After Years of Struggle in San Diego, Eric Hosmer Is Suddenly Red Hot by Jay Jaffe May 3, 2022 © Meg Vogel / USA TODAY NETWORK It would be an understatement to say that Eric Hosmer’s contract with the Padres has generally not worked out. Over the first four years of his eight-year, $144 million deal, the former Royal netted -0.1 WAR in over 2,000 plate appearances, making him one of the majors’ least valuable players to receive substantial playing time in that span. He’s been red-hot in the season’s first few weeks, however, and while he won’t sustain his current .382/.447/.579 clip, the question is whether he can still help a team that was close to unloading him just a month ago. Hosmer signed with the Padres in February 2018 (right around the time this scribe joined the FanGraphs fold and shortly after noted Hosmer skeptic Dave Cameron — who included the first basemen among his free agent landmines — joined the Padres’ research and development department). In his first four seasons in San Diego, he produced WARs of -0.5, -0.9, 0.7, and 0.6, with the high coming in his 38-game 2020 season, during which he missed time due to a stomach ailment and a fractured left finger but hit .287/.333/.517 (128 wRC+) in 156 PA. In the context of the first 11 seasons of Hosmer’s career, it would not be unreasonable to call that season a small-sample fluke. From 2011-21, he had nearly 200 38-game stretches across which he slugged .500 or better even if we limit those stretches to the same season and count overlapping ones. Yet he has never slugged .500 or better over a 162-game season, nor has he posted an isolated power of .200 or better. He maxed out on both of those in 2017, when he hit .318/.385/.498 with a .179 ISO while matching his career high in homers (25), a performance that led to the Padres backing up the Brinks truck. Having called the 2020 season a fluke, it’s worth noting that Hosmer’s batted ball stats from that stretch did support that gaudy slash line; his .282 xBA and .517 xSLG were pretty spot-on with his actual numbers. The reason is that he was hitting the ball in the air with far greater consistency than ever; his 46.2% groundball rate represented a career low, and his 34.2% fly ball rate a career high, both more than eight points removed from his career rates (54.4% and 25.6%, respectively). Likewise, his 1.35 groundball-to-fly ball ratio was a career low, and just the fourth time in his career that he was below 2.0. He’s not only never come close those marks over a full season, he’s never done so over a rolling 38-game stretch outside of that campaign, save for the very start of his major league career, before he reached a 38-game sample. I had to split his rolling graph into two segments so as not to overload our graph-maker; note the convergence of the red and yellow lines in the bottom graph, showing his more recent seasons: Whatever Hosmer did in 2020 didn’t carry over to last year, when he hit .269/.337/.395 (102 wRC+) while producing a 55.2% groundball rate and 25.8% fly ball rate. The Padres, who clearly needed an upgrade to Hosmer, explored trading him to the Cubs and Rangers, but couldn’t find a match. While they ended up missing the postseason after reaching it for the first time in 14 years during the shortened season, their weak production from first base was just one of several reasons. They continued to search for an upgrade during this offseason, eying Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson, and when both of those players quickly found new homes after the lockout ended, they landed Luke Voit in a deal with the Yankees, then explored trading Hosmer to the Mets as part of a package that would have also sent away Chris Paddack and Emilio Pagán in exchange for Dominic Smith. That deal reportedly would have required the Padres to eat over $30 million of the $59 million remaining on Hosmer’s contract, but the Mets ultimately balked at taking on even $24 million given their Competitive Balance Tax situation. So Hosmer kept his job, and so far that’s been a very good thing for a team that’s gone 15-8 to start the season and currently shares the NL West lead with the Dodgers (14-7), with the Giants (14-8) just half a game behind. Hosmer leads the majors in batting average, ranks second in the NL in on-base percentage and wRC+ (200), is tied for third in the league in WAR (1.3) and is sixth in slugging percentage. Even given that it’s early in the season, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Hosmer won’t maintain that kind of production, but our legal department continues to insist upon such boilerplate. That said, it’s worth dissecting his current performance to appreciate what he’s doing differently, if anything. As you may have gathered from the graphs above, Hosmer is hitting the ball on the ground a whole lot. His 59.4% groundball rate is five points above his career mark, and just one point off his career high, set in 2018, while his 18.8% fly ball rate is a career low, about seven points below his career mark and nearly a full point below his previous low, also set in 2018. That 3.17 groundball-to-fly ball ratio has been surpassed just 20 times by qualified hitters since 2002, as far back as our batted ball splits go: Highest Groundball-to-Fly-Ball Ratios Since 2002 Player Team Season PA GB/FB GB% FB% BABIP wRC+ Ben Revere MIN 2012 553 4.61 66.9% 14.5% .325 86 Ben Revere PHI 2014 626 4.51 64.7% 14.3% .330 93 Christian Yelich MIA 2015 525 4.16 62.5% 15.0% .370 120 Luis Castillo FLA 2005 524 4.13 62.8% 15.2% .317 112 Raimel Tapia COL 2021 533 4.10 67.4% 16.4% .306 76 Derek Jeter NYY 2012 740 3.94 62.5% 15.9% .347 117 Luis Castillo FLA 2004 649 3.80 65.2% 17.2% .325 98 Luis Castillo FLA 2002 668 3.69 63.6% 17.2% .346 99 Ichiro Suzuki SEA 2004 762 3.65 63.1% 17.3% .399 131 Nori Aoki KCR 2014 549 3.63 61.9% 17.1% .314 102 Luis Castillo MIN/NYM 2007 615 3.63 66.7% 18.4% .325 96 Jon Jay KCR/ARI 2018 586 3.59 59.3% 16.5% .319 86 Derek Jeter NYY 2010 739 3.56 65.4% 18.4% .307 93 Skip Schumaker STL 2009 586 3.49 61.0% 17.5% .341 107 Christian Yelich MIA 2014 660 3.42 61.0% 17.8% .356 118 Derek Jeter NYY 2011 607 3.36 62.4% 18.6% .336 104 Juan Pierre COL 2002 640 3.33 62.0% 18.6% .314 64 Wilson Ramos NYM 2019 524 3.26 62.4% 19.2% .310 106 Derek Jeter NYY 2006 715 3.25 59.4% 18.3% .391 138 Dee Strange-Gordon MIA 2015 653 3.19 59.8% 18.7% .383 116 Eric Hosmer SDP 2022 85 3.17 59.4% 18.8% .426 200 Minimum 3.1 plate appearances per game. For the sake of clarity I have omitted four other qualifiers from this young season with even higher GB/FB ratios, namely Randy Arozarena, Garrett Cooper, Nathaniel Lowe, and Sheldon Neuse — a tip-off that such rates are so extreme that they’re rarely maintained. As you can see some players maintain ratios even more extreme than Hosmer, with higher groundball rates and/or lower fly ball rates, and some of those players even manage to be more productive than league average, but nine of the 20 who carried ratios higher than 3.17 over a 162-game season had a wRC+ below 100, and all of them save for the two members of the 3,000 hit club, Jeter and Suzuki, had a 120 wRC+ or lower. Hosmer’s not going to keep up with a 200 wRC+ — shocking, I know — but the combination of his actual stats and his Depth Charts rest-of-season ones still yields a .285/.348/.443 line, a significant improvement from his preseason forecast .262/.324/.410, eyeballing somewhere in the 130-140 range wRC+-wise under the current neo-deadball era conditions. That will play. Hosmer’s slash line is driven by a .426 BABIP, which is in a virtual tie with teammate Manny Machado for the major’s fourth-highest. He’s got a .368 BABIP on grounders, well above baseball’s .224 mark and his own .245 career mark. Again, he’s not likely to maintain that, particularly given his 24th-percentile sprint speed. Statcast-wise, Hosmer’s 87.1 mph average exit velocity is more than three ticks below last year’s average, placing him only in the 25th percentile, while his 6.3% barrel rate is in the 39th percentile; his 44.4% hard-hit rate is good for the 68th percentile. The contrast between those last two placements makes sense, as hard-hit rate includes all balls with exit velocities of 95 mph or more, many of which are routine groundouts with minimal (or even negative) launch angles, while barrel rate includes only balls with the launch angle/exit velo combos that produce an xBA of at least .500 and an xSLG of at least 1.500. If there’s any surprise regarding Hosmer’s Statcast expected numbers, it’s not that he’s far ahead of them — the leaderboards are full of such hitters — it’s that his .310 xBA and .470 xSLG are still more than respectable even given his groundball-heavy ways. It’s not as though he’s tapping into the new market inefficiency by hitting the ball on the ground so often; major league hitters are batting .231 and slugging .252 on groundballs this year, numbers that are respectively eight and nine points below last year’s marks, and 15 and 16 points below those from 2015-21 combined. So how is it that Hosmer is so productive given the extent to which he’s wearing out the dirt and the grass? For one thing, he’s pulling the ball more than ever; his 45.3% clip is over 11 points above his career mark and, seven points above his career high, set in 2011. He’s pulling the ball in the air more than ever as well, via fly balls and line drives, and good things tend to happen when you do that: Eric Hosmer Pulled Fly Balls and Line Drives Year BBE Pull% Pull Air BBE Pull Air% Pull Air SLG Air TB% 2015 495 36.8% 55 11.1% 1.291 25.8% 2016 477 36.1% 31 6.5% 1.333 15.8% 2017 501 31.3% 29 5.8% 1.679 16.2% 2018 472 31.8% 38 8.1% 0.921 14.3% 2019 461 33.0% 37 8.0% 1.541 21.7% 2020 117 37.6% 21 17.9% 1.381 39.2% 2021 413 30.8% 38 9.2% 1.316 24.9% 2022 64 45.3% 12 18.8% 1.333 36.4% Air BBE = fly balls + line drives I’ve limited the window to the Statcast era, but it’s worth noting that Hosmer had a double-digit percentage of pulled air balls in three of his first four seasons, including a 14.0% mark in 2014; it’s something he has largely stopped doing. He hasn’t had more than 55 pulled air balls in a season since 2015, and hasn’t had more than 38 in a season since coming to the Padres. Right now, he’s on pace to produce 91 such balls over the course of a 650-PA season. That will prop up the ol’ slugging percentage. We’ll see if that continues; right now, we’re talking about just a couple of handfuls of batted balls in a three-week span. Looking elsewhere to see what’s different about Homser, a few other things stand out. His 10.6% walk rate and 14.1% strikeout rate are both much better than his career norms (8.1% and 17.7%); he’s doing that while chasing a career-high 36.5% of pitches outside the zone. The combination strikes me as unsustainable (no pun intended), but on the other hand, he’s seeing just 35.7% of pitches in the zone, about five points below his career mark and currently the seventh-lowest rate among qualifiers in the majors — halfway between Juan Soto (34.9%) and Mike Trout (36.5%), two hitters to whom he should never be compared under normal circumstances. A couple more things stand out thus far. Hosmer has basically been unplayable against lefties, owning a career .253/.299/.369 (81 wRC+) mark against them, and a 84 wRC+ against them last year. With Voit sidelined by a biceps tendon injury (and generally DHing before then), Hosmer has started seven of the Padres’ nine games against southpaws, and is just annihilating them at a .440/.481/.640 clip through 27 PA. He’s 4-for-9 against Dodgers lefties Tyler Anderson, Justin Bruihl, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Julio Urías, and Alex Vesia, with no more than one hit against any of them; meanwhile, he’s 3-for-5 with a homer against the Reds’ Reiver Sanmartin, a guy with a 13.78 ERA and 6.70 FIP overall. Don’t expect this to continue. Particularly since coming to the Padres, Hosmer has been extremely weak against breaking balls of all flavors. This year, on the other hand, he’s destroying such pitches: Eric Hosmer vs. Breaking Balls Pitch Years % AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA SwStr Slider 2018-21 18.3 .166 .200 .239 .311 .209 .256 17.8% Curve 2018-21 11.3 .203 .192 .284 .267 .235 .227 17.6% Slider 2022 21.4 .400 .397 .700 .781 .545 .548 8.2% Curve 2022 10.4 .625 .505 1.375 .806 .868 .556 8.3% SOURCE: Baseball Savant Curve includes Statcast pitch classifications for curveball, knuckle curve, slow curve and eephus. Against all breaking balls, he’s 9-for-18 with a 1.000 SLG when putting them in play, and when he’s not, his swinging strike rate is a bit below half of what it was from 2018-21. Where he particularly struggled against breaking balls in the lower third of the strike zone or below (.160 AVG/.220 SLG from 2018-21), he’s hit .333 and slugged .778 on the nine he’s put into play. We’re talking about tiny samples all around, and I wouldn’t expect Hosmer to maintain his success against lefties or breaking balls, particularly as he doesn’t appear to have made any major changes to his swing. Given president of baseball operations A.J. Preller’s recent quest to trade him, and general penchant for wheeling and dealing, it’s worth wondering whether the Padres might take the opportunity to sell high on Hosmer this summer, but given that he’s one of just five Padres regulars producing at a league-average-or-better clip, that might not make sense. What’s more, he’s been a popular player in the clubhouse even in lean times, and for a team that’s had its share of internal problems in recent years, trading a player whom The Athletic’s Dennis Lin recently called “a revered teammate and, especially for younger major leaguers, a steadying presence” is a huge risk. The Padres have waited a long time for Hosmer to justify his big contract, and he may never fully live up to it, but currently, it seems more likely than not that even if he cools off, they’ll take what they can get from his production.