Ned Yost trotted out three radically different lineups this past weekend against Arizona and managed to get one win. Hey, for this particular Royals team, any win at home is an accomplishment. After a 4-1 road trip, we all expected a better result than a 1-4 homestand. That result was made all the more bitter by the fact that the Royals seemed in control of the first three games, only to lose all of them.
What this team does or, more precisely, does not do at home is a topic for another column. Let’s get back to the lineups. They were basically just all over the place – kind of like that softball team you were on that was not very serious and the batting order was simply the order in which you showed up for the game. Frankly, I don’t blame Yost for trying some things and, for right now, I like Escobar at or near the top of the order, but it is probably worth noting that the most traditional of the three lineups this weekend did happen to score the most runs.
Truth is, though, you can design just about any lineup you want and as long as Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon are not hitting, it is likely to have production problems. Just as the ball seems to find the weak defender, the circumstances of the game seem to put the slumping hitter in the eye of the storm at critical times. Gordon, who is 1 for 25 in what Fangraphs describes as high leverage situations, seems to come up with two outs in the ninth every freaking night. By contrast, Billy Butler has only 15 high leverage plate appearances thus far in 2012.
What’s going on with these two guys?
If you have been following the Royals at all this year, you have heard more than one reference to Eric Hosmer hitting in bad, make that horrible, luck. That may sound like a copout, but the numbers back that up.
In 2011, Hosmer had a BABIP of .314 and a line drive percentage of 18.7%. His 2012 line drive percentage is 17.6% (pretty much league average), but his BABIP is an almost bizarre .165. You can’t make a living with a .165 BABIP, but you also should not have to endure a long stretch at that level if your line drive percentage is around league average.
Those numbers are but one component of a player’s performance at the plate, but for a struggling hitter, Eric Hosmer does not exhibit any of the statistical evidence that would indicate that he is struggling. His strikeout rate is down (14.6% in 2011, 11.6% in 2012) and his walk rate is up (6.0% in 2011, 7.9% in 2012). Hosmer is swining at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (almost 7% less than in 2011) and his overall contact rate is virtually identical to 2011. Overall, after swinging at 48% of the pitches he saw as a rookie, Eric is swinging at 46% this year. What the above shows is a player who is not hacking at everything, failing to make contact and losing his plate discipline.
I don’t know what Eric Hosmer did, but he really pissed off the baseball gods.
Are pitchers approaching him differently this year? A little is the answer. Less fastballs, more changeups with everything else being thrown to him in roughly the same percentages as last year. In 2011, Hosmer put 26.5% of changeups thrown to him into play, but in 2012 that percentage is just 15.4%. More changeups, less balls in play, hmmm.
In 2011, Hosmer swung at over half the changes thrown to him, whiffing just 11.3% of the time. While Eric is not swinging at the change as much in 2012 (41%), he’s missing it almost 17% of the time. I am not going to tell you that the changeup is the reason for all of Hosmer’s struggles, we are talking about just 15% of the pitches he has seen and, as the numbers above show, Eric’s overall plate performance has not really taken a hit. The changeup is an issue, but it is hardly the only reason Hosmer is buried beneath the Mendoza line.
Here is what I will tell you: I don’t believe you learn to hit major league changeups in AAA and I don’t think you really consider sending Hosmer down until his strikeout rate jumps and his percentage of swings at balls outside of the strike zone increased dramatically.
If the solution for Hosmer is to keep sending him out there and bank on the odds turning in his favor (it works in Vegas, right?), then what about Alex Gordon?
After a sensational 2011 campaign, we wake up this morning to find Alex Gordon hitting .231/.320/.363. Triple slash lines are hardly detailed analysis, but that ain’t what the doctor ordered. Is Gordon striking out a lot? He is, 21% of the time, but Gordon always has struck out a lot. In 2011, when he was one of the better players in the American League, Alex struck out 20% of the time. Plus, if you are about plate discipline, Alex’s walk rate is up from 2011.
Going down the same path as we did with Hosmer, we find that Gordon’s line drive percentage thus far in 2012 is 23.8% (it was 22% in 2011), but his BABIP is just .280 compared to a robust .358 in 2011. Gordon had some good fortune last year, but he is having some misfortune so far this season.
Now, if you are like me, the thought on Gordon might be that he back to trying to pull everything. Much as it seems like Gordon is always up with two outs in the ninth, it also seems like he grounds out to second base pretty much every at bat. Truth is, Gordon is pulling the ball less than he did last year.
Here is how the balls in play breakdown for Alex in 2012:
- Pull – 38%
- Center – 41%
- Opposite – 21%
And how it broke down in 2011:
- Pull 44%
- Center – 31%
- Opposite – 25%
Basically, Alex is pulling less, going to the opposite field less and hitting up the middle more. Using the middle of the field is generally considered to be a good thing, but in Gordon’s case it does not seem to be helping.
How about Hosmer? Here is the breakdown for 2012:
- Pull – 32%
- Center – 38%
- Opposite – 30%
- Pull – 39%
- Center – 34%
- Opposite – 27%
Hosmer was pulling the ball considerably more in 2011 with considerably more success. Maybe it is not such a good thing when we see Eric take a ball to the opposite field? That’s an oversimplification to be sure, but pulling the ball and being aggressive worked in 2011. Would you tolerate a few more strikeouts for some more pop (or any pop for that matter) out of Hosmer?
What’s the bottom line of all of this? Pick a spot in the order for both of them, leave them there and wait it out.