The Home Run Derby Curse (In Color)

Also in color.

Prince Fielder is now your Home Run Derby champion. Again. If science is to be believed, Fielder is now the king of the long ball for the next year. That seemed like enough swings to make it scientific at least. If conjecture is to be believed, Fielder has now irrevocably damaged his swing for the rest of the year. Shame, he was having such a good season, too.

A minor leg kick, hand position, a couple degrees of turn on a follow through; swings are weird. Look no further than the Yankees clubhouse with Curtis Granderson. There's almost certainly more to it, but something that sounds as simple as two hands on the bat turned him into a whole new hitter in 2011. You could say some of the same things about changing swings for Mark Teixeira since moving to Yankee Stadium, just in the opposite direction in terms of results.

Re-tooling a swing happens all the time, but the way people talk about the glorified batting practice spectacle of the Home Run Derby, you'd think the participants have their forearms removed and wrist attached directly to the elbow once it's done. While that would be fun to watch, it doesn't happen. But does the derby do the next best thing? If we're dealing in anecdotes, we could just look at Robinson Cano after last year's All-Star break and say no.

All right, that was easy. So what's all this stuff about curses, then?

2011

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2010

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2009

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2008

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2007

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More charts: 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000

A couple notes:

  • This only looks at the winners (left) and losers (not left) from the the derby dating back to 2000. More swings means more chances to ruin a swing, right? For these purposes, right.
  • Percentage stats within five points of each other are marked in blue as neutral. Could probably go higher, but the whole thing is pretty arbitrary, so that seemed like a fair end point. A five point difference in average or slugging percentage is basically a couple hits before or after the break. Nothing to concern yourself with.

The takeaway: don't lose in the finals. Only two players in the last 12 years have seen their home run totals jump after taking home runner-up honors. A few not winners saw some improvements in average and on-base numbers after the break, but fell off in homers and slugging almost across the board. Hard to say the derby played a role, but it is a noticeable trend.

Correlation between hitting in the derby and second half downturn can be found, and at the same time, it cannot be found. Surprise, love baseball. The issue doesn't appear to be the derby ruining things; it appears to be unsustainability for some of the participants and a bit of greed from fans.

Garret Anderson hit 22 homers and slugged close to .600 in the first half of 2003. Garret Anderson hit more than 25 and slugged over .500 four times in his career. Ivan Rodriguez had an OBP of just over .300 and slugged ~.450 in 2005. Pudge took 11 walks in 525 plate appearances that season. Things aren't going to add up correctly in those cases. If the derby serves any purpose, it's as an exercise in the nature of regression. Whether it's an inordinate number of dingers or high a triple slash, many of the numbers that landed these players at the All-Star game are bound to normalize to an extent.

What the "curse" largely comes down to expectations and how we adjust them for the second half. With the exception of a few sluggers, the home run derby rosters are mostly just great hitters. They might have a few extra homers to garner added consideration for specialized batting practice, but for the most part, these players are just hitters. Good ones. Is Prince Fielder shedding 25 points in slugging to .590 in the second half of 2009 or Adrian Gonzalez falling back by 100 points after last year's derby really a curse, or is it just baseball? We're pretty much past the days where more than two or three guys are going to slug .600, so the second half swoon appears, on the surface, to more closely resemble standard regression than a doomsday prophecy come true from an exhibition contest.

Tigers and Blue Jays fans probably don't have much to fear. Except maybe injuries, but that's a different curse. Their sluggers will be back doing what they do for the second half. The real worry should probably lie with Dodgers and Yankees fans. After last night's performance, Matt Kemp and Robinson Cano might consider retirement simply out of embarrassment.

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