The Padres Need a First Base Upgrade

In 2020, the San Diego Padres finally had their breakout season, going 37-23 in the pandemic-shortened sprint, good enough for the third-best record in baseball. A lot of players were responsible for getting them to where they ended up, but one of the best bits of news for the team was that Eric Hosmer was one of them. After signing a long-term contract prior to the 2018 season, Hosmer hit .259/.316/.412 in his first two seasons with the Friars, for a wRC+ of 93 and -0.5 combined WAR that placed him near the bottom of the ranks of baseball’s first baseman. But in 2020, with the highest average launch angle and lowest grounder percentage of his career, he hit .287/.333/.517, giving some hope that would turn things around.

If the first three months of 2021 are any indication, those hopes have mostly evaporated, ninth inning, game-tying home runs aside. Hosmer’s still hitting the ball very hard, but he’s largely back to his old, pre-2020 habits, hitting an inordinate number of pitches straight into the dirt, knocking out more ants than opposing pitchers. Since 2015, Statcast has kept track of what they call the “Sweet Spot” or pitches hit with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. Only twice has Hosmer been over 30%: in 2020 and his equally excellent 2017 season. For 2021, that mark has dropped to his lowest number yet, 22.3%. As a result, even with a better average exit velocity than last year, he’s missing 150 points of slugging percentage:

When the Padres weren’t competing, any real damage done to the team by Hosmer’s lack of punch was a financial question rather than one that had a significant impact on the team’s baseball fate. In 2021, with the Padres contending, that’s a different story. The Giants have crashed the predicted Dodgers-Padres NL West race, turning a duel into a mêlée, and San Diego first base is one of the weakest positions among any of the three rosters:

Rest of Season WAR for NL West Contenders
Team Position RoS WAR vs. AVG
Padres 1B -0.72
Giants SS -0.47
Giants RP -0.47
Padres RF -0.45
Giants 3B -0.42
Giants 2B -0.39
Giants CF -0.36
Giants LF -0.20
Dodgers LF 0.00
Padres C 0.06
Dodgers 2B 0.11
Giants RF 0.15
Giants 1B 0.18
Padres 2B 0.31
Dodgers 3B 0.48
Padres LF 0.50
Giants SP 0.57
Dodgers 1B 0.58
Dodgers RP 0.83
Giants C 0.86
Padres 3B 0.88
Padres CF 0.94
Dodgers C 0.96
Dodgers SS 1.03
Padres RP 1.03
Padres SS 1.53
Dodgers CF 1.64
Dodgers RF 1.95
Padres SP 2.47
Dodgers SP 3.07

In other words, starting Hosmer nearly cancels out the positive effect of being able to start Manny Machado every night. Wil Myers is a problem as well, but first base is currently the team’s biggest issue and one that is projected to persist for the rest of the year.

ZiPS was never optimistic about Hosmer, but at the start of his San Diego tenure, it projected him to be a two-win player for the first half of the deal. Instead, thanks to Hosmer’s 2021, he’s once again back down to replacement level. With the chances that 2020 reflected a meaningful comeback fading, so too have his projections for the rest of the contract:

ZiPS Projection – Eric Hosmer
2022 .251 .307 .397 506 57 127 21 1 17 90 40 118 6 90 0 0.4
2023 .248 .302 .388 484 53 120 21 1 15 84 37 110 5 86 -1 0.1
2024 .245 .296 .376 457 48 112 19 1 13 76 33 100 4 82 -1 -0.3
2025 .241 .289 .360 428 43 103 16 1 11 67 29 87 4 76 -1 -0.7

If the projections hold true, Hosmer would be smart to not exercise his opt-out clause after the 2022 season, leaving a final eight-year total of -0.1 WAR for $144 million. I actually had to tell ZiPS to assume that Hosmer wouldn’t be benched; the model for predicting playing time in a player’s final years was determined to stop playing him after 2022.

Ignoring the long-term first base problems, simply getting an extra win would be a real boost in a tight pennant race. Coincidentally, that’s about what adding Trey Mancini from the Orioles would give to the Padres, bringing a bit of real-world applicability to a theoretical solution. Let’s re-roll the divisional races both with the current rosters and with the Padres adding an extra win.

ZiPS Projections – NL West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 96 66 .593 63.8% 33.4% 97.2% 12.8%
San Diego Padres 92 70 4 .568 22.8% 64.2% 87.1% 6.9%
San Francisco Giants 91 71 5 .562 13.4% 63.0% 76.4% 5.0%
Colorado Rockies 66 96 30 .407 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Arizona Diamondbacks 59 103 37 .364 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

ZiPS isn’t completely sold on the Giants, though it’s gotten to the point where it sees them as a roughly .500 team (a .508 team, to be exact), a significant step up from its preseason prognostications. But even if they’re a .508 team, they’re a .508 team with a six-game advantage over the Padres as we approach the halfway mark. A .500 team in their position will likely remain relevant come August and September.

ZiPS Projections – NL West (Padres +1 Win)
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 96 66 .593 57.7% 39.4% 97.1% 12.2%
San Diego Padres 93 69 3 .574 30.8% 61.5% 92.3% 8.3%
San Francisco Giants 90 72 6 .556 11.5% 63.5% 74.9% 4.8%
Colorado Rockies 66 96 30 .407 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Arizona Diamondbacks 59 103 37 .364 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

It’s not a massive change, but by this estimate, one additional win is the difference between the Padres spending October playing baseball and playing golf about 8% of the time — that can’t be pooh-poohed easily. Eight percentage points would be a larger improvement than 29 of the 30 teams were projected to make last year as a result of trade deadline moves.

For the San Diego Padres, first base is a short-, medium-, and long-term problem, and problems that go unaddressed have a bad way of coming back to bite at the wrong time. The Padres need to deal with their weakness at first as effectively as they’ve added starting pitching talent over the last year. Moving on from Hosmer isn’t easy, but crushing the dreams of your division rivals ought to be a good motivation.

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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2 years ago

They’re stuck aren’t they? haha. I wonder if the easiest solution would be to simply platoon him. Sitting him against lefties would make a big difference I think. Over his career he has a .349 wOBA vs RHP and a .291 wOBA vs LHP. He’s also shown the ability to get the ball in the air a little better vs righties. 1.98 GB/FB vs RHP to 2.48 vs LHP. Sure he’s an expensive platoon player, but alas haha.

2 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

Yeah, it looks like they’re going to need any improvement they can get. Platooning him makes sense right now, although he won’t be happy about it, and who knows what it might do for morale or whatnot. But, they need to do something, and is a logical solution. But then, that likely creates a need for a platoon partner (not that it should be too difficult to find at the deadline). Their bench is pretty light right now. I’m sure they’ll be pretty active in the next month or so making moves.

2 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

Expanding a bit and this probably doesn’t fix enough, but moving Myers to 1B against LHP and some better defensive OF on those days is probably an easy internal start to solve.

2 years ago
Reply to  MarkZ

Myers has clearly been playing hurt for most the year and Hosmer has significantly better expected results profile

2 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

His splits have been pretty stark for a while. The obvious plan would have been to sit him against lefties and play Nola at first, since a Caratini / Nola combo is far better against lefties than an Nola (accidentally put Allen in here, whoops) / Hosmer combo, but with Austin Allen being hurt that’s not an option at the moment.

The other option before the season started would have been to move Cronenworth or Myers to first and let Kim or Profar take 2nd / OF, but Kim and Profar have both been bad enough that it’s not ideal either. So they could try and trade for a guy to platoon with Hosmer at first and option Kim to the minors to see if you can straighten him out. If that were the case, it would probably be best if they were a fringy catcher-type like Mejia (whoops) or Gary Sanchez (who looked like he was done in NY earlier this year and now not so much).

EDIT: Accidentally threw Austin Allen’s name in here once, whoops.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

also, Austin Allen plays for the Oakland A’s, so it will be hard for the Padres to use him very much either at catcher or first

2 years ago
Reply to  RatkoVarda

Thanks, edited.

EDIT: Ha, I missed it. Ridiculous.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Kim’s glove is good enough to keep him in a utility role, he has like a 9 drs

Johnnie T
2 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

As I recall, this signing was widely panned at the time in these very pages because, well, duh. There was some thought that it might have the advantage of making San Diego a viable destination for other free agents, but I don’t think that it affected Machado’s decision significantly (although who know?).

2 years ago
Reply to  Johnnie T

As a Padres fan, I dreaded the signing and was hopeful that Cameron (former FG writer) joining the FO would derail it, but to no avail. This argument (need to “prove” to FA’s that SD is “serious”) frustrates me to no end. FTJ and a good farm (at the time) were enough. I think Myers and Hosmer, the other “big” signings for the Padres before Machado are drag on the Padres, not a lift. Vaguely hopeful for Myers being useful but until Hosmer stops having miniscule (at times negative) launch angle, he is close to useless.

2 years ago
Reply to  jayman4

From what I remember, the Hosmer trade was panned from day one just because he was getting superstar money and wasn’t a superstar. It came out later that the signing was predicated on Hosmer’s leadership and clubhouse intangibles, which sounded very silly at the time but who knows?

2 years ago
Reply to  kylerkelton

Hosmer has a 123 wRC+ against lefties this year and a 82 wRC+ against righties so his platoon splits have reversed this year