MLB Home Run Derby brings fun — and fatigue — for players

Max Muncy was in the middle of the second round of his first home run derby in 2018 when the Dodgers’ bat hit a wall.

Whether it was lack of sleep after an overnight cross-country flight from Los Angeles, or a long Monday of All-Star Game celebrations, or the hot and muggy weather at Washington’s Nationals Park, Muncy’s racquet suddenly went limp as he lost to eventuality Derby champion Bryce Harper.

Muncy’s legs hurt. His forearms tensed. His hands were so numb that he wasn’t sure if he was “holding the racquet or if it would fall out of your hand,” he said that night.

After hitting 17 homers in a first-round win over Javier Baez, Muncy only collected 12 in the second round.

“It’s a lot more grueling than people realize,” Muncy said recently after a Dodgers game. “I mean, it’s just a lot of swings – you do 50 to 60 swings in two minutes. In a typical batting practice session, you’ll get about 25 to 30 swings in 15 minutes. In addition, you try to lift the ball to hit a home run.

“It puts a strain on the body. I was drained emotionally and physically. I remember being exhausted for a week or two afterwards.”

That fatigue helped Muncy hit .178 after the break this season in 13 games with a .669 on-base plus slugging percentage, two home runs and seven RBIs. He had hit .271 with 1.013 OPS, 22 homers and 41 RBIs in 74 first-half games.

Muncy bounced back from his late July doldrums and finished 2018 with a .263 average, .973 OPS, 35 homers and 79 RBIs, but some players found it harder to cure their homer hangover.

Bobby Abreu, then with the Philadelphia Phillies, smashed 41 homers, including 24 in the first round, to win the 2005 derby. But after hitting 18 homers in 397 plate appearances in the first half of this season, he hit six homers in 322 plate appearances after the break.

Former New York Mets star David Wright, who lost to Ryan Howard in the final of the 2006 derby, went from 20 homers in 386 plate appearances in the first half to six homers in 275 plate appearances after the break.

Former Angels hitter Mark Trumbo hit 22 homers in 313 plate appearances in the first half of 2012. After participating in the derby, he hit 10 home runs in 273 plate appearances in the second half.

Angels star Mike Trout has resisted repeated requests to play in the derby not because it could lead to bad swing habits but because of the risk of injury.

Angels star Mike Trout meets the Philadelphia Phillies on June 4th.

Angels star Mike Trout meets the Philadelphia Phillies on June 4th.

(Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press)

“A lot of people I’ve spoken to in the past have said some things that have raised some red flags,” Trout said. “I remember when Albert [Pujols] made [in 2015]. He came in after a round and his whole arm was black. He got a cramp.

“It’s for the fans and I understand they want me there. But I always enjoy going to the derby and hanging out with my family.”

New York Yankees hitter Aaron Judge, who has the highest tally in the major leagues with 33 homers, will not participate in Monday night’s derby at Dodger Stadium.

“No need,” Judge told the New York Post in June. “I’ve done that before. I agree.”

Judge won the 2017 Miami derby but in the process aggravated a shoulder injury he sustained when he hit a wall a few weeks earlier. After that season, he had to have surgery on his shoulder.

Most derby competitors emerge from the long drive competition unscathed. Mets hitter Pete Alonso had a slight second-half dip in performance after winning the derby in 2019, but after repeating as the derby champion in 2021, his OPS improved from .802 in the first half to .921 after the break.

Harper, now with the Phillies, hit .214 with .833 OPS in the first half of 2018 for the Nationals. After winning the derby at his home ground that summer, he hit .300 with .972 OPS in the second half. Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton experienced a slight OPS dip from .823 to .800 after winning the 2016 Derby.

“I think if I had an opinion I’d say go for it,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “I think there have been instances where guys have competed and struggled with the second half and there are just as many instances where guys have competed and had the same second half. So nothing is proven.”

Despite the Derby’s potential pitfalls, most players jump at the opportunity to compete in an event that has produced many memorable moments — Josh Hamilton’s 28-homer first round at Yankee Stadium in 2008, Stanton’s 510-foot blast in Minnesota in 2014 , Harper, then a Nationals slugger, won at his home ballpark in 2018 with his father Ron.

Bryce Harper competes in the 2018 MLB All-Star Home Run Derby in Washington.

Bryce Harper competes in the 2018 MLB All-Star Home Run Derby in Washington.

(Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

“We always talked about it growing up — ‘Yeah, if I ever do that, you’re going to throw to me,'” Harper said in June. “We’ve done this in the backyard so many times, right? I think growing up with my dad throwing me it was normal. I could take that to a big stadium and have fun and enjoy that with him.”

Harper and his father reached the final of his first home run derby in 2013, losing to Yoenis Cespedes of Oakland at Citi Field in New York.

The derby underwent a major format change in 2015 when outs were replaced with a time limit. Players now have three minutes per round with time out to hit as many homers as possible, a format that adds more excitement – and more physical demands – to the derby.

“I made it with the new rules and the old rules, and with the new rules you have to put the brakes on yourself,” said Stanton, who was eliminated in the semifinals in 2014, in New York in June.

“You don’t want to poop. Save your energy. Take your downtime at a good time. Don’t try too hard. Make sure you have fun either way.”

As grueling as the 2018 event was, Harper, who will miss this year’s All-Star Game after undergoing thumb surgery in late June, has no regrets. The derby created a memory for the slugger and his father that will last a lifetime.

“Yeah, swinging a lot is tough,” Harper said. “I mean your forearms get tired, your shoulders, your arms, your hands, everything. Especially in the middle of summer in DC when it’s 100 degrees and 100% humidity.

“You’re just trying to work through it as best you can, trying to figure out your routine and not doing too many swings in the cage. You have to get out there and try to swing as much as possible and hit as many home runs as possible.

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman declined an invite to this year’s derby, based in part on the experience he had in 2018 when the former Atlanta Braves hitter was eliminated in the first found by Harper.

“The home run derby is tough, especially when you get through the first round – luckily I lost to Bryce in the first round,” said Freeman, laughing. “The year I did it, I think we went into five-minute laps and it was extremely tough.

“And it leads to more. You have a lot more media to do. The year I did it I had half a piece of chicken. That’s all I ate. Then I did the derby. I came into the hotel room afterwards and sat on the floor, I was so exhausted.” MLB Home Run Derby brings fun — and fatigue — for players

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