There’s a reason people don’t write about baseball defense much this time of the season: the sample size is too small.
It’s a tough predicament to be in. We’re two months in, there are numbers to look at, yet nothing can be considered reliable ... at least not yet.
So it’s with much trepidation that I bring up the topic that has always fascinated me: Eric Hosmer’s defense. The Royals first baseman has won three Gold Glove awards, yet advanced metrics have never considered him more than an average fielder, as our Rustin Dodd did a good job of examining last season.
Here was the problem for Hosmer, though: Scouts weren’t big on his defense last year either. The company Inside Edge gives one of the best looks, as their video scouts using a judgment system to rate how difficult each defensive play is.
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Last year on Inside Edge’s “likely” plays — ones that are expected to be made 60 to 90 percent of the time — Hosmer was 6-for-14 (43 percent).
And though nothing is for certain, this same bucket at least gives some hope that Hosmer could be in line for a better defensive year this season.
Through this week, Hosmer is 8-for-8 on “likely” plays, already eclipsing his mark from last year. This, though, only tells us so much. Is Hosmer getting certain easier opportunities in this range? Has he improved a certain skill in particular that has helped him?
I wanted to look for the answer myself, so I contacted Inside Edge, who shared each play that has been in the “likely” range the last two seasons.
Here’s a look at each of the eight “likely” plays that Hosmer did not make in 2016, with a screenshot showing the moment the ball reached him.
It’s immediately evident that Hosmer struggles with one play in particular: the hard-hit ball that is close to him. Five of the eight misses are in this category, with this Corey Dickerson grounder on May 31, 2016 serving as a good example.
Let’s compare this, now, to Hosmer’s eight “likely” plays that he’s made in 2017.
This is where it gets interesting — and also where you can see how a small sample size can cause problems.
Hosmer does show an example of improving on hard-hit balls, as he makes a nice play to his right in taking a hit away from Oakland’s Stephen Vogt on April 13.
For the most part, though, the “likely” plays Hosmer has made have involved less-than-hard-hit balls that have required him to range either left or right. He’s made these plays, but it also stands to reason that part of the reason for his better numbers this year is that he hasn’t faced as many hot shots as he did a year ago.
This also leads me to think that the oft-mentioned issues with Hosmer’s range are something I wouldn’t have originally thought. We mostly think of this as an ability to get to grounders that are a few steps away, but with Hosmer, the bigger issue seems to be getting in position to stop hits that are struck more directly at him.
In the end, I’d love to give a definitive answer on Hosmer’s defense. I’d love to tell you he’s better this year after making a major improvement, pointing to his better UZR and “likely” fielding numbers over the first two months to declare that he’s catching up to his defensive reputation.
That’s not possible yet. We need more data — something that takes weeks and weeks for defensive numbers — and until then, we’ll be left to wait to see if this could potentially be something.
If nothing else, it’ll be worth tracking over the next few months.