Does the Madden Curse extend to MLB?

After rumours and blurred images made the rounds of the internet on Sunday night, Monday morning stateside came and we were all given clarity. It was officially released that Fernando Tatís Jr. will be the cover player in 2021 for MLB’s prestige video game series, made by San Diego Studio, MLB: The Show.

He replaces, Cubs shortstop, Javier Báez who fronted the 2020 edition and for me the choice of image selected could not be better. Tatís tossing his bat to the side after smashing a glorious home run, it screams “Let the kids play.”

But after admiring this my mind drifted to the performance of Báez last season and the curioso that is the Madden curse.

In 2020, Báez put up his worst batting figures since his rookie season in 2014. His .203/.238/.360 slashline was only good enough for a 57 wRC+ (100 being average) which was exactly half his wRC+ from 2019 and a far cry from his performance level since 2015 (97, 94, 98, 131, 114). He was still an excellent defensive shortstop but that could only do some much to counter the lack of offensive production giving him 0 fWAR for 2020.

There was some discussion about him playing injured and that he was missing getting to see the in-game footage that he had been able to do in the previous campaigns. This was not allowed in 2020 partially down to the rule changes because of the Astros cheating but more because of the restrictions put in place because of COVID-19.

Whatever the reason it got me thinking of the now iconic Madden Curse. For those who do not know, the Madden curse is based off the idea whoever fronts EA’s Madden NFL game gets injured that season or has a bad season.

Ever since Garrison Hearst broke his ankle in 1998 shortly after starring on the cover of Madden NFL 99, the curse has been talked about. Of the 22 players who have been selected to grace the cover of Madden games through this season, it is said that 16 have had troubling or abruptly shortened seasons following their cover debut.

The curse is so well known that EA Sports have had to make public statements on it many times, including the VP of Brand Marketing once saying “I don’t know that we believe in the curse. The players don’t believe in the curse.”

And since the 2011 addition, EA has allowed fans to choose their favourite player for the cover, with EA coming out saying that they believe that many fans vote against their favourite player to avoid the “curse.”

There isn’t anywhere near the same narrative in MLB for the The Show series but let’s have a look anyway to see if there is anything there or not.

The San Diego Studio series of MLB: The Show goes back to 2006 and there was a predecessor (MLB ‘YEAR’) made by 989 Sports which ran from 1998 to 2006. That gives us 24 hitters to look at to see if they got injured or had worse seasons when they were the cover star. Well 23, as the cover player for 2017 was Ken Griffey Jr. the season after he had been inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame.

Here is our list of cover stars, some of which were quite surprising to me. I only knew of the games from Puig onwards.

To see how well they did and if they got injured, I am going to compare their fWAR and their number of plate appearances of the season before the cover and the season of the cover.

On the performance front 11 of the 23 saw their performance drop by one or more wins, with only four improving by one or more. And on the playing time front, no one missed an entire season but there were five, really four as Báez lost game time due to the shortened season, losing significant game time.

They dropped on average one win and had 40 fewer plate appearances in the seasons they were the cover stars. However, the drops in performance have been more significant in recent years. This does not really jump out as a curse, but they did get worse.

The final question to ask is did they get worse than we might have expected due to regression and randomness of injuries.

If we take all qualifying hitters from 1998-2018, who had a 4+ fWAR season (for comparable performance), we can see what the average change in fWAR and PA was in the following season.

The average 4+ WAR player had a bigger drop in PA and lost 0.5 wins more than our cover stars. But the standard distribution of the fWAR diff is 2.2 so the sample of our cover stars is highly likely to follow the same overall distribution.

If we just look at 2009 onward where we have seen players with higher drop-offs in WAR. Comparing against 5+ fWAR players this time.

Once again, our cover stars are in line with the other hitters with similar performance levels. Higher performance in the previous season meant the recent cover stars were expected to regress more.

So, there you have it. There isn’t an ‘MLB The Show Curse’ it’s just normal regression. Don’t be fearful of Tatís Jr. having a dreadful or injury ridden season. Just expect a little performance drop.

Russell is Bat Flips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician. If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom then you’re doing baseball wrong.

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