Trying Not To Fear The Home Run Derby

The world of sports is filled with legends and curses. Some of them are just ridiculous--no, the shade of Babe Ruth was no more the underlying cause for our 86 years of futility than some goat is the reason the Cubs suck--while others have more reasonable origins. The Sports Illustrated curse? Well, it's a weekly magazine featuring a player who's either doing unusually well or is about to be involved in some major event. You're going to have a certain percentage of said players drop the ball, as it were, no matter what.

With baseball being one of the sports that most lends itself to analysis, it's no surprise that the covers have been thrown off the "Derby Curse". The only question is whose explanation you buy.

On the one hand, there are the proponents of the Bobby Abreu theory. After hitting 18 homers pre-Derby and just six post-Derby in 2005, it was speculated that Abreu had messed up his swing in order to hit long balls for the derby, thus giving some logical basis to the "curse". That's one side of things.

Another suggestion, however, is that there is no real pattern of diminished numbers, and that those who do suffer such fall-offs aren't evidence of a curse, but just indicative of the obvious selection bias. If they were chosen to participate in the derby, then surely they must have been doing a good job of hitting the long ball beforehand, and in many cases, an unusually good job, making their second-half slumps a simple matter of regression.

Take Bobby Abreu for example. His 2005 season does not lack for homers, only second-half homers. In fact, on the whole it was a remarkably typical year for Abreu in that department--even a little high to account for the early storm. While his year in total was somewhat less amazing than his 2004 season had been, he was on the wrong side of thirty at that point, and not two years before had put up similarly disappointing numbers.

It makes sense to me, too, that batters should be able to return to their swing with relative ease. Muscle memory is not undone nearly so quickly, nor should it be terribly difficult to get back. As Marc asked me earlier today, how many guys find themselves undone by the shows they put on in batting practice?

But even if there is some effect, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez are two guys we should not be worried about, and not simply because they are the big slugger types that Bobby Abreu is not.

For Ortiz, we have four years of data to work with: 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2010. From 2004-2006, he actually hit noticeably better in the second half than in the first. The most concerning season came last year when Ortiz' OPS dropped nearly 100 points in the second half. That the season is the most recent is certainly not ideal, but at the same time Ortiz had an odd year last season, and it was more a matter of the league figuring out what Ortiz was struggling with than some sort of post-Derby slump that he had avoided three times before.

For Gonzalez, we have just the one year. Certainly, in 2009, he was better after the Derby, so that's good news. But I think the more telling evidence that Adrian is not one to let a swing or two do long-term damage to how he handles the bat can be found here.

And at least if it does screw them up, it should get Cano too.

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