July 9, 2007

MLB Midseason, Part I: HR Derby Preview

Arguably the most interesting part of All-Star weekend to hardcore baseball fans is the futures game, featuring the best minor leaguers. I didn't get a chance to watch it, because I had a game yesterday evening, but Justin Upton (D-Backs CF prospect, brother of B.J. Upton) was the biggest star, showing why he's absolutely ready for the Show. Here's a link to Nate Silver's live-blog of the game.

Anyways, tonight is the Home Run Derby, which may be the most popular part of the All-Star weekend. Of course, trying to predict what will happen in the Derby is impossible and completely based on luck, but I'll try to do it anyways. But first, a quick tangent explaining the so-called HR Derby curse...

Bobby Abreu won the Derby in 2005, hitting an amazing 41 taters for the contest. Before the Derby, Abreu had hit 18 home runs. After the Derby, Abreu managed just six more homers for the year. Some people pointed to this as evidence that Abreu "messed up his swing" in the Derby, or that participating was a bad thing for Abreu. Some other previous winners had seen their production drop off also, so people began to think that it was bad for people to be in the Derby. Ryan Howard hit 30 homers in the second half last year, but that was labeled an "exception". I know of Yankee fans that were glad that A-Rod declined to take part in the Derby, because they feared he might mess up his swing also.

So, is this Derby curse real? In a word, no. I will explain this through a simple example:

Player A, Player B, and Player C are all "true" 30-HR hitters; that is, they will all hit exactly 30 homeruns every year. (Obviously, this is impossible in real life, but this is just a hypothetical example.) In one particular year, here's how they hit their homers:

Player A hits 23 homers in the first half of the season, and hits just 7 in the second half.

Player B hits 15 homers in the first half and 15 in the second half.

Player C hits just 7 homers in the first half, but 23 after.

Guess which one gets invited to the Homerun Derby? Only player A would be there, because he has 23 homeruns. So he hits only 7 homers after, and people say it's because the Derby messed up his swing, when it actually is just that he was doing what he was supposed to do.

To summarize, almost all the people selected to participate in the Derby are hitting more homers than they were expected to, so it makes sense that they'd hit less after the break. It doesn't go beyond that.

Okay, then...now, who will win the Derby tonight? The contestants are: Vlad Guerrero, Justin Morneau, Magglio Ordonez, and Alex Rios from the AL, and Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, and the newly added Matt Holliday (subbed for the injured Miguel Cabrera) from the NL.

First of all, in my opinion, you have to pick a righty. It is only 309 feet down the right-field line, but right-center is as deep as 421 feet, and that wall is really high...home runs will just die out there. The lefties certainly add to the drama, as they are the ones who will be hitting balls into the water, but I think the righties are much more likely to win. If you really want to pick a lefty, you may want to go with a guy like Morneau, who hits a lot of homers to the opposite field. So, first of all, Morneau, Howard, and Fielder are eliminated.

After that, there's no real key to picking things. There's a trend that I identified last year, and that is that underrated players tend to win the Derby. In 2003, Garrett Anderson was underrated (that was back when he was actually good), and he won the thing. In 2004, Miguel Tejada was still somewhat underrated (not really anymore), and he won. And in 2005, Abreu was very underrated, although obviously getting traded to New York last year helped him get more than his due. Last year, Howard didn't really fit the bill; he wasn't thought of as a superstar, but he did win the ROY in 2005.

So, of the five righties, who is the most underrated? Pujols and Vlad have been superstars for years; it would be ridiculous to say he's underrated. Magglio is getting some love this year, and he really hasn't been that good the last couple years. Alex Rios is a little underrated, but he's also not that good. The obvious choice here is Matt Holliday - the average baseball fan may know his name, but probably doesn't know who he is. Holliday is much more of a batting-average-type hitter than a homerun hitter, but I'm still picking him. My next choice is Vlad, by the way.

I'll have an All-Star game preview up later today, if I can.

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