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Derby, Or Not Derby? That Is The Question.

Posted By Brandon Warne On July 12, 2011 @ 4:00 pm In Idle Thoughts | 76 Comments

Bobby Abreu’s insane run at the 2005 Home Run Derby and the power-outage that quickly followed has spurred the same discussion each year at this time: Did swinging for the fences on that one night in Detroit hurt Abreu’s gameday swings every night thereafter?

The question is actually part of a larger issue, and it’s something worth considering. Namely, could other home-run hitters bent on winning the derby alter their swings so badly that they’d fall prey to the now-mythical moon-shot meltdown?

First, the staggering numbers: Abreu cleared the Comerica Park fences 41 times – more than doubling second-place-finisher Ivan Rodriguez’s total (20). Abreu then lost nearly .200 points off his OPS during the post-all-star run.

At first blush, it seems that the derby did serious damage to Abreu’s swing. But batted-ball data paints another story. In each month following the derby, Abreu’s GB/FB rates, line drive rates and fly ball rates belonged to a player who was trending up – not a guy hopelessly mired in a post-derby hangover. So what gives?

Certainly, there’s plenty of evidence that would seem to make the home run competition the main culprit. Of the 80 derby entrants since 2002 (counting each player once for each season entered), 54 hitters (67.5%) either flatlined or saw a decrease in their raw-OPS after the All-Star Game. Of the 26 hitters who improved their OPS over the second half, five registered lower slugging percentages after the turn. Is that perhaps an indication that their swings were off?

I’ll readily grant that OPS — the quick-and-dirty stat that can be polarizing in the sabermetric community — is by no means a smoking gun. But some batted-ball data might make you reconsider your position.

One angle worth exploring is the split between players who advance multiple rounds in the derby. After all, you have to figure that hitters who take an extended run during the competition are more likely to experience fatigue that would alter their swings. The findings are interesting, if unsurprising.

Only three of the16 top-two finishers showed second-half OPS gains. Jason Giambi’s OPS improved .003 points in 2002; Lance Berkman’s 2004 second-half OPS jumped .016 points; and Ryan Howard had a stunning .337 improvement during his 2006 MVP campaign. Regarding Giambi, it’s worth noting that his second-half slugging percentage actually fell nine points.

A minority of the top-two finishers who experienced production decreases did so at a minimal level (.050 points or less) — a list that includes Vladimir Guerrero, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Alex Rios and Hanley Ramirez. The more sizeable drop-offs came from a list that includes Abreu, Garret Anderson, Nelson Cruz, Prince Fielder, Justin Morneau, David Ortiz, Ivan Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Miguel Tejada and David Wright.

So what exactly is notable between these two lists? It seems like the star power on each side –especially for the high-octane era in which they participated — is relatively equal. Basically, there shouldn’t be a selection bias because superstars and quality MLB regulars are on each side. Only Rodriguez — at that time and place in his career — sticks out.

Nevertheless, let’s look at some batted-ball data for the hitters who badly slumped in the second-half.

For the sake of simplicity, look at the two biggest and two smallest of the 10 slides among top-two finishers. The biggest two are Tejada in 2004 and Abreu in 2005 — both of who lost .167 points off their first-half OPS figures. Though Abreu’s rates held steady, Tejada’s were more indicative of a derby-influenced drop. Tejada’s line-drive rate tumbled 2% from July to August and his GB/FB rate followed suit. Similarly, his fly ball rates jumped from 29.6% in July to 35.2% by the season’s end. He also hit a few more popups than usual in August, which could indicate an altered approach at the plate.

Two other players who had sizeable drops in production are Rodriguez in 2005 and Morneau in 2008. Rodriguez – he of the less-than-stellar, pre-all-star .292/.304/.456 triple-slash, with six home runs — lost .063 points off his OPS. Morneau’s OPS fell .072.

Rodriguez’s rates don’t jump off the page, but there seems to be something off about his second-half numbers. For one, his line drive rate jumped 15% from July to the end of the season. He also became a popup machine — going from 3% in July, then to 23.5% and 18.8% during the season’s final two months. That seems to suggest a derby altered swing, at least from my view.

Morneau’s second half was equally odd, as his fly ball rate peaked in July and stayed well above normal for the rest of the season. He saw a dramatic increase in line-drive percentage in August (24.3 percent mark was his best all season) – but he fell victim to a Tejada-esque popup problem, as July, September and October were shockingly high (11.8 percent in July; 20.6 percent in September/October) figures for the Twins’ slugger.

So what do these figures say? You can be the judge on that. But after looking at these numbers, I might think twice before I root for my hometown hero to win some derby hardware.


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