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July 14, 2014

Pebble Hunting

How to Gamble on the Home Run Derby

by Sam Miller


So you want to bet on the Home Run Derby. Some people would judge you for that. I’m one of those people. Totally judging over here. But I do plenty of things that I could be judged for, so I won’t judge you for being judged. We’re all a little judgeable.

Unsurprisingly, there are people who will take your bet. This is, along with a couple other days this week, the most sports-barren stretch of the year. Among the daily bets you can make today: New Orleans Voodoo vs. Jacksonville Sharks (Arena Football League); Penrith Panthers vs. Brisbane Broncos (National Rugby League); and the Home Run Derby. If you choose the latter, these are the odds you’ll get:

I’m here to help you decide which of these people to bet on, if you insist. Armed with the list of Home Run Derby participants going back to 2000 (when the more-or-less-current format began), each participant’s first, second and third round totals, and a whole bunch of stats dumped into a spreadsheet, I’ve learned this:

1. Don’t necessarily bet on the guy who has hit the most home runs this year. Since 2000, the 16 batters who have entered the derby with the most home runs (sometimes tied with another participant) have won zero derbies. The 22 players who entered the derby with 27 or more first-half home runs averaged 5.3 in the first round; the 22 players who entered with 15 or fewer first-half home runs average 6.2 first-round homers. There’s some logic to this; a player who hit fewer home runs but still made the derby might be an elite hitter, like Miguel Cabrera (2006) or Miguel Tejada (2004) or Vladimir Guerrero (2007). But only a little logic. A lot of times it’s somebody who isn’t very good, like Chris Young (2010) or Hee-Seop Choi (2005) or Nick Swisher (2010) or Ivan Rodriguez (2005). Rodriguez made the derby because that was the year that every player had to be from a different country, to promote the World Baseball Classic. He had six first half homers. He had only 19 the year before. He made it to the derby finals and nearly won the friggin' thing.

Anyway, long way of saying: The correlation between first-half home runs and first-round derby home runs is actually negative (.08). Don’t bet on somebody because he has a lot of home runs this year.

2. Don’t necessarily bet on the guy who has hit the most home runs over the previous year and a half. This should be a pretty good guide to who the best home run hitter in the game has been; it’s a pretty substantial length of time. In fact, it is a pretty good guide to who the best home run hitter in the game has been:

That group of 14 won one derby title (in fields of eight). Two of them made the finals. The correlation between home runs over the previous year and a half and first-round derby home runs is negative (.08).

3. Don’t necessarily bet on the guy with the most Home Run Derby appearances. There have been 47 home run derby participants who have previously appeared in the contest. They have averaged 5.7 first-round home runs. There have been 66 first-timers; they have averaged 6.0 first-round homers. The correlation between previous appearances and first-round derby home runs overall is negative (evvvvvvver so slightly).

4. Maybe just bet on the fattest guy. Very little correlates positively to home run derby success. Weight does, a little (.17). So (almost imperceptibly) do height and career batting average (.05 each). And, in the inverse of numbers one, two, and three on this list, so do inexperience and smaller home runs totals. So aim for big guys without many home runs or much experience and maybe a good batting average.

5. Also, lefties. Lefties (48 of them) hit, on average, two more home runs in the first round than the 58 righties have, which is by far the biggest difference we found based on any variable. (Switch-hitters, a much smaller group, are worst of all, somehow. Small group.) Ten times a lefty and a righty have faced off in the final round, and the lefties have won eight of the 10. Some big lefties without many home runs and maybe a good batting average. There’s only one lefty this year, Justin Morneau. He’s fairly big. He has maybe a good batting average. Go with Morneau. Or…

6. Just flip a coin. In fact, there’s practically no pattern to the Home Run Derby. For instance, total home runs hit in the first round (by all participants) are negatively correlated (.35) to the run-scoring environment of the season. That is, in years when more home runs are hit across the league, fewer home runs have been hit by the home run derby participants. (This is fascinating, incidentally. If the league offensive environment changes, but the derby stays the same, it suggests that whatever variable is causing the broader change is something that isn’t involved in the derby. So not the balls. Not the stadiums. Not global warming. Not even the hitters. It points to pitchers, umpires/strike zones, or defenses, the three things that don’t exist in a home run derby.)

Further, the number of total home runs hit in the first round is negatively correlated (.20) to the ballpark’s park factor, so fewer home runs have been hit in hitters’ parks. That’s just ridiculous. The home run derby is ridiculous. It follows no form. You think Giancarlo Stanton will win because he’s so strong; he will not, or if he does it will be because he’s technically in the thing, but no more than Todd Frazier is technically in the thing and Brian Dozier is also in the thing, technically. So just pick the guy with the longest odds. Last year this would have netted you a small profit, Andrew Koo found. Don’t forget to spend some of your winnings on a BP Premium subscription.

* Bovada’s official style for Bautista’s first name. When did this start happening?

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  All-Star Game,  Home Run Derby

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