Eric Hosmer Is an Historical Anomaly

Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal wrote that the Royals were not going to simply accept Eric Hosmer’s departure through free agency as inevitable, and were going to attempt to sign him to a long-term extension before he hit the open market. Because Hosmer is represented by Scott Boras, we were treated to the hyperbole of the first baseman as a “franchise player” and the speculation that he might ask for a 10 year deal, a contract which would make the Ryan Howard extension look like the bargain of the century.

Yesterday, in response to that article, Jeff Sullivan gave a good old college try in attempting to justify the idea that Eric Hosmer could be in line for a “mega contract”. Jeff did a good job of showing the ways in which Hosmer could potentially be underrated, and with a big 2017, could be viewed more favorably than he is by the typical FanGraphs reader at this point. I don’t know if he convinced anyone that a 10 year deal for Hosmer wouldn’t be a total disaster, but it was a nice effort.

But in thinking about what a fair contract for Hosmer might be, I began to look for historical comparisons, to see what guys like Hosmer had done in their late-20s and early-30s. In looking for those comparisons, I realized there basically aren’t any, because Eric Hosmer is a historically unique player.

Because he became a full-time player at age-21 and has played in over 150 games in four of the five seasons since his rookie year, Hosmer already has racked up 3,722 plate appearances. For a first baseman, through his age-26 season, that’s 17th most all-time, putting him right behind Eddie Murray and Boog Powell. The list of players who have been given this much playing time this early in their careers is remarkably impressive, including a bunch of Hall of Famers.

But most of those guys were given a ton of at-bats early in their career because they hit the crap out of the baseball. Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols cracked 4,000 PAs before the end of their age-26 season because they ran a wRC+ just south of 170, Miguel Cabrera was at 138 at this point, and Freddie Freeman is currently at 135, with 70 more plate appearances than Hosmer. These guys hit their way to the big leagues and cemented their spots as some of the best hitters in the game, so they weren’t platooned, and they rarely took a day off.

That’s not Eric Hosmer’s story, though. Of the 24 first baseman with at least 3,500 PAs by the end of their age-26 season, Hosmer’s 107 wRC+ ranks 22nd, ahead of only Ed Kranepool (who was rushed to the majors by the Mets, debuting at 17, because they were a lousy expansion team) and Charlie Grimm (who Bill James suggested might be the best defensive first baseman of all-time). There just aren’t many examples in baseball history of first baseman who have hit like Hosmer has, and also been able to maintain jobs as everyday players for six years.

There are two guys on that list who had similar wRC+ and PA numbers as Hosmer, but neither is really all that good of a comparison. Whitey Lockman was an outfielder who was really good in his age-21 and age-22 seasons, but then moved to first base, got worse in just about every way, and was a below replacement level player after age-25, his last good year in the big leagues. Phil Cavarretta played a full season in the big leagues at age-18 — baseball was pretty different in the 1930s, after all — struggled until he was 22, and then became a very good hitter at age-23, so he was just finishing year four of a strong run of hitting at the point Hosmer is at now.

Hosmer, though, is coming off the kind of year that doesn’t offer much in the way of optimism. Sure, he set a career high in home runs with 25, but he also posted the highest groundball rate of his career, which is bad for sustained power. And more worryingly, Hosmer’s contact rate did this.

As an underpowered first baseman, Hosmer’s only path to putting up sustained offensive value is to rack up a lot of hits, since he won’t rack that many valuable hits; only 50 of his 161 hits went for extra bases last year. But a 75% contact rate only works if you hit the crap out of the ball when you hit it, or add value in ways other than hitting. There basically aren’t any great big league hitters with 75% contact rates and moderate power; the best version of that skillset belongs to Kole Calhoun, who has a career 115 wRC+. More realistically, that kind of contact and power output leads to offensive production like Marcell Ozuna, who has a career 103 wRC+.

Jeff is right that Hosmer has the look of a guy who could experience a huge offensive breakout if he just fixed his launch angle and started hitting the ball in the air with regularity. If you need an example of a guy who figured it out in his mid-20s, Eric Karros works pretty well; he was worth +1 WAR from 23-26, then had a +4.5 WAR season at age-27 as part of a five year run where he became one of the best hitters in baseball.

But even Karros was basically done as a good player by age-31, which would be year four of a free agent contract if Hosmer didn’t sign until after this coming season. And that’s the optimistic comparison, based on looking for a guy who had a Hosmer-ish track from 24-26 and then turned into something better. There are a lot more Casey Kotchmans and James Loneys hanging around the similar players list, guys who never developed the hoped-for power, and no amount of first base defense could save their careers.

Of course, those guys didn’t have the tools that exist today. The fact that Hosmer does hit the ball hard, and has done so while making above-average contact for most of his career, does suggest that there’s probably more offensive talent in there than his performance would suggest. And with advances in player development, perhaps its more likely that Hosmer becomes something more than he has been than similar players from history.

But if you’re looking at baseball’s record book for a guy like Hosmer to take encouragement from, well, good luck. Very few first baseman have been able to hold regular jobs for this long, at this age, while hitting as poorly as Hosmer has. Very few first baseman who were slightly-above-average hitters from 24-26 turned into great hitters later on.

Hosmer might have the swing and the batted ball potential of a star, but to this point, he has the performance record of a part-time player, or if you think his defense is being wildly underrated, then that of an average player who should probably still sit against some lefties. Eric Hosmer is different in skillset but roughly similar in value to Mark Trumbo, who got 3/$37.5M as a free agent this winter, and was almost non-tendered a year ago.

If the Royals see Hosmer as a franchise player, well, they better hope they know how to get him to lift the ball, and become something he hasn’t been to this point. Because right now, Hosmer is an historical anomaly, since first baseman who hit like this usually get replaced by someone better.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

sounds like its more likely hosmer will be a future ray than a franchise player