Weekly Rotation: There is no Home Run Derby curse

Will Laws
Big League Stew

The initial rosters for next week’s MLB All-Star Game were announced Tuesday night, which means the names of those who’ll be taking part in Monday’s Home Run Derby will trickle out over the coming days.

Though the Derby has gifted fans with numerous heartwarming, memorable moments in recent years, some of the sport’s biggest names have resisted participating. Mike Trout, for example, has yet to debut at the Derby after Angels manager Mike Scioscia told his star player several years ago about the physical toll the competition can inflict upon a slugger.

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“The number of full gorilla swings you take, it’s like being on a driving range and hitting 10 buckets of balls,” Scioscia said. “I haven’t seen someone come away from that Derby and be a better player for it.”

Indeed, the notion of a Home Run Derby curse has persisted for years. Its believers theorize that if the competition has any effect on a batter’s technique, it’s negative — especially for the winners, who must withstand at least three rounds of swings.

Bobby Abreu saw his production fall off after winning the Home Run Derby. (Getty Images/Rich Pilling)
Bobby Abreu saw his production fall off after winning the Home Run Derby. (Getty Images/Rich Pilling)

This line of thinking was famously perpetuated by 2005 winner Bobby Abreu, who blamed the Derby for a second-half power outage after he mashed 41 homers in the competition — a record that still stands as the format has changed multiple times in the past decade.

Ironically, the very next year, Abreu’s teammate Ryan Howard improved after winning the event. He launched 28 homers in 84 first-half games to net his first All-Star Game nod, then crushed 30 long balls in 75 games after the Derby to claim the home run crown and National League MVP honors.

That remarkable showing from Howard disproves Scioscia’s observation that no player improves after competing in the Derby. In fact, looking at the 16 Home Run Derby winners since the turn of the century, there’s just as much evidence backing up the opposite assertion.

Eight of the 16 champions improved their on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in the second half. Though the average post-Derby OPS of the 16 champions (.918) is marginally worse than their first-half marks (.929), it’s a negligible drop-off. If reigning champion Todd Frazier — who recorded the worst second-half OPS of any Derby champion this century — was removed from the equation, the group’s collective OPS in the second half would have actually reflected improvement.

OPS of Home Run Derby Winners in the first and second Half. (PointAfter)
OPS of Home Run Derby Winners in the first and second Half. (PointAfter)

You might say that OPS doesn’t accurately isolate a player’s power. But if we instead focus on each hitter’s at-bats per home run (AB/HR) before and after the event, the Derby critics look even sillier.

Of those 16 most recent Derby victors, nine saw their home run rates increase after winning the contest — Yoenis Cespedes (2013), Prince Fielder (2012, 2009), Robinson Cano (2011), Vladimir Guerrero (2007), Ryan Howard (2006), Miguel Tejada (2004), Jason Giambi (2002) and Sammy Sosa (2000).

Keep in mind, these hitters were tapped to compete because they already stockpiled gaudy home run totals in the first half. And they were even more proficient after showcasing their power for the fans.

Derby winners HR/AB before and after the All-Star game. (PointAfter)
Derby winners HR/AB before and after the All-Star game. (PointAfter)

If anything, it’s guys who drastically declined, like Abreu and Garret Anderson, who stick out as outliers. Those two swatted homers like they never had leading up to the event, then saw their home run rates regress closer to their career means for the rest of the season.

If Trout and other sluggers would rather spend the Monday night of their All-Star break relaxing, so be it. But most of these guys will be at Petco Park in person, anyway, cheering on their peers from the sidelines.

Since there’s virtually no evidence backing up the myth of the Home Run Derby curse, why not try and win the dang thing? There’s no shame in bowing out of the first round, since no one will remember the also-rans in a month’s time. We’ll replay the standout performances for years.

As an unabashed fan and former attendee of the Derby, it’s encouraging to hear that not every young star is wary of one of the sport’s most entertaining showcases of talent.


This story was published in conjunction with Yahoo Sports and PointAfter, a sports visualization site that’s part of the Graphiq network.

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