PITTSBURGH -- Here in this modern sports world, where we'd much rather believe in supernatural forces than reality, we love our curses. So it's time to ask a question we know you've all been wondering about pretty much 24/7:
Is there any such thing as a Home Run Derby Curse?
We pose this momentous question in honor of last year's Derby winner, Phillies outfielder Bobby Abreu.
In case you lost track somewhere around the moment Abreu bungeed his 41st home run in last July's Derby, several reliable witnesses report that he is not still standing at the plate in Detroit, launching BP shots off the Montgomery Inn's rib smoker.
In fact, he has resumed his normal life, as a mild-mannered on-base machine in Philadelphia.
What he hasn't resumed doing since that Derby, however, is hitting home runs.
He still collects his walks and his doubles and his stolen bases, pretty much the way he always did. He still piles up those OBP numbers in insanely massive abundance.
But he has hit fewer baseballs over the fence in the past 12 months than he did in the first 12 minutes of that Derby. Which has produced some staggering facts that all Derby Curse conspiracists should have committed to memory by now:
• Abreu rolled into last year's All-Star break with 18 home runs in 323 at-bats -- a ratio of one bomb every 17.9 AB. Since then, he has hit just 14 homers in 557 at-bats -- a ratio of one every 39.8 AB.
• At the time of last year's Derby, Abreu ranked ninth in the National League in homers. Since then, he has been outhomered by more than 100 different men -- a cast that includes Damon Hollins, Emil Brown, Felipe Lopez and Tadahito Iguchi. None of whom have been mistaken lately for David Ortiz.
• And Abreu's six second-half homers last year, in 270 at-bats (a ratio of one every 45.0), represented the fewest ever hit by a Derby winner after the break, since the Derby went to anything even remotely resembling its current format.
So what are we to make of this? Now that Derby-rama 2006 has arrived, it's important that we figure this out. In a hurry.
Can the Derby really be hazardous to a guy's offensive health? Or was it just hazardous to Bobby Abreu's offensive health?
And if we can prove it's hazardous to anybody in any way, can the Derby Curse take its place in the hallowed halls of Cursedom, alongside all those billygoats and submerged Bambino pianos?
Well, not so fast. That goat has a much longer and storied track record, for one thing. And for another thing, not even Abreu, his manager and his coaches agree on whether the Derby swat-fest contributed to his power outage these past 12 months.
Abreu has consistently said he doesn't think the Derby has had anything to do with his numbers since. His hitting coach, on the other hand, begs to differ.
"Oh, I definitely think so," said Milt Thompson. "I think he got in the Home Run Derby and started turning on everything. Then your front shoulder starts flying open, and you don't stay on the ball. ... And Bobby's got that great stroke when he stays through the ball and hits it."
But just when we thought we were starting to get to the bottom of this mystery, along came Abreu's manager, Charlie Manuel, to head in yet another direction.
Last summer, Manuel was among those theorizing that Abreu's second-half slump might be Derby-related. But now that it's a full year later, the manager isn't quite so ready to jump on that train.
"I think Bobby is basically a line-drive hitter," Manuel said. "When he gets the ball up in the air, it gets out of the yard. He just hasn't gotten the ball up in the air as much as he was."
OK, great. We sure cleared that up.
So we began poking back through the history books to see if we could solve this puzzle ourselves. With the assistance of ESPN.com baseball editor David Kull and SABR home run historian David Vincent, we looked at all Derby finalists since 1996, along with any other player who hit 20 or more home runs in a Derby. Here's what we found:
• If you throw out players who spent significant time on the disabled list, only one of the other 21 Derby-ists in our study had a second-half dropoff in the same neighborhood as Abreu's. That was another line-drive type -- Garret Anderson, the 2003 champ. He went from 22 first-half home runs to just seven after his Derby exploits.
• Meanwhile, your classic mashers clearly were the guys least affected by shifting their strokes into Derby turbo-drive. In fact, five men we studied actually hit more home runs after the Derby than they'd hit before it. One was last year's hometown hero, Pudge Rodriguez (who was invited into the Derby even though he'd hit only six first-half homers). But the others were guys who sure knew a home run trot from a turkey trot -- Mark McGwire in 1999, Sammy Sosa in 2000, Miguel Tejada in 2004 and Big Papi last year.
• Finally, we were surprised to discover that almost everybody had some kind of dropoff. Of the past 10 Derby champs, only two --Tejada and Sosa -- had a better home-run rate after the Derby than they had heading into it.
So there's concrete evidence that the Derby has at least some kind of negative effect on most of the guys who have to stand in that batter's box and hack away for all those hours. Just some people are more susceptible to it than others.
"It's not conducive to good hitting mechanics," said Mike Piazza, a two-time Derby entrant early in his career. "It's just not."
"Let's face it. These guys are major leaguers. And most of them have had 4,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 at-bats. ... So I'm not saying it should carry for a whole half a year. I'm saying that if you take a different swing [in the Derby], you might come back and scuffle for the next week or so with it. But you should be able to get it back if you're that good a hitter."
Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund
In real life and real baseball, pulling the ball "should be more of a reaction than a plan," Piazza said. But in Home Run Derby life, pulling the ball is not just the plan -- "it's the only plan," Piazza laughed. "Bail and wail."
Of course, Piazza admits he probably isn't the greatest authority out there on this subject -- since his own two safaris through the Derby jungle were about as disastrous as it gets. He's the only player ever to go homer-less in back-to-back Derbies (1993 and '94). And he's still lamenting the fact that he never did find his "Red Dot softball swing."
"I still remember Raul Mondesi making fun of me for not hitting any," Piazza said. "Then he went to Texas in '95, and he didn't hit one, either. So I told him, 'Be careful [who you rip]. It's not as easy as it looks.' "
No, it's not. And it definitely isn't as easy as Abreu made it look last July. When a guy hits 41 home runs in one night, he could hit two every game when the season resumes and look like he's in a slump.
"I don't like those things," said Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "To me, anything that gets you away from your normal swing is a bad idea.
"I'm sure," Rettenmund went on, "that there are a few guys who are good enough that they can walk right up and swing that way and then go back to [real] games and do anything they want. But most guys can't."
Nevertheless, Rettenmund said, anybody who tries to use the Home Run Derby as an excuse for why his swing was screwed up for a whole year -- or even half a year -- had better come up with a better alibi.
"Let's face it," he said. "These guys are major leaguers. And most of them have had 4,000 or 5,000 or 6,000 at-bats. ... So I'm not saying it should carry for a whole half a year. I'm saying that if you take a different swing [in the Derby], you might come back and scuffle for the next week or so with it. But you should be able to get it back if you're that good a hitter."
Well, we know Bobby Abreu is that good a hitter. What we don't know, after analyzing all this data and grilling all these knowledgeable hitting authorities, is why he suddenly has a worse home-run ratio this year than Bronson Arroyo.
"You know what I think?" said Phillies coach Ramon Henderson, the man who served up all those 41 homers to Abreu last July. "Look at all his walks this year [a Bond-esque 83 of them at last count]. So I don't think it's him. I just think that when the pitchers watched that [Derby], they got scared."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.