Does the Home Run Derby hurt players?

2019-03-17 AaronJudge2017HRDerby
Aaron Judge, hoisting his 2017 Home Run Derby championship trophy. The Yankee bombardier would rather win baseball games than virtual batting practice hardware.

Apparently, you can’t pay Aaron Judge enough to think about entering this year’s Home Run Derby at the All-Star break. He doesn’t mind wishing and hoping for his Yankees to bust the single-season team home run record they set last year, but taking part in the annual bomb run is something else entirely.

This year’s Home Run Derby champion will receive $1 million, which happens to be $315,000 more than Judge will earn this season. And Judge would be a tempting entrant, since his home runs are customarily the kind of conversation pieces hit by the likes of Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, and Mike Schmidt, not to mention the likes of Frank Howard, Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski, Darryl Strawberry, Mark McGwire (pre-suspicion), and Frank Thomas.

Judge won the 2017 Home Run Derby. And that’s all, folks, as far as he’s concerned. “The money doesn’t matter,” he tweeted two days ago. “For me, I did it once. I had a blast with it. But I’m more worried about winning games. I don’t want to get hurt again doing a Derby.”

Judge did have shoulder issues in 2017, but when he underwent cartilage cleanup surgery after that season it was revealed that the injury may actually have happened near the beginning of that season. Playing in the Derby may or may not have exacerbated it. In 2017, Judge denied the shoulder was causing him a rougher second half.

But Judge may be right about one thing: going to and winning the Home Run Derby may be hazardous to a player’s second half baseball health. There have been 34 Home Run Derby champions since the event premiered in 1985, including six won by Hall of Famers if you count Ken Griffey, Jr.’s back-to-back Derby championships in 1998-99. And one shy of half those champions had lesser second than first halves of their Derby-championship seasons, marked in red:

  Before Home Run Derby After Home Run Derby
PLAYER OPS TB OPS TB
Dave Parker .891 177 .944 173
Wally Joyner .779 127 .830 144
Darryl Strawberry .769 94 .941 147
Andre Dawson* .905 188 .886 165
Eric Davis .948 117 .948 133
Ryne Sandberg* .992 203 .820 141
Cal Ripken, Jr.* 1.001 190 .881 178
Mark McGwire .966 176 .977 97
Juan Gonzalez 1.023 181 .974 158
Frank Thomas* 1.143 150 .989 149
Barry Bonds .998 184 1.191 134
Tino Martinez .989 205 .897 138
Ken Griffey, Jr.* 1.061 234 .876 153
Ken Griffey, Jr.* 1.024 206 .882 143
Sammy Sosa .962 194 1.138 189
Luis Gonzalez 1.108 203 1.125 216
Jason Giambi 1.032 189 1.035 146
Garret Anderson .943 221 .807 124
Miguel Tejada .863 174 .929 175
Bobby Abreu .955 170 .787 109
Ryan Howard .923 184 1.259 199
Vladimir Guerrero* .962 170 .935 144
Justin Morneau .903 187 .831 124
Prince Fielder 1.055 189 .967 167
David Ortiz .933 134 .867 140
Robinson Cano .863 176 .905 156
Prince Fielder .885 162 1.006 145
Yoenis Cespedes .713 129 .769 105
Yoenis Cespedes .750 128 .752 142
Todd Frazier .922 200 .664 108
Giancarlo Stanton .823 138 .800 64
Aaron Judge 1.139 208 .939 132
Bryce Harper .833 153 .972 120

* Hall of Famer.

(Codicils: 1) The 1988 Home Run Derby was cancelled due to rain. 2) Ken Griffey, Jr. won the 1994 Home Run Derby, but since the season was shortened by the strike, we don’t have a true complete second half to measure, so I didn’t include it above.)

You notice that only Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Ryan Howard, and Prince Fielder went from a pre-Derby -1.000 OPS to a post-Derby +1.000 OPS in a Derby-winning season. And, that only Luis Gonzalez and Jason Giambi had pre- and post-Derby OPSs of +1.000 while increasing the second half OPS even slightly. And, that Eric Davis is the only Home Run Derby champ to have the same OPS in the first and second halves of his Derby-winning season.

Strawberry also showed the largest bump in second-half total bases of any of the Derby champs with a whopping 53. Behind him for total bases bumps in the second halves of their Derby titles are Wally Joyner (17), Eric Davis (16), Luis Gonzalez (16), Ryan Howard (15), Yoenis Cespedes (14) in his second of back-to-back Derby championships; Luis Gonzalez (13), David Ortiz (6), and Miguel Tejada (1). Cespedes, by the way, has the lowest back-to-back pre- and post-Derby championship OPSs.

(And just how good was Ryan Howard in 2006, when he led his league in home runs, runs batted in, and total bases, not to mention winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player award? His second-half OPS jumped the highest of any Derby winner in the second half, ever: an out-of-this-galaxy 336 points. Barry Bonds in 1996 has to settle for the second-highest second-half jump with a mere 193 points. Behind Bonds are Sosa [+176], Strawberry [+172], and Prince Fielder [+121].)

If Aaron Judge wanted to say the Home Run Derby injures a player physically or leaves him more injury prone in the second half, I’m not really seeing an overwhelming case for that. But if he wanted to say partaking in or winning the Derby has a measurable impact otherwise on the rest of a player’s season, the evidence adduced above suggests it’s about a 50-50 proposition so far.

And Judge is absolutely right about being more concerned with his team winning on the season and to get to the postseason than whether he or any other Yankee or any other player partakes in or wins a Home Run Derby. Joe and Jane Fan may get a big bang out of watching the Derby but who’s going to be the first to bitch when a Derby winner or the field of Derby swingers comes up lesser in the second half when their teams might be in a pennant race?

The Home Run Derby is barely more than showcased batting practise. The All-Star Game is at least a baseball game, even if it is a little bit on the stupid side for managers to make pitching changes during rallies in a bloody exhibition game.

We speak often enough of the common good of the game not being the same thing as making money for the owners or the players. Sometimes the common good of the game isn’t the same thing giving the fans a transitory kick, either.

But Joe and Jane Fan won’t hesitate, either, when you ask them which they’d really prefer: a guy winning the Home Run Derby, or a guy hitting the home run that nails his team’s advance to or in the postseason. If only Joe and Jane Fan could reconcile that to their game-compromising itch for perpetual motion and cheap thrills.

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