Eric Hosmer was the October hero.
The triple in the Wild Card Game. The home run in Game Two of the ALDS. He walked in 14 percent of his plate appearances and posted a .439 OBP. He collected six extra base hits, drove in 12 and slugged .544. His best month of 2014? October. And boy, did the Royals need that offensive spark. Impeccable timing.
Hosmer is a tantalizing, yet confounding player. You can see the potential. He just has yet to find a consistent run of results to underscore he’s capitalizing on that potential. There was the Hosmer who blistered through the last four months of the 2013 season. And there was the Hosmer who sputtered in the middle of 2014. Swings and roundabouts.
Let’s focus on his 2014 because that’s just a microcosm of his major league career. As a factor in the Royal April power outage, he went 30 games at the start of the season before he hit a home run. He then went another 30 games before he hit his second long ball. He was still providing some offensive spark with a .354 OBP at the end of April, but his .388 slugging percentage was unacceptable for a first baseman who hit third in the order. Maybe he was pressing, but May and June were a couple of brutal months for Hosmer. In a 56 game stretch, he hit .221/.258/.323.
As his decent OBP from April evaporated, Hosmer arrived at the All-Star Break with a slash line that read a pedestrian .268/.315/.347 with a 95 wRC+. Despite going on a mini-tear in the two weeks leading to the Break.
When play resumed, it was more of the same struggles from May and June. Then, on July 31, it was discovered Hosmer suffered a stress fracture when he was hit by a pitch 10 days earlier. He landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
To Hosmer’s credit, he immersed himself in his recovery and spend his time on the sidelines working with hitting coach Dale Sveum who had him take a shorter path to the ball. Hosmer caught fire in September, hitting .290/.347/.495. Post Break, he slashed .280/.328/.449 with a 115 wRC+.
Just another Jeckyl and Hyde season from the Royals first round pick from the 2008 draft. He suffered a shorter, yet similar, slow start to the 2013 season before he rallied with his best offensive performance to date. Likewise, his 2012 season was wildly inconsistent with great performances peppered in between lengthy stretches of lethargy.
While I’ve declared there is no mystery to a player like Mike Moustakas, I can’t help but to be confounded by Hosmer. Who is he? Offensively speaking… Is he the player who we’ve seen rake? Or is he guy who disappears for stretches. Or is he just inconsistent, prone to fits of streakiness and that’s just the way it’s going to be.
Let’s focus on a couple of issues that could be holding him back.
First, his walk rate has declined since 2012.
2012 – 9.4%
2013 – 7.5%
2014 – 6.4%
That’s just a symptom of being on the Royals. Although it may reveal an underlying problem that is his approach at the plate. According to Pitch f/x data collated by Brooks Baseball, Hosmer was ultra aggressive against fastballs last summer and had what they classified as a “poor eye.” He swung at 68 percent of fastballs in the zone and chased 35 percent of fastballs outside the strike zone. While he was league average (around 15 percent) on his swings and misses, his raw number would be higher because he was swinging at fastballs more than the average major league hitter.
Last year, Hosmer’s O-Swing rate (swings on pitches outside the zone) was 37.2 percent. League average was 31 .3 percent. Oof. Way too aggressive. His O-Contact (contact when swinging on pitches outside the zone) was 74.6 percent. League average was 64.9 percent. Yikes. As Kevin Ruprecht noted at Royals Review, making more contact on pitches outside the zone is putting a ceiling on whatever upside Hosmer once had. I absolutely agree. This is a Royal epidemic where batters expand the zone and put pitches in play where they can’t possibly get the best contact necessary to drive the ball.
Which brings me to the next problem with Hosmer, his ground ball rate. Check his ground ball rates since 2012:
2012 – 53.6%
2013 – 52.7%
2014 – 51.2%
It’s getting better, but damn… That’s way too high of a ground ball rate. In fact, it was the 18th highest among major league regulars last summer. That’s not where you want a corner infielder.
Why is he killing so many worms? My theory is when he’s going badly, he gets pull-happy. He gets out in front of the ball, pitchers pitch him away and he rolls his wrists and hits a harmless four-hopper to the right side. Hosmer’s spray chart is fascinating:
The heavy cluster of green on the right side is exactly what I’m talking about. That’s when he’s out in front and rolling over on the pitch.
What is also fascinating is the equal distribution of line drives and fly balls to the outfield. Clearly, Hosmer has the ability to square a pitch and drive it to all fields. As long as he stays within himself and is making contact on pitches in the zone. That’s crucial.
Since Hosmer is grounding out on pitches he’s jumping ahead of, it makes sense that most of the green cluster above happens when he sees offspeed and breaking pitches. The data backs this assertion. The following chart breaks down Hosmer’s batted balls by type of pitch he puts in play.
But he was so great in October! That has to mean something!
It does. But not what you may think. Turns out the Angels, Orioles and Giants threw Hosmer more fastballs than he saw at any point in the regular season.
Fewer breaking and offspeed pitches, means fewer ground balls, which means a higher BABIP. Oh… He also had improved plate discipline. He hit .500 against fastballs in the postseason. Small sample size caveat applies, but you see how he was locked in during the month. That’s a good thing. But I think for him to come close to repeating that performance, he will need to see a pitch profile like he saw in October. And that’s unlikely.
Let’s talk defense. The Fielding Bible says Hosmer was worth three Runs Saved at first base last year, good for 14th best in baseball. Data from Inside Edge says Hosmer converted 95.5 percent of the “routine” plays he handled at first base, which was second worst to Chris Davis among qualified first basemen. On the flip side among “likely” plays, Hosmer made 95 percent of those. That was tops among first basemen. So Hosmer’s a good enough athlete he can make the difficult plays, but he can lack focus on the easier, more routine, moments on the field? Watching him, that looks about right.
The difficult plays for a first baseman come from behind the bag and down the line.
There’s a little too much green on the “Missed Plays” which is why Hosmer was downgraded on the “routine.” That’s counterbalanced by the cluster of lighter green on the “Made Plays” side. Homer is probably a little overrated as a defender, but is still very good. A Gold Glover? Eh, maybe not. But he certainly has the potential to develop his defensive game further. Hosmer already has the defensive reputation among his peers and the fans. If he could just get the various defensive metrics to fall in love with him, it would be game over.
Hosmer is eligible for arbitration for the second time in his career. Last season, he made $3.6 million and provided 0.2 fWAR and was valued at Fangraphs at $1 million. Not good enough. This year, he’s asking for $6.7 million while the Royals countered at $4.6 million. That’s a huge gulf for a second year player with his kind of track record. Hosmer is a member of the Boras Corp., so this is just the beginning as the Royals will go through this dance two more times before he’s eligible for free agency.
Hosmer is a solid, if frustrating player. It sounds trite, but he needs to put together a consistent season in order for him to provide value for the Royals. He’s capable of being that middle of the order anchor we’ve been seeking. It’s just a matter of putting it all together for six (or seven) months. That would be nice.