resulted in a sizable jolt in compensation for the two finalists relative to their league-minimum salaries for 2019.

New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso won the Derby, played July 8 at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, and a champion’s prize of $1m (€893,000), a sum nearly double the $555,000 he will earn for the entire 2019 season. Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., like Alonso a MLB rookie this year, garnered $500,000 for his runner-up finish in the Derby and another $100,000 for hitting the longest home run of the night, a payday beating his pro-rated rookie salary of $468,468 after starting the year in the minor leagues.

The figures are part of an overall $2.5m player prize pool for this year’s Derby, and stem from offseason negotiations between MLB and the MLB Players Association. Following those talks, the Derby prize amounts were elevated significantly from the 2018 figures of $525,000 in total prize money and $125,000 awarded to the winner, Bryce Harper, then still playing for the Washington Nationals before his offseason shift to the Philadelphia Phillies.

The financial changes and the promise of the potential windfalls for five of the eight Derby participants earning less than $1m this year represent the latest jolt of fresh energy to the the event, which dates to 1985. Over three decades, the Derby became an established fixture of annual MLB All-Star Game festivities, but eventually succumbed to eroding fan interest and TV ratings.

A 2015 shift by MLB to a timed, bracket-style competitive format for the Derby, however, brought an enhanced sense of drama. And now, amid baseball’s tense labor landscape in which the MLB Players Association is increasingly worried about both how baseball’s market operates for veteran free agents and how younger, pre-arbitration players are treated, the new Derby money has generated notice among players.

“The prize money is wonderful,” Alonso said. “Personally, I’m engaged. I have a wedding to pay for.”

Alonso also said he plans to donate $50,000 to the Wounded Warriors Foundation, which aids wounded veterans of military actions following the attacks upon the US on September 11, 2001, and another $50,000 to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which similarly aids military and first responders.

Oakland A’s third baseman Matt Chapman, eliminated in the first round of the Derby, acknowledged beforehand the money was not far from his mind given he’s set to earn $580,000 this year.

“‘I’ve got a chance to win a million dollars tonight. So no pressure, right?,” Chapman said. “It definitely puts more emphasis on this for sure. You don’t want to embarrass yourself out there, but you also want to go out there make a run for the thing.”

This year’s Derby field was the youngest ever, with an average player age of about 25, comprised heavily of players with not yet enough service time for salary arbitration or free agency. 

The Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, meanwhile, are predominantly attended each year by local fans, and the Cleveland market has responded in historic fashion to the revamped Derby. New York-based ticket company SeatGeek said the average sales price across resale markets for the Home Run Derby was $413, the highest the company has tracked in its nearly a decade of existence. The latest pricing is up 11 percent from a year ago in Washington, and up 16 percent from two years ago in Miami.