Would the Home Run Derby Ruin Jose Abreu?

MLB has announced their Home Run Derby captains, who are tasked with selecting the players from their league they’d like to hit homeruns alongside. It’s a relief that the league is sticking with this format if only because it lessens the impact of their oddly constructed ballot. Naturally, there’s been some interest voiced in seeing Jose Abreu be among the participants. Accompanying that interest is a section of folks that feel that Jose Abreu would be ruined immediately afterward, and should therefore steer far clear of anything that asks him to hit dingers as if it is his job to do so.

I’m not sure where the belief that Home Run Derby ruins swings came from but it’s a belief that seems to be held by many. Baseball players that have honed their craft to the point of reaching the highest level of competition are good at their jobs. They know what they’re doing. It’s a hard sell for me to think that an evening of swinging for the fences would undo all that they’ve worked for. A good majority of the types of players that participate in the derby do exactly that during batting practice preceding every game. If it was a real problem, would grown men enter this home run hitting contest repeatedly, as they’ve shown willingness to do in the past? Probably not.

MLB.com has Home Run Derby participants listed going back to 1985 (exception being 1988 at Riverfront Stadium which was canceled due to rain) which provides a pretty good sample of data. The setups have changed with more rounds in some years than others, and there are varying amounts of participants as the format continues to evolve.

There are other variables that cloud the numbers and we should make a point to not ignore those. Some players have a small amount of plate appearances before or after the break because of injury. More often it comes after, for obvious reasons, but every now and then something like Matt Kemp in 2012 happens (0 PAs between May 30 and ASG). Less appearances means smaller samples which can skew the before/after numbers heavily.

First halves are often different than second halves. Offensive performance league-wide going back to 1985, the first year that MLB has Derby information listed, leans towards a decline in the second half over the first, but it’s hardly a rule and the variance in either direction is slight. However, players that are named to all-star teams and selected to partake in home run hitting contests are often selected because their first halves were good enough to warrant it. It stands to reason that if a player has an explosive first half, the likelihood of the player sustaining that performance is low.

*To measure offensive output I used OPS so that we would have a single number to point to.

Overall, there have been 226 entries to derbies, a word that looks incredibly strange in its plural form.

  • 79 hitters showed improved second half performance
  • 146 declined in their second half performance

That’s a 65% decline rate. In 2006 Miguel Cabrera posted an OPS of .998 on either side of his derby appearance, making him the only hitter to break even. Hooray for you, Miguel Cabrera.

Some guys only end up taking 15 or so hacks in the derby, which is hardly as much work. In the late 1980's contests, judging by some of the HR totals, everybody only took 10 or 15 hacks. If we separate out the guys that hit the most homeruns of each year, assuming they then had the most opportunity to “ruin” their second halves we reduce the total to 62. This takes the top 2 totals from each year, if there was a tie for second, I used both.

  • 21 improved
  • 41 declined

That’s 66%, which is about the same as the overall and suggests that maybe this is just the general rate of decline. OPS over that period of time for the entire league declined in the second half about 55% of the time. We can choose to call the difference noise, we can attribute it to the first half selection bias, or we can choose to believe that the Home Run Derby is evil and participants should enter at their own peril.

As far as the White Sox are concerned, no player on the list has ever had a better second half after participating in the Home Run Derby:

The last time a Sox player participated was 2006 and Jermaine Dye represented the team. He saw his OPS go from 1.043 in the first half to .966 in the second. Hardly a nose-dive, and still represents an excellent year.

In 1985 Carlton Fisk hit 4 HRs in the derby, his .848 heading in declined to .771 mark after the break. Fisk, I shouldn’t have to explain to you, was also a catcher. A group that has more trouble than any other position maintaining offensive production as the year goes on as they take repeated beatings and strain to their knees behind the plate.

Frank Thomas participated in 1994 but only hit 4 HR. 1994 data is rough post-ASG since the player’s strike cut everybody’s season short. But going into the break, Frank was enjoying the best season of his career, bringing a 1.310 OPS into the contest. His .921 following didn’t dent his yearly totals with only a month or so to earn that mark, he finished the year at 1.217.

Frank Thomas came in second in the 1995 contest to future White-Sox Albert Belle. The Big Hurt’s first half OPS was a ridiculous 1.143. His second half just .989. This is a case of your first half is ridiculous and good luck doing that again. For balance, Albert Belle did just the opposite (.969/1.202).

Paul Konerko enrolled to participate in 2002 with a .950 OPS. After the break, a Viciedo-esque .734. Pretty harsh, but it didn’t seem to mark the end of his career. 

Jose Abreu should participate in the Home Run Derby this year. He should participate because it's fun to watch him hit HRs. It's what he does.