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Friday, July 11, 2008

Alex Rodriguez: Conscientious Derby Objector

[Ed.'s Note: Mag Associate Editor Jordan Brenner is a trustworthy sort. So who better to take on the burning issues of sport in something we call Settling the Score. Basically, he'll take your questions via email and bug the experts for answers. This week's question: Does the Home Run Derby really mess up your swing?]

Come Monday night, baseball's top sluggers will be swinging for the fences. Except for Alex Rodriguez. Instead, he'll be looking on, clinging to the dugout fence … and to a myth. It's the last All-Star game in Yankee Stadium— you know, his home park— but A-Rod is still skipping the Home Run Derby. Why? He thinks it'll screw up his swing. Hey, he has competed three times, so he should know, right? Besides, every July, people keep writing stuff like this, even quoting other players who back up his claim. So, clearly there's no argument … until you look at the math. And if there's one guy you'd think would be focused on numbers, it's A-Rod.

But as it turns out, if the Derby is a swing-killer, someone forgot to tell A-Rod's box scores. If his swing suffered after past contests, you'd expect his power numbers and/or batting average to have dropped after the All-Star break. To check, we did a before/after comparison of at-bats per home run and average. And just in case the effect is short-lived, we charted his at-bats per home run during the three weeks following the break, too:

1998 14.0 20.6 18.0 .310 .311
2001 13.6 10.9 18.0 .310 .328
2002 12.1 9.9 9.8 .305 .294

Looks pretty consistent, doesn't it? But this isn't all about A-Rod. It's about a myth perpetuated every time someone leaves the Derby and enters a slump. We heard about it in 2005 when Bobby Abreu went into the break with 18 homers, hit a record 24 dingers in the first round of the Derby, then went 19 games and 69 at-bats without a home run, finishing with just six in the second half. Mets fans remember David Wright's 20-homer first half and six homers after the break in 2006. Last year, Justin Morneau hit 24 before the Derby and just seven after.

So, we studied the 64 Derby performances this decade, and found that any negative effect is minimal, at worst. After the break, 27 players hit home runs at a higher rate, while 37 slowed down. And that includes plenty of statistically insignificant changes, like Barry Bonds "dropping" from a home run every 8.6 at-bats before the 2002 Derby to one every 9.0 at-bats after the break. In batting average, 26 players improved, 36 declined, and two stayed exactly the same. The only remotely meaningful stat was the three-week power rate, where 21 players picked up the home run pace while 43 slowed down. But that sample size is so small that it's tough to draw a Derby-related conclusion, especially when there are so many better explanations for a second-half decline. What are they?

Glad you asked.

Or, we could just listen to David Wright. "I think that's one of those urban legends," Wright told my colleague, Doug Mittler. "It doesn't mess up your swing. Just ask Ryan Howard—it didn't affect his. If you're at this level, your ability to make adjustments has to be pretty high. Those guys in the Home Run Derby can make adjustments."

Hear that, A-Rod? You can make adjustments, too. So are you really afraid your swing will abandon you after stepping to the plate Monday night? Or does your absence have something to do with the fact that you've hit nine total homers in three Derbies?

Hey, maybe A-Rod does know which numbers matter after all.

For more of Settling the Score, check out Jordan's archive.