The Year It All Fell Apart for Eric Hosmer, Again

There was some talk not long ago about Eric Hosmer and his impending 2018 free agency, with years in the range of 10, and dollars in the range of $200 million. Of course, this talk was being put out there by Hosmer’s camp, and of course Hosmer’s camp’s got nothing to lose by talking up their client. Hosmer’s going to hit free agency at a relatively young age, and just last year he was a 25-year-old former third overall pick coming off the best season of his career, in which he became more or less the face of a World Series-winning franchise. He’s been incredibly durable, he’s had his fair share of big moments and won his fair share of awards, and he’s the kind of guy that seems to be held in high regards by teammates and within baseball circles.

Hosmer’s got his virtues, and Hosmer’s agent, Scott Boras, is just doing his job, a job at which he excels. But it was clear at the time that Hosmer was never going to earn $200 million, or probably anywhere near $200 million, and it’s become clearer since. In the month and a half since the $200 million talk began, he’s slashed .215/.292/.349, good for a 66 wRC+, and while Hosmer’s bat (and his team) have been heating up lately, each likely seem too late to save their season. The Royals currently stand with playoff odds below 5%. Hosmer currently stands with a season batting line which barely rests above the league-average mark, and a Wins Above Replacement figure that has a negative sign in front of it.

Hosmer, clearly, is a talented ballplayer. You don’t go third overall in the draft without talent. You don’t break into the majors as an above-average hitter at 21 without talent. You don’t post a top-10 average exit velocity and hit homers like this without talent. So how do we get to September with a -0.2 WAR?

You start with the little things. The little things matter, too. When Hosmer first came into the league, he was the rare first baseman who ran. He averaged 13 steals a year his first three years in the majors, with an above-average 79% success rate. In those three years, Hosmer’s base-running value was worth nearly seven runs above average. That all stopped in 2014. In the three years since, Hosmer’s averaged closer to five steals a year with a below-average 69% success rate, and he’s totaled six runs below average on the bases. He’s stealing less frequently, with less efficiency, and on balls in play, he’s both attempting and taking the extra base at a career-low rate. Hosmer’s lost his base-running edge, and over the last three years, his value in that department is the roughly the same as Joey Votto‘s, Matt Kemp‘s, and Mitch Moreland’s. In other words, where he once was an exception, Hosmer now runs the bases like an ordinary first baseman, which isn’t super valuable.

I went over the defense in depth back in June. In short: Hosmer’s numbers look bad this year, probably somewhat unfairly, but there’s little evidence to suggest he’s anything more than an average first baseman, defensively. He’s great at scooping poor throws from his infielders. He also lets far more balls get past him and roll into right field than the average guy. Those traits, to some extent, likely help to cancel each other out. In other words, despite the Gold Glove Awards, Hosmer defends his position like an ordinary first baseman, which isn’t super valuable.

And then there’s the bat. In the odd years, it’s been tantalizing. In the even years, it’s been downright maddening. We just so happen to be in an even year, leaving even the most rational of Royals fans to yearn for another tantalizing year:

I don’t mean to put words in Rany’s mouth here, but one assumes he’s largely referring to Hosmer’s inability to adjust his swing in an effort to put more balls in the air. See, Hosmer’s never consistently produced like a first baseman, because Hosmer’s never consistently swung like a first baseman. He’s got the swing plane of a middle infielder in a big man’s body, and this year, the ground ball rate that’s always felt too high has reached a new extreme; Hosmer’s 59.3% ground ball rate is topped only by David Freese and five-man infield candidate Howie Kendrick. It’s the highest rate among first baseman, alongside Freese, that we’ve ever seen in the batted ball era, dating back to 2002.

Look back to this year’s leaderboards and one finds only six lefties with a ground ball rate above 50%: Hosmer, Christian Yelich, Adam Eaton, Brett Gardner, Denard Span, and Joe Mauer. Eaton, Gardner, and Span, of course make their ground balls valuable due to their speed, and their knack for more often going the other way. Yelich and Mauer’s ground ball and pull tendencies aren’t ideal, but each have shown the repeated ability to run line drive rates that rank among the league’s highest, which support consistently high batting averages on balls in play. Hosmer doesn’t have those liners. He doesn’t have the speed. He pulls his grounders. Of the six ground ball-happy lefties, he’s the only one whose profile doesn’t add up.

Hosmer’s productive when he gets the ball in the air. Problem is, he’s so rarely gotten it in the air, due not only to his penchant for hitting ground balls, but because he’s experienced the second-largest decrease in contact rate from any qualified batter from last year to the next. Two years ago, Hosmer made contact on 83% of his swings. Last year, that dropped to 80%, and this year it’s fallen all the way to a below-average 75% rate, with the missing contacts coming almost entirely on the outer-half of the plate, the area that we’ve come to expect produce the classic Hosmer oppo homer swing:

HosmerContact

The idea of an Eric Hosmer with more loft in his swing is a fascinating one. He’s clearly got the athleticism and the strength to drive the ball out of the field, and this year, he’s turned more of his fly balls into homers than ever before. Problem is, there’s fewer fly balls than ever before, because there’s been a sharp decrease in contact on the outer-half, and the swing plane’s going in the opposite direction. Paired with an ordinary first baseman’s speed and defense, the swing plane of a middle infielder is less than ideal. That being said, with the right tweak, it’s still easy to imagine the Hosmer breakout that’s seemed so close for six years. It’s just that it’s been that way for six years, and nobody’s getting younger.





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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Anon21
6 years ago

Great to hear! I’ve disliked this guy ever since he was a dick to Eno a few years ago. I wish him nothing but frustration and failure.

KCDaveInLA
6 years ago
Reply to  Anon21

I would guess that Mr. Sarris has gotten past it because he is a professional and an adult. How about you do that as well.

dl80member
6 years ago
Reply to  KCDaveInLA

Anon isn’t a professional anything (well probably is, but not reporter or athlete), so they don’t have the onus on them to do anything. Hosmer is a celebrity athlete who was a dick for no reason. That’s not only rude, it’s bad PR. Just because Eno “got over it,” doesn’t mean Hosmer was less of a dick.