The Eric Hosmer Dilemma

In light both of the ask and the inconsistent performance, the prospect of signing Eric Hosmer should foster trepidation among major-league clubs — a point made by this author last week when expressing a preference for Carlos Santana among this year’s free-agent first basemen.

Scott Boras is reportedly seeking $200 million spread over eight years for a player who, in seven major-league seasons, has produced full-season WAR totals of 0.0 (2014), -0.1 (2016), and -1.7 (2012).

While Hosmer is just entering his age-28 season, while he looks the part, his glove consistently rates below average according to the metrics at first base, and the real concern is whether the bat will consistently play at a star level.

The Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger reported that Boras is attempting to value Homer’s intangibles as part of the sales-pitch binder he’ll hand out to clubs that attend the Hosmer open house. It’s Hosmer’s intangibles that are of great interest to this author.

You could make the case that no hitter ought to begin elevating pitches more than Hosmer. After three years of Statcast data having been available to him, Hosmer keeps pounding balls into the dirt. He posted a career-high 2.5 GB/FB ratio last year. Since 2015, Hosmer’s average launch angle (4.3 degrees) ranks 379th out of 399 hitters to have put at least 300 balls in play. In 2017? Hosmer ranked 371st among hitters with at least 100 batted balls. He recorded a 3.8-degree launch angle.

Consider the following chart:

Hosmer isn’t exactly a Statcast God. He ranked 85th in average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls (94.1 mph) last season, and tied for 46th in overall exit velocity (89.6 mph). Four of the five players with whom he was tied by that measure — Cody Bellinger, Freddie Freeman, Daniel Murphy, and Justin Smoak — recorded isolated-slugging numbers superior to Hosmer’s by some margin. Translation: a batter needn’t produce elite exit velocities to benefit from launching balls into the ether.

Consider Hosmer’s radial launch-angle chart via Baseball Savant:

Notice that gray spike of death going directly into the ground?

Then consider Justin Turner’s radial chart:

Hosmer’s peak offensive periods have typically corresponded with lulls in ground-ball activity.

That Hosmer has a Dee Gordon-like launch angle isn’t news. We know this. But what I find interesting about Homer’s future, about his intangibles, is whether he could reach another level of performance simply by exhibiting a willingness to evolve. We’ve seen a number of players on the game’s biggest stage recently, from Charlie Morton to Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, show us the power of change. Players, suddenly, seem more malleable than we thought. Dave wrote about this idea with regard to Morton, and I explored something similar last month regarding Taylor.

Players proved they could change in 2017. As a club, are you willing to bet Hosmer will be willing to change? To at least explore the idea? There could be untapped upside there. But his current approach has produced incredibly inconsistent results. Giving Hosmer a nine-figure deal at the moment, with what we know, seems incredibly risky. What we don’t know is his willingness to change.

If Morton and Taylor are the faces of openness and adaptability, to date, Hosmer is the face of stubbornness to an approach, an approach that has led to mixed results. And Hosmer is aware of his turf-chewing swing. He was asked this year about the issue by Mellinger.

“You look at the averages and all that, it’s definitely better with the ball in the air,” he said. “Most guys, especially power hitters, are trying to hit the ball in the air. Our stadium is playing a little different, it’s bigger out there, but still, somebody in my spot in the lineup, and type of hitter I am, I should definitely be trying to hit the ball in the air.”

It appears from his comments that Hosmer understands the benefits of loft. But later in the story…

“It’s something that I can’t worry about,” he said. “When I’m going good with myself, there’s certain keys I focus on, and it takes care of all the other stuff. Specifically, I don’t go and look at launch angles, or this angle or that angle. Whatever little key it takes for me to get going, it takes care of all the other stats.

“I’m a guy where most of my deeper balls are going to be to center field, or even to left center. I don’t think I’m a guy who puts a lot of loft on balls.”

While Boras will try to sell clubs on Hosmer’s intangibles, what about these immeasurables: his curiosity and willingness to change.

Hosmer didn’t see much need to change in 2017 — and, to be fair, he managed to produce a career-best season in WAR (4.1) and wRC+ (135), success which might only serve to reinforce his approach. But it’s an approach that has led to a career wRC+ (111) that resided below the MLB average for the position (113) last season.

Mellinger cites Billy Butler’s apparent failed attempt to change his swing and writes, “Butler is just one example, but there are many more stories like his than [J.D.] Martinez’s.”

I have my doubts about the truth of that assertion. While we might not be as familiar with the failed cases, what we do know is that launch angle is slightly up across the game and power is way up. I suspect there are more success stories than failures.

Maybe a change organization would help. Said Royal GM Dayton Moore in Mellinger’s piece:

“Players are always making adjustments, and they should,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “But it’s very hard to change swing paths. It’s hard to make major mechanical changes at the major-league level. I believe that. You work within a player’s naturalness.”

Not every player can be molded into one particular form, of course. But shouldn’t the player and organization at least have the curiosity to find out? Shouldn’t they each always be trying to improve?

If a club is willing to invest long-term in Hosmer, it might first want to explore his willingness to adapt and change, because despite his 2017 results, there are few players who could benefit more from a swing-plane change. And there are even fewer players who are going to be asking for as many years and dollars in free agency.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Anybody know where to access those launch angle charts for other players?
6 years ago
Reply to  Colin_NL

YES! I would love to see more of these. I could spend a entire week looking them!

Paul Clarke
6 years ago
Reply to  Colin_NL

Baseball Savant has them.