I’m sure this got the Lee Judge Fanboys all hyper (kind of like when I mainline Cheez-Doodles and Mountain Dew) but there was some chatter in the middle of the week about how Eric Hosmer ranks last among American League first baseman in Ultimate Zone Rating. (UZR) It’s important because with the Rookie of the Year race getting closer by the inning, defense could come into play with some voters who will have a difficult decision to make.

Keith Allison/Flickr

We’ve all seen The Hos play first. In my opinion, he’s the best defensive first baseman we’ve had in Kansas City since Wally Joyner. From watching the games, I give him high grades for footwork, fielding grounders to his right and throwing the ball to pitchers covering the bag. (The latter is an underrated skill, in my opinion. Watching Joyner in ’93 underscored just how valuable this is for first basemen.) My eyes tell me Hosmer is a quality defensive first baseman.

However, UZR disagrees. It hangs a -9.9 rating on our rookie. Worst in the AL. Ugh.

But… But… What about all those awesome scoops he makes at first? How can his UZR be so abysmal if he’s making all these sweet picks and saving valuable runs? Simple. UZR does not account for scoops at first. It’s just another out. (And before you decide to kill the messenger, remember this is just the way it is. I didn’t invent the system… I’m merely trying to shed some light.)

Line drives are similarly ignored. So, those great diving stabs we’ve seen Hosmer make? Not counted in UZR. The developer of this metric says snaring a line drive is more a luck factor than a skill factor. Not certain I agree with this. For sure, the infielder’s position counts big-time on a scorching liner, but if the fielder doesn’t have the reaction time, that catch won’t be made.

Another thing to remember is we’re dealing with a sample size of four months. The creators of UZR realize their system has limitations and stress that to get a portrait of “true” talent, you need to accumulate at least three years of data. Even then, there are players all over the game who have something like a +10 UZR one year, followed by a -10 UZR the next. What gives?

From the UZR primer at FanGraphs:

…there is still a potentially large gap between what you might see on the field if you were to watch every play of every game and what UZR “says” happened on the field. And that is one of several reasons why one year or even 10 years of UZR (or any other sample metric) does not give us a perfect estimate of a player’s true talent or even an accurate picture of what actually happened on the field. The reason for that is that the data is imperfect.

It all goes back to the data, the data, the data. It’s categorized by Baseball Info Solutions where batted balls are placed in “buckets” based on a number of factors. Yet, there are still a number of variables that are not accounted for in charting fielding plays. It’s an imperfect science.

Does this mean we dismiss UZR and other defensive metrics out of hand? I don’t think so. At least I hope not. While the data may be imperfect, it ultimately underscores the need to have more of it before we can make any kind of assumption. Even then, on defense, we need to use our eyes, along with the numbers to form an informed opinion. I really like the advancements in defensive metrics. In particular, I’m a fan of Dewan’s Plus/Minus system. But I understand their limitations. Maybe FieldF/X will perfect the research. Sadly, that’s data we will probably never get to see.

In explaining Hosmer’s low UZR rating, let’s say it’s a combination of an imperfect science made even more imperfect by a lack of data and further complicated by his position on the field. We know he hasn’t been that bad with the glove, no matter what the metrics say. That’s why things like Tango’s Fan Scouting Report – a system that relies on the input from those who regularly watch the games – are so useful. (Take a moment and fill out the report for the Royals.) Sorting by current first basemen on Tango’s report, you see that Hosmer fares much better and rates as an above average defensive first baseman.

So, looking at Hosmer’s UZR and drawing a conclusion from not even a full season of data isn’t going to accomplish anything productive. We’ve seen him play in the field… Let’s give UZR another couple of seasons and see how the ratings and rankings evolve.

In the meantime, if anyone with a ROY ballot is reading this, please don’t pay attention to UZR when evaluating Hosmer’s defense. He’s been solid, steady and at times, exceptional with the glove.

On Hosmer’s Opposite Field Power

The other day, I touched on Eric Hosmer’s opposite field power as a sign of future success.

Daniel Russell/Flickr

A study in the 2010 Baseball Forecaster found that nearly 75% of all home runs were hit to the batter’s pull field, with the remaining quarter distributed between center and the opposite field. After analyzing over 4,000 batters covering nine years, the research found that a high percentage of players under the age of 26, who hit two or more opposite field home runs for the first time in their careers, subsequently experienced a sustained three year breakout in value.

This was an exercise to identify potential breakout players for fantasy baseball for the bargain hounds. It can certainly extend into the real game as a method to find players with potential to improve… Or to breakout.

When Hosmer hits the ball to the outfield, he truly hits to all fields. (As opposed to when he hits the ball on the ground. Then, he’s a strict pull hitter.) And we know that with 18 home runs, Hosmer has the capacity to club the ball over the fence. And we know from my post on Wednesday that he is hitting with power to left and center field. To get some perspective of how well The Hos is doing in hitting to the opposite field for power, we need to look at some of his peers. Using the Baseball Reference Play Index, I generated a list of all hitters 24 (keeping the list manageable and closer to Hosmer’s age) and under who have at least 15 home runs. The search returned 10 players who can be considered the next wave of elite power hitters.

Here are the players with their home run location broken down by field.

(Sandoval’s numbers aren’t there because, as a switch hitter, I don’t have the same data for him as the other players. Besides, this is about future greatness and with his body type… Let’s just say I’m betting against him.) The raw number of opposite field home runs may not look like much, but percentage-wise Hosmer has clubbed 22% of his home runs to left. Of the guys on the list, only McCutchen and Avila – both at 26% – has a higher percentage of opposite field long balls.

Remember nearly 75% of all home runs are hit to the batter’s pull field… Hosmer is pulling just 44% of his homers. To be hitting like this – spreading the power to all fields – at his age… He could be in for a monster run over the next several years. Hosmer is already in elite company as a young power hitter and his home run profile means he has the chops to hang with this crew. (Stanton and McCutchen are already great and have spectacular futures.)

Hosmer’s had a heckuva debut season. The great thing about it is, it’s no fluke. He’s the real deal. Set to explode. And he’s a Kansas City Royal.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that The Hos breaks Steve Balboni’s franchise record of 36 home runs within three seasons.