By Elizabeth Finn
Baseball players are a superstitious lot. Possibly the most wood-knocking, facial hair-growing, dirty sock-wearing breed of athlete, the boys of summer will try just about anything to avoid a slump. Some traditions are timeless–how often does a player’s cleat actually touch the foul lines?–while some are byproducts of modern times, such as leaving batting helmets unwashed. Though players may feel as strongly about their rituals as they do their OPS, even the most ritualistic slugger will admit that most routines are based in little fact. Which is why a recent baseball trend has analysts and players alike taking notice–and considering the possibility that, this time, there may be something more than luck behind the numbers. But are they wasting their time?
It’s all Bobby Abreu’s fault, really. In 2005, the Venezuelan OBP machine was having a standout year. With 18 home runs at the break, El Come Dulce received an invitation to participate in Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby, held the day before the All Star Game, at the host park. There, he put on a display of power that had never before and has never since been duplicated, sending 41 taters over the wall in Comerica Park. After the fanfare ended and Chris Berman faded into the night, Abreu resumed the second half of the season. After leaving Detroit, he hit only six more round-trippers and saw his average fall almost 40 points. Abreu later intimated that he may have been unable to adjust his swing back after consciously attempting to send the ball to the moon during the three-round exhibition.
Running scared, several prominent players have declined invitations to participate in the Derby in the years since Abreu’s fall (oh, and don’t worry about Abreu; he bounced back just fine). The most notable of these has been Alex Rodriguez, who has a history of avoiding the contest but made waves when he opted out of the 2008 Home Run Derby at his home ballpark, in its final season. Citing a reluctance to adversely affect his swing, and a loyalty to the team–but possibly also a desire to avoid embarrassment, as he has performed quite poorly in past Derbies–Rodriguez bowed out of the Yankee Stadium event to substantial criticism.
The perception that the annual power contest can tamper with a player’s swing has only grown by the year, and may be robbing young players of exciting opportunities. Toronto Blue Jays’ standout, Aaron Hill, a first-time All-Star whose time is long overdue, declined an invitation to participate in this year’s event. “If I start trying to hit everything out, I could mess up my swing,” Hill admitted to The National Post’s John Lott, after a discussion with his father, who advised him against entering for that very reason. The idea seems to be that, unlike in batting practice, where a player can hone different aspects of his hitting, intentionally attempting to hit the ball as far as possible can lengthen and uppercut an otherwise fundamentally-strong swing. Abreu likened it to changing his natural line drive swing to a golf swing. But if this is true, why don’t all participants experience significant drop-offs in power? And, since they don’t, how else can the stunning second half declines be explained?
Abreu is hardly the singular example of this. Over the last five seasons, David Wright (2006, 20 first-half homers/6 second-half), Alex Rios (2007, 17/7), and Grady Sizemore (2008, 23/10) have experienced drops in slugging pre- and post- derby. All four men are quite talented, and valuable team contributors. So what happened?
The more plausible explanation is, that, well…it was bound to happen–otherwise known to fancier types as “regression to the mean.” Sluggers who have been seemingly unaffected by the contest, like Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, and, yes, even Alex Rodriguez, are perennial home run hitters. Their yearly power numbers deviate only slightly from their career averages. If Pujols smacks 20 dingers before the break, chances are he’ll hit at least 16 more before October. However, some hitters are selected for the derby based on one unusually outstanding first half. The flip side of this, though, is that eventually he will come back down to earth to meet his career average, or the mean.
To use Player Zero, Bobby Abreu, as an example, what jumps out about his career numbers is consistency. Not only has he logged six straight 100+ RBI seasons, he has also been astoundingly steady with regards to his power numbers. His career average for home runs is 21, and he’s hit exactly 20 in five separate seasons. This makes his 2005 campaign a slight bump up from the mean, at 24, even with his paltry numbers after the break. Any number of factors can cause such uneven splits, including the weather, ballparks, and even the production of the hitters protecting him in the lineup. But, as statistics have shown us, deviations are rarely permanent. Then again, some players are career first-half home run hitters in general. Alex Rios, throughout his career, is averaging one home run for every 38 plate appearances in the first half of the season. In the second half, he’s a 1/50 hitter.
Despite natural disparities between first and second-half stats, what’s difficult to ignore are Abreu’s sentiments regarding his own feelings about his swing in 2005. This, coupled with the genuine uneasiness–warranted or not–of many big hitters to participate in an event that Major League Baseball pours a good deal of money into in advertising, should be enough to prompt the league to take another look. Though Joe Mauer, who has already matched his season high in home runs, has agreed to participate, both 2008’s winner and single-round record holder (Justin Morneau and Josh Hamilton) have refused to participate, for different reasons, and attempts at finding replacements have proven challenging–Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis, and Hill all declined. Whether there is a legitimate basis for the reluctance is irrelevant. The players, in their superstitions, rituals, and routines, are the ultimate draw, and there may be no choice but to take them seriously until a new crop of fearless sluggers comes of age–or Joe Mauer has his first 40-home run season. Whichever comes first.