By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to woodypaige.com
Rookie sensation Aaron Judge has taken New York Yankees fans on a thrill ride during the first half of the 2017 baseball season. Already with a new franchise rookie-record 30 homers at the break, Judge capped his amazing first half by winning the All-Star Home Run Derby. He’s got to start in the All-Star game, too.
Judge is what the Derby is and should always be all about – big, powerful…and fresh faced. You can say the same thing about runner-up Miguel Sano of the Minnesota Twins, as well as semi-finalists Cody Bellinger and Gary Sanchez. Newbies, all. And that’s the way it will be moving forward, either by design…or not.
Veterans like Bryce Harper said thanks but no thanks to a Derby invite, and for good reason. History tells us that players who exhaust themselves in the Derby often suffer a fall off – and worse – during the second half of the season. The idea of a “curse” from Derby participation has been debunked by the Sabermetrics stats gang, who point out that cumulative data shows no definitive link between Derby participation and second half struggles.
But like anything else, it only takes a few examples to the contrary to sway players away from participating. And there are plenty of examples from the last dozen seasons to show that being part of the Home Run Derby carries a risk for a player’s second half performance.
For example, in 2005, All-Star Bobby Abreu of the Philadelphia Phillies set a then-Derby record with 24 homers in a single round and 41 overall in winning the event. Then his power stroke vanished. By the time he was traded to the Yankees at the trade deadline the following season, Abreu had added a mere 14 home runs in the year and a month since.
In 2008 Brandon Inge of the Detroit Tigers hit 21 homers before the All-Star break, then hit zero in the Derby. That began a slump that resulted in just six round trippers the rest of the season. And after bursting onto the scene as a Los Angeles Dodgers rookie in 2015, Joc Pederson was lighting up the National League, belting 20 home runs in the first half. He made the NL All-Star team and was picked for the Home Run Derby. After a second place finish in the Derby that included a 489-foot blast, Pederson slumped badly in the second half. He was dropped to the bottom of the batting order after his MLB-leading strikeout rate became too much for the Dodgers to handle. He too, managed just six more homers the rest of that season.
Sometimes the after effects of being in the Derby involve more than just a slump. In 2012 Toronto’s Jose Bautista was leading baseball with 26 home runs at the break and finished second in the contest. A week later, he was on the disabled list with a bad wrist that resulted in season-ending surgery.
And the Colorado Rockies got double whammied in 2014. Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki – injury prone to begin with – had a sizzling first half and was named a Derby captain. He bowed out after the second round, which wasn’t the bad news for Rockies fans. A few days after the second half resumed, Tulo landed on the disabled list with a hip injury that would ultimately end his season. His teammate, Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau – who’d also put up very nice stats in the first half and barely missed being named to the NL squad – was chosen by Tulo to participate in the Derby in his longtime home in Minneapolis. Six days after the competition, he too went on the DL with a strained neck, presumably from watching his long balls fly out of Target Field.
Again, these few examples (there are more) don’t amount to enough evidence to suggest that being part of the Derby guarantees second half struggles. But there are enough of them to sway veteran players away from the event. Baseball players are a superstitious bunch. Just the notion that there’s a chance being in the Derby could mess up a swing – or worse – is enough to dissuade them.
The NBA has a similar issue with the once captivating Slam Dunk contest. At first, when it was introduced to the world during halftime of the 1976 American Basketball Association All-Star game, the Dunk Contest was must-see. Julius “Dr. J” Erving bested Denver’s David Thompson that night, but the event was the real winner. But after winning his second NBA dunk contest in 1988, Michael Jordan subsequently turned down all future invites. Suddenly stars didn’t have to be in the contest. The luster for veterans began to wear off.
It’s not so for the new guys – the ones with something to prove and endorsement deals to secure. The Slam Dunk contest remains a way for the Zack LaVine’s of the league to get noticed. More and more that field is now populated with the (wannabe) stars of tomorrow, rather than the established standouts of the day.
It’s become an event for the kids, basically.
MLB’s Home Run Derby should – and will – go the same direction. No more Mike Trouts or Harpers or even Giancarlo Statons. The Derby should be exclusively for those excited newcomers now, the rookies and young guys who are full of energy and don’t know any better – who aren’t concerned about saving their energy for the second half. They should go out and put on a show for the fans. They’ll have a blast and get their moment in the spotlight. Some will eventually discover, the hard way, that what they just put themselves through is not what’s best for their team or their careers in the long term.