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July 6, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

Don't Fear the Derby

by Marc Carig

CLEVELAND— Sometimes, it happens just to break up the monotony of the day. At other times, it happens because natural competitiveness bubbles to the surface. Around any given batting cage, on any given day, a big-league team's pre-game batting practice can suddenly morph into an impromptu Home Run Derby.

Few Yankees are better in this setting than second baseman Robinson Cano, whose knack for squaring up the ball on the barrel of a bat translates into mammoth homers. Fans will get a chance to see it for themselves when Cano, who doesn't fit the mold of a typical slugger, takes part in the Home Run Derby.

“Cano's my pick to win,” said teammate Curtis Granderson, who did not get a Derby invite from AL Derby captain David Ortiz, despite an impressive 25 homers. “It's amazing. You see in Citi Field, where everyone talks about how the ball doesn't fly, and he's going a row from that Pepsi-Cola sign [in deep right field].”

It's easy to know when a spontaneous Derby breaks out. The swings become more forceful, and the shouts around the cage get a little louder, especially when the players decide that they're finished working on technique.

“We do it for fun during BP, during spring training, sometimes when we hang back on maybe a day where starters aren't going on the road and the infielders are all together,” Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “We'll have two or three rounds where it's 'all right guys, let's hit some homers.'”

“That's not going to ruin our season.”

This is an important point to remember now that we're nearing the All-Star Break and one of the game's more prevalent myths makes its annual rounds.

Let's call it the Curse of Bobby Abreu, after the poster boy for the notion that the Home Run Derby can destroy a swing. In 2005, Abreu hit 18 first-half homers before participating in the Derby, where he put on a show with a record 41 bombs. But in the second half of the season, his power fizzled, and he hit just six more homers the rest of the way.

Plenty of analysis has been performed to dispute the notion of a Home Run Derby hangover effect, instead supplying more logical reasons for some of the drop-offs, such as expected regression. What’s more, it's not hard to find players who have participated in the Home Run Derby without suddenly losing their power. Both Teixeira and Yankees outfielder Andruw Jones were also in that infamous '05 Home Run Derby with Abreu. Neither suffered a second-half power outage.

Teixeira entered the break with 25 homers and a slash line of .290/.362/.568 while with the Rangers. In the second half, he saw a dip to 18 homers, which is explained partly by having about 50 fewer plate appearances when compared to the first half. Nevertheless, his slash line of .315/.390/.582 in the second half was an improvement across the board.

Jones saw small across-the-board declines in each of his slash stats, going from .272/.352/.578 in the first half to .251/.340/.571 in the second half. However, he hit 24 homers in the second half, just three fewer than his first-half tally, despite making78 fewer plate appearances.

It's easy to see why neither player believes in the hangover effect.

“I don't buy that,” Jones said. “You can go to any batting practice, and everybody's trying to hit the ball far. First rounds, you do your thing, you're trying to get a feel, you touch the ball. And the last three rounds, all you're trying to do is drive the ball. Every day. It really doesn't mess your swing up.”

Aside from spring training and batting practice, it's not uncommon for players to participate in various kinds of home run competitions in the offseason, often as part of charity functions. Jones took part in a few during his time with the Braves.

Teixeira said that when he was with the Rangers, the team participated in a home run derby as part of an annual fan festival in the spring. He couldn't recall anybody wrecking their swing in those events.

As far as intensity, the Home Run Derby on All-Star Weekend is a different beast. It's broadcast live and contested under the bright lights of a big-league ballpark. Just as it does during batting practice, the competition can get intense enough for adrenaline to take over.

“We want to win,” Teixeira said. “Anything we do, we want to win.”

However, that intensity leads Teixeira to what he considers the real reason that some endure immediate slumps after the Derby. The explanation is simple: fatigue.

“You're just exhausted,” he said. “The All-Star Game is a long two or three days for any player. It is very busy, there's tons of people around, there's a lot you have to do. If you now have to participate in the Home Run Derby, it's a two- or three-hour event where it's a high-energy event for the participants.

More than anything, guys might come out of the All-Star Break just exhausted.”

“It's not necessarily the swinging as much, the mechanics of your swing,” he added. “I think it's more a fatigue factor.”

Jones said he remembers fatigue setting in as the 2005 Derby dragged on, leading him to believe that the competition would improve if it were condensed. Still, aside from feeling tired, Jones doubts that suddenly faulty swings can be traced directly to the effects of home-run hitting contests.

“We do it in spring training all the time, see who can drive the ball farther,” Jones said. “It's not a big deal. It's not going to screw your swing up. I don't buy it.”

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

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

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