Exploring the impact of the Home Run Derby on its participants
Players like Bobby Abreu have suffered big power drops after the Derby
It's more likely that players are simply returning to their expected level
Players who have taken part say it doesn't affect their swings at all
In 2002, Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox hit 20 home runs in the first half of the season. This was good enough to win him a spot in the Home Run Derby at Milwaukee's Miller Park, where at the end of a long, draining day, he came just short of besting eventual winner Jason Giambi for a spot in the finals, finishing third overall with a dozen home runs.
"You take swings that hard," says Konerko, "and the adrenaline of the situation takes over. Even in a big game situation, I'd never had that kind of adrenaline going."
The strange experience of taking batting practice without a cage under the lights in front of tens of thousands of people left him sore in places he usually isn't sore, like his obliques and lower back, the core from which a hitter draws his power. Over the second half of the year, he hit just seven home runs, and his slugging average dropped from .571 to .402.
Here, then, is a classic example of the famed curse of the Home Run Derby. Think of Bobby Abreu, who hit 18 home runs before the 2005 All-Star break and a then-record 41 during the contest itself but just six after. Or of David Wright, the 2006 runner-up who hit just six of his 26 home runs that year post-Derby. As the theory goes, the pressure to hit the ball long can unbalance the swing, especially for a line drive hitter like Abreu, and thus lead to second half woes.
What makes Konerko's case such a fine example, though, is that his second half slump had nothing to do with the Derby. It was due, he says, to a foot injury. And while it's easy to come up with examples of players whose power has suffered after participating in the event, it's just as easy to explain why this happens without positing that the act of hitting the ball somehow destroys the ability to hit the ball.
It is true that participants tend to hit for less power after taking part in the Derby. Derek Carty of The Hardball Times recently pointed out in a nifty study that hitting in the derby doesn't lead to any decline relative to expected performance, but that isn't the same as saying that it isn't correlated to a decline. Below is a look at the change in slugging average between the first half of the year and the second for all derby participants since 2000. As you can see, it goes down more often than it goes up.
Increased by more than .100: 3
Increased from .50 to .99: 12
Increased from .25 to .49: 10
Decreased by .24 to increased by .24: 16
Decreased by .25 to .49: 6
Decreased from .50 to .99: 11
Decreased by more than .100: 22
More striking than the number of declines is how bad they are. Nearly as many hitters saw a second-half decline in slugging of at least 100 points as had an improvement of at least .25. On its own, this data might be taken as proof that there is a curse after all; but there are more convincing explanations.
Most obviously, if you take a lot of hitters who are playing exceptionally well, of course they're going to go down in quality as a group. This is especially so given the nature of the Home Run Derby, which sometimes features players whose swings aren't built for power anyway. If someone like Brandon Inge or Hank Blalock doesn't hit for a lot of power after taking part, it doesn't follow that the Derby is to blame.
A ballplayer would say that hitters find their level; a statistician would say they regress toward the mean. Both would be saying the same thing, and both would be right.
Somewhat less obviously, many of these large declines are simply from the otherworldly to the merely outstanding. In 2000, for example, Carlos Delgado slugged .777 before hitting in the Home Run Derby, and .552 afterward. That 225-point decline was the third-worst among all participants, but even the .552 mark is fantastic, about equal to Henry Aaron's career mark. In other words, decline is relative.
Backing the idea that post-Derby decline is entirely organic is that even as some players go to lengths to avoid taking part, others who have done so dismiss the idea that it wreaks havoc on a swing.
"I did it," says Andruw Jones, a 2005 participant, "and it really didn't affect me at all. If you feel good, you feel good."
All this being so, anyone looking for potential victims of the phantom curse would probably be best served just to look at which 2010 hitters are doing more than they usually do. Detroit Triple Crown threat Miguel Cabrera, for one, is slugging 100 points above his career mark, while Milwaukee outfielder Corey Hart is doing nearly as much. Both are capable of continuing to do what got them to the All-Star Game to begin with, but the mean pulls all. Power outage or no, though, whatever they do in the second half, the Home Run Derby will have had very little to do with it. Halfway through July, the reality of baseball is inglorious.
"You're so far into the season," says Konerko, "that you're like a robot doing your job."