Let’s Talk About Eric Hosmer’s Defense

There’s another disagreement regarding the Kansas City Royals and advanced metrics. If you’re still standing, you may take another drink.

This time, it’s Eric Hosmer and the defensive metrics. The Kansas City Star’s Rustin Dodd penned a column over the weekend regarding the disconnect between the perception of Hosmer’s defense and the evaluation of Hosmer’s defense. It’s a well-written and well-researched piece that’s worth your time, but I wanted to dive a bit deeper. And it’s probably about time we had the talk anyway — it’s been an elephant in the room each of the last three seasons, while Hosmer’s won a trio of Gold Glove Awards despite grading as nothing more than an average defender.

So let’s start with the big-picture numbers. We all know that defensive numbers need some time to work themselves out before we can really trust them, but thankfully, Hosmer’s got quite a sample. Dating back to 2011, he’s logged nearly 7,000 innings, which is more than enough for us to feel confident that there shouldn’t be too much noise skewing the sample. So, we grab five-plus years of data, set the innings minimum at 2,000 to give us a pool of 40 first baseman, put Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating on a per-1,000 inning scale, and Hosmer comes out 32nd, between Logan Morrison and Jose Abreu at roughly -3 runs per year. The best is Adrian Gonzalez, at +7, the worst, Brandon Moss, at -8. Hosmer’s -3 runs over the course of a season is relatively small, but he’s got a reputation for being the best, and these numbers suggest he’s closer to the worst.

But maybe that timeframe isn’t exactly fair, because the numbers see a substantial improvement beginning in 2013, coinciding with Hosmer’s first Gold Glove. So let’s start there. Three-plus years of data, innings minimum at 1,000, 39 first baseman, same methodology as before. This time, Hosmer ranks 21st — closer to the middle of the pack — clocking in at +1 runs saved per 1,000 innings. From below average to very slightly above average, yet still right there behind Lucas Duda and Chris Davis. For what it’s worth, Hosmer’s fielding percentage during that time also ranks 21st — not an error machine, but certainly not error-free.

Dodd’s piece notes Hosmer’s ability to scoop balls out of the dirt, something for which he’s earned a reputation over the years. And it’s true, Hosmer does record significantly more scoops than the average first baseman. In the three-plus post-Gold Glove years, his 143 scoops lead baseball, and even on a per-inning basis, Hosmer ranks in the top five. Part of this could be influenced by an infield defense that puts more balls in the dirt than others, giving Hosmer more opportunities, but the reputation combined with the numbers suggest this is a real skill.

But scoops are just a part of a first baseman’s defense. Even elite scoop artists like Hosmer save just a couple runs per season with this ability. The bigger part of any defender’s game is range, and Hosmer’s manager Ned Yost admitted in Dodd’s piece that “[Hosmer] doesn’t have exceptional range.” And that’s the very reason Hosmer has graded out as the worst defensive first baseman in baseball this year.

Take a look at Hosmer’s 2016 defensive spray chart, with made plays on the left and missed plays on the right:

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 9.03.38 AM

Compared to a first baseman whose range has graded out as average, like Mark Reynolds:

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 9.06.07 AM

Or elite, like Paul Goldschmidt:

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 9.05.41 AM

There have just been way, way too many balls getting past Hosmer this year. The video scouts at Inside Edge credit Hosmer for making just two non-routine plays at first all season. The rest have rolled into the outfield, as a result of Hosmer’s “not exceptional” range. Another way of visualizing this (click to enlarge):


That image — Hosmer lying face-down in the dirt with a ball rolling toward the right fielder — is one the Royals have seen far too often this season, one that doesn’t go for an error but one that negatively impacts the team.

Not that every first baseman would be expected to make this play…

…but Hosmer is slow to react and choppy with his dive, and the ball gets through. That’s far from a routine play, but it’s one that a plus first baseman is expected to make a number of times throughout a year, and that’s the sort of play Hosmer hasn’t been making.

I wanted to do one more thing with some numbers. Inside Edge takes every fielding opportunity and groups it into buckets of difficulty — 1-10%, 10-40%, 40-60%, 60-90%, or 90-100%. The 90-100% plays are routine; there’s little variation to be found there. What I like to do with the rest of the numbers is group them together, as things can get a bit messy with the small samples created by the buckets, and call them “non-routine plays.” It works out so that first baseman run about a 50% success rate on these non-routine plays. During Hosmer’s three Gold Glove years, he converted 36 of 71 non-routine plays — once again, almost exactly average. The Ryan Howards and Justin Bours of the world convert just one-third of their non-routine plays. Goldschmidt converts closer to two-thirds of his. Again, Hosmer finds himself right in the middle, paired again next to Duda.

The advanced numbers, the traditional numbers, the video scouts all say the same thing: Eric Hosmer is a perfectly ordinary defensive first baseman, likely one whose below-average range is cancelled out by a penchant for scooping balls in the dirt. How does that equate to three Gold Glove Awards? I’m not sure, and it probably shouldn’t, but my best guess it that those within the game — the managers whose votes make up 75% of the Gold Glove process — appreciate scoops more than the numbers do. Yost literally says Hosmer has “average range,” but that his scoops “[save] us countless errors, countless runs, because infielders can grab a ball, and they can turn around and throw it in the vicinity and know that Hos is gonna pick it.” What that quote tells me is that Yost believes Hosmer’s scooping ability far outweighs any range deficiencies he might have, though the numbers reveal no evidence of that being true.

As for this year? This year, thus far, is a perfect example of why we want the largest sample possible before working with defensive metrics. Every piece of evidence we have during Hosmer’s three Gold Glove years indicates he’s exactly league average, yet we see his 2016 spray chart. More than likely, Hosmer’s just had a disproportionate number of tough, diving play opportunities, and he’s converted a couple less than normal, and since the hits have piled up, so have the negative defensive runs saved. Hosmer almost certainly hasn’t been playing his best defense this year, but it’s just as likely that his bloated runs-saved total is as much a result of “facing a tough schedule,” per se. After all, we’ve got a much larger sample than just this one year, and that much larger sample points to Hosmer being perfectly average.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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7 years ago

*editor’s chair*: “That image — Hosmer lying face-down in the dirt with a ball rolling toward the left fielder ”

right fielder…. i believe is what you meant to say.

7 years ago
Reply to  attgig

*editor’s chair pt. II*: Rustin Dodd did not write a “column,” a column in the news biz means an opinion piece. This was a “story” or, if you like, “article.”

7 years ago
Reply to  rauce1

The things you get downvoted for :: counts downvotes on this comment ::