Hamilton, Morneau and the Curse of the Home Run Derby

July 16, 2008 | Thyrl Nelson

That was quite a display that Josh Hamilton put on in Yankee Stadium on Monday night. In recent years it seems that the home run derby has gone the way of the slam-dunk contest in the NBA. What once was a great spectacle has fizzled in luster and it’s becoming more and more difficult to put on a memorable performance.
Monday’s exhibition looked to be more of the same as the first round nearly came and went without anyone so much as sniffing double digits. It appeared as though the prospects for the derby in the post steroid era weren’t good. All of that changed though when Josh Hamilton stepped into the batter’s box.
Even before you know all of the details, Josh Hamilton is an intriguing story, former first round draft pick, now with his 4th team and suddenly reclaiming his career to the tune of a run at the triple crown. Look deeper at his struggles with heroin and cocaine and Hamilton’s story is nothing short of remarkable. And remarkable is what Hamilton brought to the home run derby on Monday.
Hamilton may have dodged a bullet on Monday too, by stealing the show at the derby but not actually winning it. Everyone will remember the 2008 derby for Hamilton’s performance even though it was Justin Morneau who walked away with the hardware. If you believe in curses, than you could say that winning the home run derby might carry one. By not actually winning, Hamilton may have escaped the curse’s reach. But given all that the young slugger has been able to overcome in his career and personal life so far, I doubt he’d lose much sleep over the curse of the derby champ. Still, it’s interesting what has happened to past derby winners careers after walking off with their derby crowns.
If you aren’t a believer in curses, than perhaps you’d explain the drop off in production of past winners to the energy exerted in putting on such a slugfest. You could also argue that derby participants make adjustments to their swing for the purpose of swinging for the fences, which aren’t so fundamentally sound.
Whether you attribute the fall off to a curse or to fatigue, it’s highly likely that Justin Morneau and/or Josh Hamilton will see a dramatic drop off in production after Monday night’s performance. Take a look at the tribulations of these recent winners:
2007 Vladimir Guerrero – Vlad’s second half batting average and homerun numbers were almost identical to his first half numbers last season. But his walk and RBI numbers dropped off substantially after winning the derby crown, as did his OBP and OPS. So far this season, Guerrero is projecting to hit his usual 30 or so homers, but his doubles are way down, as are his walks and he’s projecting a career high in strikeouts. He’s batting almost 40 points below his career average, 41 below his career OBP, 90 points below his career slugging percentage and 130 points below his career OPS.
2006 Ryan Howard – Howard won the derby in his first full season in the bigs. He put up a .313/58/149 season that year; he followed it with .268/47/136 in 2007 and currently sports a .234/28/84. He went from 181 K’s in ’06 to 199 in ’07 with 52 less at bats. Also since 2006 his slugging percentage dropped from .659 to .584 to it’s current .508, his OBP has dropped from .425 to .392 to it’s current .324 and his OPS went from an astounding 1.084 to .976 to .832 today. Howard is still very productive, but he’s trending downward.
2005 Bobby Abreu – Abreu hit 41 homers in a mammoth display of power en route to the derby title in 2005. He had 18 homers going into the break that season and finished by hitting just 6 the rest of the way. He hit 15 dingers between the Yankees and Phillies in 2006, and 16 in 2007. With 10 homers so far this season, Abreu has hit just 47 total homeruns since the All Star break in 2005. Abreu hit 20 or more homeruns in every season between 99 and 05 but hasn’t done it since winning the derby; he’s also seen dramatic drop offs in production across the board.
2004 Miguel Tejada – Tejada’s 2004 season was arguably the best offensive season ever for an Oriole, and he was considered at that time one of the elite hitters in all of baseball. Since winning the Derby in ’04 Tejada put up respectable homerun numbers for a couple of seasons, 26 in ’05 & 24 in ’06, but that’s after averaging 31.2 per season between 2000-2004 mostly in a pitcher’s park, but his slugging and OPS have been declining steadily too. Tejada hit just 18 homers in an injury shortened 2007 and has 10 so far this season. He’s also trending strongly downward in OPS, SLG% & OBP since winning the derby in ’04.
2003 Garrett Anderson – Garret Anderson played in at least 155 games and had over 600 at bats in every season between 1998 and 2003 when he claimed the Derby crown. In 2000 Anderson hit .286 with 35 HR and 117 RBI, in 2001 .289/28/123, in 2002 .306/29/123, and in 2003 .315/29/116. He followed up his derby win in ’04 by playing just 112 games, and has played just over 140 each in ’05 & ’06 and just 108 in 2007. Anderson has just 71 homeruns in the 4 ½ seasons since winning the derby and has failed to drive in more than 96 RBI in any year since. Once a career .300+ hitter, Anderson has failed to break .285 in 3 of the last 4 seasons, even with the added protection of Vlad Guerrero in the lineup.
2002 Jason Giambi – Giambi did follow up his derby win in 2002 with 41 homers and 107 RBI in 2003, but after hitting .314, .342, .333, & .315 in the four years previous, Giambi’s average plummeted to .250 in 2003. Giambi’s struggles since then have been well documented, and while his homerun and RBI numbers have rebounded to respectability, he is no more than a .270 hitter these days with declining on base, slugging and OPS numbers.
2001 Luis Gonzalez – Gonzalez’ 2001 numbers left him little opportunity to do anything but decline, his .325 avg., 57 HR, 142 RBI campaign that year would be triple crown numbers in a lot of seasons. Gonzalez followed up his derby title by never posting better than 28 homers or 104 RBI or a .305 avg. again and has usually been far below that.
1998 & 1999 Ken Griffey Jr. – Coincidentally these were Griffey’s last two seasons in Seattle. Junior did put together a respectable first season with the Reds in 2000 also, with 40 homers and 118 RBI, but he only got 520 at bats that season and missed 17 games, after collecting 600+ at bats in each of the previous three seasons and missing only 8 games in that 3 year stretch. Griffey’s troubles have been well documented too, and the kid who once seemed destined to break every major offensive record in baseball is now the poster child for lost potential. Although 600 homeruns is nothing to cough at, after hitting 209 homers between ’96 & ’99, Griffey has just 207 dingers in the 8 ½ seasons since including the 40 homeruns he hit in 2000.
It’s worth mentioning that Sammy Sosa had several great seasons after winning the title in 2000, but his fall from grace was worse than most, only delayed. Bonds too may be suffering from the curse, after winning in 1996, Bonds career has had it’s share of pitfalls both on and off the field, although he certainly hasn’t suffered the drop in production that others have. And Cal Ripken would certainly never again come close to duplicating his MVP numbers of 1991, the year that he won the Home Run Derby. Juan Gonzalez, Ryne Sandberg and Eric Davis are all guys who come to mind as well when you think about past winners whose careers took dramatic downward turns after winning it.
Perhaps it’s more a coincidence than a curse, but it’s a trend at the very least. You may not want to rush to dump Josh Hamilton or Justin Morneau from your fantasy team just yet, but you may want to think twice about drafting them early next season.



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