Two weeks ago, I wrote about how every year the Home Run Derby is made the scapegoat for players’ second-half struggles. Scores of studies have found inconclusive evidence that the Derby has any meaningful influence on a player in the second half of the season. The most reasonable explanation is simple regression toward the mean.
Aaron Judge, by way of being baseball’s most productive hitter and winning the Derby, had the most eyes on him to begin the second half of the 2017 season. In four games since the All-Star break, Judge has one measly hit — an infield single — with three walks and six strikeouts in 21 plate appearances.
Already, the Derby is being blamed for Judge’s impotent bat. At the end of his column on the subject, Ken Davidoff of the New York Post writes:
He looked far fresher in Game 2, and Girardi said he planned to rest Judge either Tuesday or Wednesday in Minnesota. Nevertheless, 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.
To his credit, Davidoff also mentioned that Judge also hit into some bad luck, particularly in the second game of Sunday’s double-header against the Red Sox. Judge hit a line drive right to Mookie Betts in right field, and he crushed a baseball 411 feet to center field that was caught at the wall by center fielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. If the ball had gone one foot further, however, the column probably doesn’t get written and the Derby doesn’t become the scapegoat.
Judge appears to be the most level-headed about his performance. He said, “You’re going to have your ups and downs. You’re going to have your times when you do everything right and you still get out. It’s just part of it. I’m happy with the swing. I’m happy with a lot of the swings I took the last couple of days. But you don’t get any results from it. That’s baseball. That’s the game we play.”
The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.
Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.
Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”
Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.
The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.