Examining the Homerun Derby Myth

By: J. Scott Smith

Somewhat in the same vein as the Madden curse, during the past decade MLB players have avoided the Home Run Derby contest because competing in it causes an imminent second half collapse. Well…at least that’s how the story goes. The game’s best player Mike Trout skipped the Derby this season at the behest of his manager Mike Scioscia. The Angels’ manager argued,

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

The problem with Scioscia’s statement is that it isn’t true. Below is the list of all the first and second halves of Home Run Derby winners from 1987-2013 (the 1988 Derby was rained out). Using Scioscia’s logic, the batter with the most “full gorilla swings” should have a worse second half. Among the stats included here are home runs per at bat since the All-Star break continues to be pushed back after the halfway point of the season and batting average because one of the tenants of the myth is that the Home Run Derby “ruins a line drive stroke.” I prefer to use more traditional stats to see their overall results, but if you’d rather a more advanced metric approach you should look at Neil Greenberg, 538, and Fan Graphs that have all examined the Home Run Derby myth.  My analysis revealed four different types of players: those who performed better, players who maintained their first half performance, those who regressed to their career means, and those who performed worse.

Players Who Performed Better After Winning the Derby

Players better

These eight hitters all had a higher OPS after winning the Home Run Derby and their home run rates stayed consistent or improved in the second half. Additionally, their batting averages stayed consistent or improved and all of their on-base percentages improved during the second half. Without question, their performance improved after the All-Star break.  In particular, Fielder, Howard, Sosa, and Bonds had significantly better second halves after winning the Derby crown.

Players Who Maintained Their 1st Half Performance

Players maintained

Interestingly, home run rates for these players all improved except for McGwire, but batting averages all declined except for McGwire as well. Additionally, their first and second half OPS numbers remained within 50 points of each other. While Morneau won the 2008 crown, the star of the 2008 Derby was Josh Hamilton with a record 28 home runs in the first round. Hamilton gassed after the first round home run barrage and lost to Morneau in the finals. His 2008 splits reveal a slight decline:

Josh Hamilton

Hamilton’s second half wasn’t as productive as demonstrated by a higher home run rate, but his second half was only slightly less productive than his first half. Including Hamilton’s numbers, these seven players did not perform significantly worse after their Home Run Derby performance.

Players Who Regressed to Their Career Mean

Players regression 2

These four players were having career home run seasons which they rode to the Home Run Derby title. Anderson was riding the last year of his prime at 31, where he posted home run totals of 35, 28, 29, and 29 from ages 28-31. Yet, his highest home run output outside of those four years was 21 in 1999 and he never hit more than 17 homers in a season after his 2003 season. Martinez’s 1997 season was a career year where he placed 2nd in MVP voting only to Ken Griffey Jr.’s monster year. Martinez’s 44 homers in 1997 was only one of three seasons with 30 or more homers, with 34 in 2001 being his second highest total. His 11.8 home run rate in the first half of 1997 was far beyond any of his other seasons, which illustrated that Martinez was bound to regress in his solid 1997 second half.

The two Hall of Famers in this regression to the mean list is certainly not intended to diminish their seasons or their careers. At 31, Ripken posted his only season of 30 homers or more during his illustrious career, which paced him to his second Most Valuable Player award. But Ripken only batted .257 and .250 in the two years prior to his 1991 MVP season and .251 and .257 in the two years following his career year. Ripken clearly regressed in the second half of his 1991 season, but he was still markedly better in that second half than in almost any other post-All-Star break performance of his career. Much like Ripken, Sandberg posted a career high in homers the year he was the Home Run Derby champion. The previous season was the only other season Sandberg hit 30 or more homers, making his 40 homers in 1990 a statistical outlier.

Players Who Performed Worse After Winning the Derby

Players worse

This list includes the season the Home Run Derby myth started to gain more traction. Abreu’s 2005 second half is the worst of any Home Run Derby champion and the combination of his abysmal 44.2 home run rate with a .787 OPS made many question his Home Run Derby performance. All three of Griffey Jr.’s Derby crowns were followed by second half regressions (albeit a strike-shortened 1994 season) and his 1999 second half regression, in hindsight, previewed the struggles he would face playing in his 30s after playing so hard in his 20s. Yet, the major takeaway from the players who performed worse after winning the Home Run Derby, is that beyond Abreu’s 2005 season, these players all posted an OPS above .850 after the All-Star break. To put that in perspective, only 25 players have an OPS above .850 before the All-Star break this season. So yes, they declined, but they were still obviously better than most players in baseball.

Even though Scioscia’s “full gorilla swing” narrative seems to have some common sense reasoning, it does not have any real basis in statistical reality. So have no fear next season Mr. Trout, I think we’d all like to see the best player in the world compete in the Derby.

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