Published on August 16, 2018 by Kelsi Hobbs  
The Curse of the MLB Home Run Derby
The Curse of the MLB Home Run Derby

On Monday July 16, 2018, hometown hero Bryce Harper thrilled the Washington Nationals’ crowd by winning the 33rd annual Major League Baseball Home Run Derby.  The contest is conducted annually on the Monday night prior to the annual Midsummer Classic.  Harper bested seven other participants to win the title.  The Home Run Derby has been held annually since 1985 (with the exception of 1988 when the event was rained out), and Dave Parker of the Cincinnati Reds took home the first title.  Over the years, the derby has undergone several rule changes, but the has reached its current format since 2015.  The current rules include eight players who are seeded based on their season home run totals to date.  The players go head-to-head with each player and are allotted five minutes to hit as many home runs as possible with the winners advancing to the next round.  This process occurs until a champion is crowned.  There are a sequence of tie-breaker rules that take affect if a winner is not initially crowned. 

The concept of the Home Run Derby is loosely based on the popular television show in 1960 Home Run Derby.  The filming of the show was held in Los Angeles and featured the top hitters in Major League Baseball competing against each other for the most home runs.  This show only took place for one season, but the concept is very popular today.

The Home Run Derby is a ratings hit for ESPN and Major League Baseball, but the question remains if participating in the derby is best for the derby participants and their teams as they head into the second half of their season.  After players participate in the Home Run Derby, it seems as if there is a drop off in their offensive statistics during the second half of the season.  This trend has become so common each year that fans have begun to call it the “Curse of the Home Run Derby.”  Has this “curse” actually been a trend for derby participants, or is it just an exaggerated coincidence?  Research has been conducted to try to answer this question.

One study conducted by J.P. Breen of FanGraphs in 2012 looks at a player’s entire statistics as opposed to just their overall power numbers.  Breen said the player’s swing would hypothetically become longer (home run swing), causing plate discipline and hit tool to suffer.  Batting average (AVG), on base percentage (OBP), and isolated power (ISO) would all see a significant decline from first half numbers.  Breen looked at every player who participated in the derby from 2000 to 2011, which totaled to 96 participants.  Breen’s research resulted in the following:       

Breen's Findings on Home Run Derby
Half AVG OBP ISO
1st 0.304 0.394 0.278
2nd 0.293 0.389 0.252

Breen’s research showed a drop in all three categories from the first half to the second half.  These numbers point towards the “curse” and show how the participants’ performances constantly dropped after the derbies from 2000 to 2011.

In a more recent study conducted in 2017 by Devan Fink and published in Beyond the Box Score, the research builds off of Breen’s research and includes more recent data.  Fink uses more of a power production focus looking at three numbers.  He also uses ISO, but instead of using AVG and OBP he uses weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and home runs to fly ball rate (HR/FB).  ISO measures the number of extra bases the player averages per at bat (basically removing singles from a players slugging percentage ratio).  WRC+ includes all of a player’s offensive contribution as opposed to just his power numbers.  The final statistic used, HR/FB, is the percentage of home runs for every fly ball.  Fink uses the 2007 through 2016 derbies for his research, which includes 82 participants.  Fink’s research resulted in the following:

Fink's Findings on Home Run Derby
Statistic First Half (avg) Second Half (avg)
ISO 0.251 0.211
wRC+ 144 126
HR/FB 19.6% 16.1%

(Fink)

Fink’s research, using these three categories, shows a significant decline between first half and second half numbers.  However, even with these statistics, Fink goes on to say that he believes the drop in performance has little to none with participating in the derby.  Fink states that most players selected have had extremely lucky first halves of the season (which is why they were initially selected for the derby), but their second half numbers are still well above the league average.

Two studies show statistical drops between first and second half performances for derby participants; however, there can still be no guarantee that these drops are due to participating in the derby.  The first half performances are all well above average, which is logical because they were in fact selected as the best home run hitters in the league.  There is definitely a trend in the data which leads me to believe that the derby can cause defects in a player’s natural swing.  The small difference could cause the players to take some time to adjust back to their natural swing (less uppercut) and ultimately back to their first half production.

This blog post was written by Samford University student Kelsi Hobbs.  You can learn more about Kelsi Hobbs at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kelsi-hobbs-4a2410140/.

Works Cited

Boghossian, C. (2018, July 14). Chicago ties run deep in original 'Home Run Derby,' a short-lived TV show at (the other) Wrigley Field. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/baseball/ct-spt-cubs-white-sox-home-run-derby-tv-show-20180713-story.html

Breen, J. (n.d.). The Home Run Derby Curse. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-home-run-derby-curse/

Fink, D. (2017, July 05). Fact or Fiction: The Home Run Derby curse. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from https://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2017/7/5/15919218/home-run-derby-curse-2017