Stop it: The Home Run Derby does not harm its participants
Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times has a case of the vapors this morning about Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager participating in the Home Run Derby this year. It’ll mess up his swing, Plaschke laments, as he claims "[h]istory is littered with Derby winners who collapsed in the second half of the season.”
A lot of people believe this, but it’s bunk. It has been proven to be bunk over and over and over again. Yes, a lot of guys do worse after they participate in the Home Run Derby, but they don’t do worse because they participate in the Home Run Derby. To claim otherwise is a simply erroneous.
To be fair to Plaschke, the reason so many believe this, himself included one presumes, is that Bobby Abreu famously claimed that the Derby did, in fact, mess him up. He won the thing in 2005, following a power-packed first half of the season. Then his power went away and the Derby was to blame, Abreu said. Whenever another player had a worse second half than his first half post-Derby, the Derby is cited as the cause.
One player’s subjective impression of his experience, however, does not establish the existence of a curse. Or, short of a curse, it does not prove, as Plaschke implies as has been proven, that the Home Run Derby messes up guys’ swings. The matter has been studied over and over, in fact, and it has never been established that the Derby has a negative impact on its participants. For a sampling of that, go here, here, here, here, here, here, or here. There are a ton more if you want to Google it yourself. The most recent study, from Yahoo’s Will Laws, reveals that of the 16 most recent Derby victors, nine saw their home run rates increase after winning the contest, including Yoenis Cespedes, Prince Fielder, Robinson Cano, Vladimir Guerrero, Ryan Howard, Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi, and Sammy Sosa. The winners, of course, end up taking far more allegedly damaging swings than anyone, so if anything they’d be the most harmed by participating. Not so.
If the numbers don’t impress you, you can just talk to players. Plaschke did, but it didn’t seem to change his mind. Most of them say that the Derby isn’t deleterious to their performance. Indeed. Adrian Gonzalez tells Plaschke specifically that the Derby is not really any different than batting practice, in which all players spend some time swinging for the fences. In other stories, like ESPN’s Jim Caple’s debunking of the Derby Curse from 2009, players talk about how it takes 30 days for muscle memory to set in and thus one evening’s worth of grip it and rip it swinging is not going to do much harm. Heck, just show up to the park early for BP one day. If you can get close enough to the cage you can pretty frequently here guys challenging each other, bragging about their power and competing to see who can hit it farther.
So, if players do decline after the Derby -- and yes, some do, such as Abreu and last year’s winner Todd Frazier -- what causes it? Regression for the most part. The guys chosen to be in the Derby were chosen specifically because they had outstanding numbers in the first half. Spectacular performance is always going to come back to Earth, at least a little. In this the Derby Myth is akin to the silly Sports Illustrated or Madden cover jinxes. The very reason people are chosen to be on those covers is because they’ve been AMAZING. Everyone peaks and then regresses. As some of those linked studies show, however, the players rarely come back to Earth harder or faster than their non-Derbying peers. As the season wears on, guys get tired and hurt. No one is as fresh in September as they were in May. That’s just baseball. Some, and Abreu is a great example of this, significantly outperformed their career norms in the runup to the Derby. Their allegedly stark falloff is more a matter of getting back to career norms.
None of this is to say that the Home Run Derby is a totally safe and perpetually harmless thing. It involves physical exertion and, as we’ve seen, any sort of physical exertion can, theoretically, lead to an injury. At some point, if the Derby continues on, someone will inevitably strain an oblique or, heaven forbid, break a hamate bone or something, as those are things guys do on swings sometimes. I hope it doesn’t happen, but on a long enough timeline anything is possible. But anything is possible in a baseball game too, and we’re not keeping guys from playing baseball.
That concern aside, the Home Run Derby is nothing to be afraid of. Maybe one day the mountain of evidence establishing that will be acknowledged by the Bill Plaschkes of the the world.