The Padres Have a First Base Problem

Two years ago, the rebuilding San Diego Padres made a big free agent splash, signing first baseman Eric Hosmer, late of the Kansas City Royals, to a five-year, $105 million contract. If Hosmer decided not to exercise his opt-out clause after the fifth year, the contract would become an eight-year, $144 million pact, then the largest deal signed in the history of the San Diego Padres.

The argument against the Hosmer signing was pretty simple: Eric Hosmer wasn’t very good. Among first basemen from 2011-2017, the years since Hosmer’s rookie season, he ranked just 17th in WAR. When a rate stat like wRC+ is used, Hosmer drops to 26th among first basemen with 1000 plate appearances:

Top 20 First Basemen by WAR, 2011-2017
Rank Player AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
1 Joey Votto .313 .440 .533 161 37.1
2 Miguel Cabrera .321 .403 .554 158 36.9
3 Paul Goldschmidt .299 .399 .532 144 31.1
4 Freddie Freeman .291 .377 .497 137 25.5
5 Edwin Encarnación .270 .365 .527 140 23.7
6 Anthony Rizzo .268 .368 .487 131 22.3
7 Adrian Gonzalez .292 .352 .471 124 18.4
8 Chris Davis .245 .334 .498 123 17.6
9 Brandon Belt .268 .358 .461 127 17.5
10 Joe Mauer .291 .376 .408 114 17.2
11 Jose Abreu .301 .359 .524 139 14.8
12 Carlos Santana .249 .363 .445 122 13.0
13 Ryan Zimmerman .272 .334 .469 115 12.7
14 Prince Fielder .286 .379 .475 129 12.2
15 Albert Pujols .267 .325 .470 117 10.9
16 Mike Napoli .243 .346 .470 118 10.5
17 Eric Hosmer .284 .342 .439 111 10.4
18 Mark Teixeira .234 .327 .455 112 9.4
19 Brandon Moss .236 .317 .470 114 8.5
20 Lucas Duda .243 .342 .458 122 8.3

The opt-out only complicated matters, resulting in a contract projected to span eight years in most of the scenarios when the Padres would hope it would last five, and the reverse when the Padres felt the opposite. At the time of the signing, ZiPS evaluated San Diego’s deal as being worth $53 million more than the system would offer Hosmer over eight years. Using a model for the likelihood of a player opting out (an educated guess, as there are relatively few contracts like Hosmer’s) that ranged from 20% to 80% probability, ZiPS priced the consequences of the clause at $22 million. In other words, due to what amounts to three player options, ZiPS evaluated the contract as having the same result, in financial terms, as an eight-year, $166 million contract.

The best possible case for the signing was the one made by FanGraphs alum Mike Petriello. As the argument went, Padres first basemen were largely terrible and Hosmer was a significant upgrade, and even after the signing, the team’s payroll was still very low.

At least two years into the deal, it’s not looking good from the team’s standpoint. Hosmer broke his “good year, replacement level year” pattern in the worst possible way, putting up two sub-replacement seasons in San Diego. The leagues’ home run rate exploded, and Hosmer got left behind. Among the 114 hitters with 1000 plate appearances in 2018-2019, none hit grounders at the 58.2% rate that Hosmer did. Hitting grounders isn’t the end of the world, but successful players of this type typically compensate with other strengths, such as good plate discipline and a high BABIP resulting from those grounders. Christian Yelich is the best example of this; he’s a ground ball-heavy hitter, but one with a heavy walk rate and a career .358 BABIP. And even Yelich’s grounder percentage has declined almost every single year of his career.

Hosmer’s .315 BABIP pales in comparison and he’s never had a 10% walk rate season. His plate discipline went the wrong way in 2019 and he set a career-high in swing percentage (50%) while simultaneously establishing a new personal low in contact rate (73%).

Now, with the Padres approaching contention, the presence of Hosmer has real consequences. In our depth charts, Padres first basemen (mostly Hosmer) are projected to rank 24th in the majors at the position. The only place on the team that registers as a larger problem by this methodology is right field:

Padres Depth Chart Position Ranks
Position Projected WAR MLB Rank
Right Field 0.5 30
First Base 0.6 24
Catcher 2.2 17
Center Field 2.2 16
Second Base 1.6 12
Starting Pitchers 14.2 10
Shortstop 4.1 8
Third Base 4.3 8
Left Field 3.2 3
Relief Pitchers 5.6 2

The situation in right may be worse, but there’s little reason to think the Padres would be resistant to an upgrade if the position resembled the internet’s favorite failure-icon, the flaming dumpster. Teams don’t tend to accept sunk costs easily and the fact that Hosmer is likely owed $104 million is almost certainly a factor in the team’s plans, leaving them to throw good money (playing time) after bad (the contract).

Players who qualifying for the batting title putting up consecutive sub-replacement seasons is a less frequent occurrence than you may think. Prior to Hosmer, only 63 players in history have managed the feat a total of 75 times. Nobody’s done it since 2014 (Billy Butler and Ryan Howard) and the last player to manage it and still get enough playing time the following year to qualify was Roger Cedeno in 2003. The third time was the charm and Cedeno finally lost his job.

The Padres appear determined to play Hosmer as much as possible in 2020. A platoon would obviously be the first way to reduce his playing time given his career line of .251/.298/.364 against lefties. Hosmer is far from unique in being a lefty hitter with large platoon splits, but the larger issue is that his career .291/.354/.466 line against right-handed pitchers isn’t terribly impressive itself for a northpaw-masher. Looking at the list of first basemen with 1000 plate appearances between 2011 and 2019, Hosmer’s wRC+ against righties ranks 22nd, behind such illustrious superstars as Lucas Duda, Adam Lind, Ike Davis, and Justin Bour.

ZiPS is not optimistic about Hosmer’s next six years:

ZiPS Projection – Eric Hosmer
2020 .262 .320 .425 595 73 156 27 2 22 90 50 141 3 99 -1 1.2
2021 .257 .314 .415 470 57 121 22 2 16 70 39 110 2 95 -1 0.6
2022 .255 .311 .405 420 49 107 19 1 14 60 34 95 2 92 -1 0.3
2023 .252 .308 .392 329 37 83 14 1 10 45 26 71 1 88 -1 0.0
2024 .247 .300 .381 247 27 61 10 1 7 32 18 50 1 82 -1 -0.2
2025 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
2026 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
2027 .000 .000 .000 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.0

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Eric Hosmer
90% .271 .338 .493 586 78 159 31 6 29 103 59 119 7 121 2.8
80% .268 .331 .468 590 76 158 29 4 27 97 55 129 6 113 2.3
70% .265 .326 .448 592 75 157 28 4 24 94 53 134 4 106 1.8
60% .265 .325 .440 593 73 157 27 4 23 92 52 138 4 104 1.6
50% .262 .320 .425 595 73 156 27 2 22 90 50 141 3 99 1.2
40% .260 .317 .416 596 72 155 26 2 21 88 49 145 3 96 1.0
30% .258 .312 .408 598 71 154 26 2 20 86 47 151 3 93 0.7
20% .254 .308 .397 599 70 152 25 2 19 84 46 157 2 89 0.4
10% .251 .302 .382 602 69 151 24 2 17 81 43 167 2 83 -0.1

So where does that leave the Padres? Even assuming a willingness to move on, there aren’t many in-house options that are obvious improvements in 2020. Ty France and Josh Naylor project by both ZiPS and Steamer as equivalent to Hosmer offensively, and short of signing Yasiel Puig and teaching him to play first adequately very quickly, there’s not much available in free agency. Wil Myers is also likely not a preferable option.

Next year’s best first base free agent is likely to be Anthony Rizzo. The Padres should be very interested. The opportunity may even come quicker, with Theo Epstein hinting that the Cubs could become sellers if the team struggled in 2020, though it will likely take more than Andrew Cashner to acquire Rizzo this time around:

ZiPS Projection – Anthony Rizzo (SD)
2021 .269 .377 .484 494 75 133 28 3 24 82 68 83 5 131 4 4.0
2022 .267 .371 .465 475 69 127 27 2 21 74 62 77 5 125 3 3.4
2023 .261 .363 .447 452 63 118 24 3 18 67 57 70 5 118 3 2.8
2024 .257 .355 .421 428 56 110 21 2 15 60 50 62 4 109 3 2.0
2025 .251 .346 .405 402 49 101 19 2 13 52 44 54 4 103 2 1.5

Good organizations address their biggest weaknesses, while bad ones pretend that they do not exist. How the Padres deal with their uncomfortable first base situation over the next year will tell us a lot about which category they fall into.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 years ago

Hosmer sucks and the Padres will continue to play him everyday for at least a couple more years. There really isn’t anything more to say

4 years ago
Reply to  matt

Yeah, it’s pretty clear right now which of Dan’s 2 last-paragraph categories the Padres fall into. They’ve got Hosmer along with no backup plan whatsoever

4 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Every team in the Padres situation would do the same. Look at the angels with pujols for instance. Of course the contract was a disaster immediately but that’s a different discussion.

4 years ago
Reply to  matt

Re: Pujols. This “ Players who qualifying for the batting title putting up consecutive sub-replacement seasons is a less frequent occurrence than you may think” is how I learned that Albert was 4 PAs short of being batting-title eligible in 2018.

Otherwise he’d be heading into 2020 with a shot at four in a row! (Dan, when’s the last time *that* happened?)

3 years ago
Reply to  matt

Not the Dodgers. Although AGon was injured in 2017, they basically ran w Bellinger over him.

They were quick to toss Kemp and Crawford to the side when they weren’t performing

4 years ago
Reply to  matt

That’s not true. There is one thing almost everyone can say. And that is………”told you so!”

I don’t blame Hosmer, as a player you have only one or two chances to cash in big time.

As for the Padres. Well “told you so”. As about as nice a comment as can be made for this contract.

On the other, imagine paying and playing Albert Puljos or Miguel Cabrera this year. Yuck.

4 years ago
Reply to  gtagomori

Nobody is blaming Hosmer for anything. Well, other than being bad at his job. But I hope every player gets paid more than they’re worth, it would be a refreshing change.

4 years ago
Reply to  gtagomori

The only thing Hosmer deserves blame for is not hitting more fly balls.

4 years ago
Reply to  FrodoBeck

And not trying to change.
By his comments, he’s accepted what he is.

Six Ten
4 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

This is the real problem. He can lay waste to a ball when he hits it. Could he still do that with a different swing plane or better discipline? Maybe, maybe not. But the one he’s got is garbage and everyone knows it.

He doesn’t have to change; he gets one hundred and four million more United States dollars whether he does or doesn’t. But there’s still a pretty compelling case for him to try: that $104M could be more if it turns out with a different approach at the plate he can crush the ball just as much but more consistently.

4 years ago
Reply to  Six Ten

Hosmer actually did try a swing change and was talking about it on mlb tv but somehow it didn’t work and even got worse. This shows a swing change with 25+ year old players is a risk because they have millions of reps with the old swing. For some guys it works like JDM but with many it doesn’t.

Maybe he didn’t try it with enough conviction but he did try a change and it got worse so probably that discouraged him.

4 years ago
Reply to  Dominikk85

The problem with Hosmer is that his value was dependent entirely upon his BABIP, which in turn was dependent entirely on his ability to hit liners consistently…which he could only seem to do every other year.

I am not a fan of this “everybody adopt an uppercut” swing that everyone seemed to be raging about, at least partly because of what you say–changing swings is really hard, and there’s always downside risk unless you’re on your way out of the league anyway. But it was clear that he needed to at least try something more subtle, to keep his mechanics in line, or to consistently get his swing going the right way. Whatever he tried, or didn’t try, clearly didn’t work.

4 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Every time I read something about Hosmer, I become a little angry on Eno’s behalf. Hosmer belittled Eno when he was relatively new on the job, and I still haven’t forgotten the article. I feel some schadenfreude when I see that Hosmer isn’t exactly doing so well, precisely because he hasn’t learned to hit the ball in the air. Get all the barrels you want, Eric; doesn’t matter when so many are on the ground.

Article in question, for those that haven’t seen it:

Cave Dameron
4 years ago
Reply to  techzero

I know that article was only 6 years ago, but it really shows how players used to be so dismissive of any sort of analysis that didn’t come from another player or former player. Kind of ironic to see a bunch of players shake their head and accuse Eno of not knowing what he’s talking about.

J. Paquin
4 years ago
Reply to  techzero

There’s a pause on the tape, where Butler stops talking and there’s no follow-up from me. It’s painful to listen to, now, even 10 months after it happened. Butler noticed, and to his credit, asked: “You all right?”

My god, wow….I hated the Royals before, now I loathe them…

Earl of Emember
3 years ago
Reply to  techzero

I am not defending Hosmer by any means but my guess is that he wasn’t any more of a jerk than many or most players would have been when asked out of their blue on their views of ground balls vs fly balls. It was only six years ago but it was before the wave of guys retooling their swings.

3 years ago
Reply to  Earl of E

I mean when the Astros tried to get their players to shift they pretty much got told to go shove it. If players react this way to the people who write their paychecks and whose job it is to make them better baseball players, hard to imagine they’d feel anything but contempt to strangers who write on the internet

3 years ago
Reply to  Earl of E

Maybe, but this is the corollary to the old saw: “You can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they treat the waiter”

4 years ago
Reply to  FrodoBeck

Yeah if I were SD I would tell Hosmer he needs to rework his approach to draw more walks and/or rework his swing to get more lift or he is losing playing time. Someone needs to light a fire under him because the status quo sucks and he clearly has no interest in proactively changing things himself.

4 years ago
Reply to  Okra

He seems to realize that there’s a problem with his approach and he’s working to rectify it:

4 years ago
Reply to  darren

That article was extremely light on details even for a puff piece. Didn’t sounds like he planned to change much at all other than some vague comment that he needs to hit fewer ground balls.

Ian Stravinskymember
3 years ago
Reply to  Okra

Yeah or how about bench a guy who isn’t performing? He points to his RBIs but I feel like Naylor or France or a platoon with Myers could have produced those numbers, with FAR better OBP to boot. And that is really not saying much. Justin Smoak would obliterate all those numbers. Who cares how much he’s getting paid? You don’t produce, you sit.

4 years ago
Reply to  matt

If they had any significantly better options, then this year might’ve been his last chance before a mid-season demotion to the bench.

Dave Stewart
3 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Not sure what the issue is. Look at Hoss compared to Mike Trout:

Hoss: 90 or + RBI’s 4 time’s in the last 5 season’s
Trout: 90 or+ RBI’s 3 time’s in the last 5 season’s.

Do the math, nerd’s! The Padre’s are not going to bench a guy like that and not get their moneys worth.

Dick Monfort
3 years ago
Reply to  Dave Stewart

in 2015, with basically the exact same swing (as in 2014) Hosmer drove in 93 versus 58. Everyone though Hosmer wouldn’t be as great. But like a great American hero, Vinnie Castillo once said “You never know.” And that’s what happened in 2015, because in 2016 Hosmer hit 11 more RBI’s to get to 104. Most of the people I talk to say that the 2016 season was his greatest season.

I interpolated ’14, ’15, and ’16 – I had our analytical staff go through and interpolate those numbers – and so in 2020, Hosmer will drive in 114 runs and win the Cy Young award.

Ruben Amaro Jr.
3 years ago
Reply to  Dick Monfort


Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
3 years ago
Reply to  Dick Monfort

In 2015 and basically the same momentum (as in 2014) it was 93 to 58. Although it won’t be that big. But as a great American hero, Vinnie Castillo once said “you never know.” And that happened in 2015, because in Homer 2016, there were 11 other RBIs that reached 104. Most people I say say the 2016 season is his biggest season.

I participated in ’14, ’15 and ’16 – I locked in my internal and analytical figures – and by 2020, Homer will lead to 114 and win the Youth Award.