THE HOME RUN DERBY

The Yankees’ Aaron Judge, the spectacular rookie who won the Rookie of The Year Award in 2017 and finished second in the Most Valuable Player race, with his .284 batting average, 52 homers, 114 runs batted in, while also winning the Home Run Derby, told reporters this past week that he would not participate in the Home Run Derby this year. Judge was hitting .312 with 30 homers and 66 runs batted in prior to the Derby but, in the 52 games following it, he hit for just a .182 average with nine homers and 21 RBI in his next 52 games.

ESPN reported that, when asked if his decision had anything to do with the post-Derby slump, Judge said “Not at all. That’s the least of my concerns. I know everyone always talks about [how] the Derby will do that, but it didn’t have that effect on me.”

The Major League Baseball Home Run Derby is held annually, the day before the All Star Game in the park hosting the All Star Game. It draws a sell out crowd and produces some exciting moments and lots of home runs, many for a distance you would never see in a regular Major League Game.

The event began in 1985 and Dave Parker of the Cincinnati Reds won the first championship. There have been many rule and format changes since the beginning but the original intent, to create a contest where the players can hit the ball as far as a ball will carry by making the environment as hitter friendly as possible has not changed.

Any relationship to the game of baseball is purely coincidental. Contestants select their own pitcher, in some cases a relative or favorite batting practice pitcher and work together before the event to maximize the potential for the pitcher putting the ball in the exact spot where the hitter can hit it the furthest.

Major League baseball players work throughout their career to develop a swing which will allow them to make solid contact with a ball thrown by a pitcher who is trying to get them out by throwing it where they cannot hit it long and far. That pitch comes in at a rate far faster than that of a batting practice pitch, generally in the neighborhood of 90 miles an hour or higher and is almost always moving side to side or up and down rather than following a straight trajectory like a batting practice or Home Run Derby pitch.

The swing required to make the kind of contact a player in a ball game needs to make is much flatter than that required to launch a ball over the wall consistently. In today’s ‘baseball talk’ the ‘launch angle’ has to be more severe, which just means that the swing is more of an uppercut rather than flat intended to hit the ball higher so it will travel farther.

Anybody who has played wiffle ball in the back yard knows that an uppercut swing will hit the ball higher but also knows that that results in more pop flies and swinging strikes than a flat swing. Did anybody notice that, while Judge was hitting his 52 home runs, he also led the league in strikeouts with 208? Before the Derby, he struck out 36.2% of the time and after the Derby, he struck out 41.1% of the time.

Does anybody but the ‘Geeks of the Game’, as I like to call them, that gave us meaningless statistics like the OPS which adds on base percentage to slugging percentage together, (talk about combining apples and oranges), or WAR, wins above replacement, which supposedly measures the number of wins a player adds to his team compared to what a replacement player from AAA would have added, care at what angle the ball left the bat of their favorite player as long as it landed in the seats and drove in the winning run?

Many experts have contended, over the years, that the preparation for the Home Run Derby interferes with the muscle memory required for a batter to make consistent contact with the ball in game conditions once the Derby is over.

Some of the ‘experts’ have downplayed the effect of the Home Run Derby on Judge’s second half slump saying that it was effected by a shoulder problem. Looking at the players who have won the Derby over the years, there seem to be as many who did not experience reduced production in the games after their win as there are who did.

Parker, for example, in the year he won the first contest, increased his average from .304 to .320 and his homer total from 16 to 18. The next year, Darrell Strawberry went from .298 before the Derby to .214 after it. ( Home run totals are difficult to compare because over the years, the All Star Game break has occurred later in the season, reducing the number of games after the break and increasing the number before, therefore batting averages are probably the best stat to compare.)

Yoenis Cespedes, when he won the Derby in 2014, raised his average after the Derby from .246 to .279 while Miguel Tejada, the 2004 winner, hit .311 before the Derby and .311 in the games after. Obviously, all these samples are small and conditions have changed greatly in the 33 years since the Home Run Derby began. My limited research indicates that the younger a player is and the less experience he has might make him more apt to be negatively affected by the experience.

During the 2017 season, when Judge hit the ball on the ground, he average .286, when he hit a fly ball his average increased to .362. Those of you who have played the game may find some consolation in the fact that, when he hit a line drive his batting average increased to .841, but it doesn’t take a statistical genius to explain the difference in the results there.

In the ESPN article, Judge is quoted as saying “I’m a Home Run Derby champion. It was a cool experience. I enjoyed it all but I don’t think I really need to go out there and do it again. I won it once.” I don’t think he’d have the same reaction to winning his first World Series. And therein lies the difference between real baseball and the Home Run Derby.

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