I worked with Dick Gabriel decades ago at UK’s student newspaper – the Kentucky Kernel, FYI – and learned many things from him. (He has been at WKYT, a Lexington TV station, for almost as long I’ve been at the ol’ AJC.) Two factoids about this distinguished journalist: He’s one day younger than I am, and he used to tool around Lexington in a car bearing a license plate that read, “Mr. Fun.”
I’ve always wanted a license plate that read, “Mr. No Fun.” I never got one because that would have been too much fun, and I take great pride in being a grump. And, with no further ado, here I go again:
I hate the idea of Freddie Freeman in the Home Run Derby.
I know, I know. It’s a trifling event, if indeed it qualifies as an “event” at all. He could stand a splash of national publicity. (Although he did finish as the leading National League vote-getter in All-Star balloting, suggesting he’s not a complete unknown.) He’s a great hitter, et cetera. I get all that, but here’s my gripe:
Freeman himself doesn’t think of himself as a home run hitter, though he demonstrably hits more than the occasional home run. As he mentioned in conversation last summer and reaffirmed last month, all he tries to do with every swing is to hit a ground ball to shortstop.
Not a ground ball over shortstop or past shortstop, mind you. Just a ground ball TO shortstop, which would be a 6-3 – or a 5-3, if the opponent is shifting heavily, which most opponents are – unless a fumbling fielder turns it into an E-6/5. He and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer stumbled on this method during batting practice in Milwaukee during the lost season of 2016, and Freeman credits it (and his numbers second the emotion) for turning a good hitter into something more.
The idea is that, in trying to hit a grounder to short, he keeps his head down and doesn’t overswing, and his mechanics, always sound, do the rest. He was on track to have a massive season until he broke his wrist last May; he’s on track to do the same now. If you want to call him the best hitter and best position player among National Leaguers, I won’t quibble.
My gripe about FF in the HR Derby is simple: He can’t go out there Monday night – and his “opponent” will be Bryce Harper, swinging for the fences in Nationals Park – and hit ground balls to shortstop. Freeman will be duty-bound to do that thing he never does, which is swing for the fences. I worry that he’ll overswing and hurt his wrists, which as we know are forever getting plunked. I worry that he’ll mess up those sound mechanics.
I hesitate to mention “The Home Run Derby Curse” because, ahem, it might not exist. This being baseball, the mere notion of such a thing has stirred scholarly debate, which has yielded scholarly debunking. From Joseph McCollum and Marcus Jaiclin in the 2010 fall Baseball Research Journal: “We have no choice but to conclude that it’s fiction.” From Devan Fink in Beyond the Box Score last summer: “To what extent does the Home Run Derby play into (a participant’s) drop in performance? I’m going to say little-to-none. More often than not, players selected to the Derby are those who are having extremely lucky first halves.”
But here was Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, also last summer: “To dismiss the Derby Jinx outright is to ignore both history and common sense. The Phillies’ Bobby Abreu in 2005 (18 homers in 323 at-bats pre-Derby, six homers in 265 at-bats afterward) and the Mets’ David Wright in 2006 (20 homers in 339 at-bats pre-Derby, six homers in 243 at-bats post-Derby) both struggled greatly.”
And here’s what last year’s winner, Aaron Judge, told Randy Miller of NJ.com in explaining his choice not to defend the title: “I just want to stay healthy going into the second half.”
Judge had 30 home runs entering last year’s All-Star break. He would manage only seven from July 14 through Sept. 2, a span that saw his batting average slip from .329 to .276. Yes, he was a rookie, and yes, even good hitters have bad stretches. Still, it was believed that Judge’s slump was due in part to shoulder soreness, which – as Miller notes – “may or may not have become worse due to his many swings” in the HR Derby.
Do I think Freeman is smart enough not to overextend in what is a glorified version of BP? Yes. Is that enough to stop me from fretting? Nah. To be Mr. No Fun is to fret about everything. And I do.