Is There Really a 2nd-Half MLB Home Run Derby Curse?
Does trying to hit massive moonshots for one night set a player back when it comes to hitting home runs in the future?
Is there, in any way, a Home Run Derby curse?
You might recall Bobby Abreu and David Wright as Exhibits A and B from the 2005 and 2006 derbies, respectively.
Both hitters went crazy in their contests—Abreu mashed 41 homers, including 24 in the first round, both of which were records at the time. Wright made it all the way to the finals on the strength of his 16-homer Round 1—and then went cold in the four-bagger department over the rest of their seasons.
After smacking 18 dingers in 397 plate appearances—that's 22.1 PAs between homers—in the first half of 2005, Abreu hit only six in 322 plate appearances (53.7) after the break. Wright went from 20 homers in 386 PAs (19.3) to just six in 275 (45.8).
Those two instances caused many to question whether there was some sort of homer hangover, whether a hitter altering his mechanics to put on a boom show for the fans could be detrimental to his future power prowess.
But is that really so?
To find out, we'll focus on the past five derbies; that is, from 2008 on—or almost every one since Abreu and Wright went from sluggers to slumpers. This will give us both a decent sample size and a recent data set.
For each contestant over this time frame, we'll list his plate appearances per home run for 1) the season prior to the derby, 2) the first half of the derby season, 3) the second half of the derby season and 4) the season after the derby.
The goal, then, will be to compare the pre-derby homer rates to the post-derby rates.
In the charts below, whenever a player's home run rate (PA/HR) improves after the derby, that will be indicated in green; whenever a player's home run rate declines after the derby, that will be indicated in red (if it's worse than both pre-derby rates) or in orange (if it's worse than one of the two pre-derby rates).
Obviously, this formula will not be a perfect fit, as there are plenty of factors that can impact a player's ability and frequency to hit balls over walls, from injury to age-related decline to development to team and/or ballpark changes to general fatigue (i.e., it stands to reason a player could fall off over the second half, regardless).
But here goes...
2012 Home Run Derby
Hard to say this group isn't at least a bit indicative of some sort of post-derby drop off, as only one player (Carlos Gonzalez) managed to improve his pre-derby homer rate in either the second half of the derby season or the ensuing campaign.
Among the outside factors to consider, though, we have Jose Bautista's bat that basically wiped out the second half of his 2012 (he only had 21 PAs), as well as the shoulder and hamstring injuries that have sapped Matt Kemp's power since the middle of last year.
There's also Carlos Beltran moving from hitter-unkind Citi Field and even unkinder AT&T Park in 2011 to Busch Stadium, which has been only slightly below average in home run-park factor the past two years; and Prince Fielder changing from an above-average hitter's park in Miller Park in 2011 to a slightly less hitter-friendly locale in Comerica Park in 2012 and 2013.
2011 Home Run Derby
Again, much more red and orange than green, as only Robinson Cano and David Ortiz managed to bump up their homer pace post-derby—and both times, it took until the following campaign.
Some of the aspects that weren't in the hitter's control? Adrian Gonzalez's shoulder surgery after the 2010 season has been acknowledged as a reason for his plummeting power, even if he spent all of 2011 at Fenway Park compared to Petco Park, which actually played very similarly for homers in both 2010 and 2011.
Meanwhile, Rickie Weeks dealt with an ankle injury that cost him about six weeks in the second half of 2011, and David Ortiz's bum foot bothered him all of 2012's second half, although surprisingly, Big Papi actually did rack up more homers at that stage.
We've already been over Kemp's ailing shoulder and hammy, as well as Bautista's wrist, and Fielder's move to Comerica in 2012 was also previously established.
2010 Home Run Derby
There's only one green box here—by Nick Swisher—but there are also only four red ones, so the 2010 contestants did a pretty good job of staying their homer courses from the previous year-and-a-half.
What's most interesting about Swisher's second-half showing in 2012 is that it's only the third time in three years so far that a derby hitter's post-All-Star break home run pace was better than his pre-derby effort from the same season. Cano in 2011 and Fielder in 2012 were the other two.
Other factors include: Matt Holliday spending the first half of 2009 at Oakland's spacious park, which actually played better for homers that year than Busch Stadium, the ballpark of Holliday's post-trade team. He also dealt with various injuries (appendectomy, thigh) in early 2011.
Injury-wise, Corey Hart missed August of 2009 after an appendectomy and also lost three weeks at the start of 2011 with an oblique strain. Hanley Ramirez missed the final two months of that year with a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery, so his dip can be chalked up to that to some degree.
2009 Home Run Derby
You see some more green here, but there's still also almost as much red as orange. The biggest culprit? Brandon Inge, who came out of nowhere to smash 21 homers in 86 first-half games...then just six in 75 after the break.
The good news, though, is that three players—Fielder, Ryan Howard and Carlos Pena—all improved their derby-season homer rates as the year progressed, so that total is now at six.
Carlos Pena missed small chunks of time with ailments in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Surgery for a fractured finger in cost him the last month of 2009, cutting short an impressive second half (15 homers in 191 PAs over 44 games).
A late-bloomer, Nelson Cruz only managed 133 PAs in 2008, but he broke out in 2009 with 22 homers in the first half, which explains why he was included in the derby that year. Cruz also missed plenty of time to various injuries in 2009 and 2010, but his PA/HR mark only dipped slightly in 2010.
As a top draft pick who debuted in the majors at age 20, Joe Mauer was the opposite of Cruz, and what made his derby-season first half so incredible was that he hit 15 homers in 64 games—he's never hit more than 13 in any other season—despite missing the first month with a back injury.
In late-summer 2010, Howard missed a couple weeks with an ankle sprain, which may help explain his drop in homer efficiency.
And yet again, Gonzo's shoulder injury cropped up in late 2010, which shows up in his PA/HR drop.
2008 Home Run Derby
There's a lot of red here too, but some of that is likely due to injuries, which we'll get to in a sec.
First, though, it's worth noting that this derby featured three players in either their first (Evan Longoria) or second seasons (Josh Hamilton and Ryan Braun), which is pretty remarkable. Of course, that also gives no previous season to compare Longoria's 2008 and 2009 PA/HR rates to, but he is one of the few who got better in the second half after doing the derby.
All the way back in 2007, you may remember, Hamilton was a rookie with the Reds, seeing part-time duty in their outfield, which is part of the reason why he played only 90 games, apart from a wrist sprain. The injury-prone Hamilton also missed half of the 2009 season with a sports hernia and a back issue. No wonder his homer rate fell off.
Ryan Braun was also a rook in '07, but that didn't stop him from posting the best PA/HR of his career to date by hitting 34 homers in 492 plate appearances.
Chase Utley missed a month in the second half with a broken hand, an injury that could have sapped his power, but judging by his 2008 first-half showing, it didn't.
In 2009, Grady Sizemore (remember him?) missed about three weeks in each half due to an elbow problem eventually required surgery, and after the season, he also had surgery to address a sports hernia that bothered him all year. Those ailments likely played a role in his decreased pop.
In 2009, Justin Morneau missed the final three weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his lower back, cutting short a productive PA/HR season for him.
What does all this mean?
Well, here's some food for thought: Only seven of the 40 participants from the past five Home Run Derby competitions have improved their homer rates in the second half of the season in which they deliberately focused on launching baseballs far and frequently. Doing the math, that means more than 80 percent of recent derby participants slumped when it came to driving themselves in over the second half.
If you think there's something to this whole derby jinx, then you'll probably run with that nugget. And frankly, it's hard to argue.
Of course, aside from the other factors mentioned above (i.e., injury, decline, new team), the above could just as easily be chalked up to the simple fact—and this falls somewhat in the no-duh territory—that these players were in the home run derby largely because of their noteworthy or elevated performance...in hitting homers during the first three-plus months of that season.
In other words, a drop off or regression was likely anyway.
@LOLPhillies If Chris Davis goes and hits 10 HRs the rest of the year, it'll be blamed on the HR derby rather than regression.— The Good Phight (@TheGoodPhight) July 8, 2013
So is there a Home Run Derby curse? That seems to be a tricky question.
In a lot of cases, the evidence doesn't not support the theory. However, there are too many dynamics at play to be able to isolate whether it's just a swing thing or, really, any number of things. Thus, it seems silly to definitively state that the derby is some kind of foreboding event for those sluggers who participate.
Still, it's very possible that many of Monday's performers will wind up with a drop in their pop in the second half or next season.
But one evening's worth of swinging for the fences probably won't be the primary reason.
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