The conversation stretched on for close to four minutes before Eric Hosmer proffered a smile, a form of wry protest from one of the most genial players in baseball.
Yes, he has heard these numbers before, the ones that question his status as one of the best defensive first basemen in baseball. And as a member of the Royals, he is naturally skeptical of advanced metrics. But he is also a smart and open-minded baseball player, a 26-year-old who likes to think about the game in different ways. So he wants this to come out the right way. He wants it to be in the right context, wants it to sound modest, if that is possible.
“It’s not to be cocky or anything,” Hosmer says, smiling. “But I know defensively at first base, I’m not the worst in the league.”
It is an afternoon at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals are back at home, and Hosmer, in his sixth season, is playing like a bona-fide star. He entered the weekend batting .317 with a .376 on-base percentage. He is on pace to approach 30 homers and surpass 100 RBIs for the first time. He could start the All-Star Game at first base for the American League. Want fancy stats? According to OPS-plus, a metric adjusted for league and ballpark, Hosmer is having the best offensive season by a Royals hitter since Billy Butler in 2012.
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Yet, as Hosmer continues the best season of his career, it is his defense that remains an intriguing subject. For the last three seasons, Hosmer has won the Gold Glove Award at first base, an honor reserved for the best fielding first baseman in the American League. Last offseason, he became the first American League first baseman in 16 years to win the award in three straight seasons.
Royals manager Ned Yost calls Hosmer a “wizard” at first base. His teammates laud his ability to make plays that others can’t. A season ago, Kansas City won a world championship with a historically good defense. Along with Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar, Hosmer appeared to be another invaluable piece.
And then there are the advanced defensive metrics, which offer a slightly different story. According to two of the more respected defensive stats — Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating —Hosmer grades out somewhere between average and below average at first base. The contradiction is a curious one.
Since 2013, Hosmer has recorded just three Defensive Runs Saved, according to stats compiled by Baseball Info Solutions. The number ranks behind two AL first basemen — Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (4) and Baltimore’s Chris Davis (8) — with no real reputation as defensive stalwarts and substantially behind Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (38), the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo (37) and the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez (31).
According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Hosmer grades out even worse. Since 2013, he has been worth negative 4.4 runs, the fourth-worst mark among qualified first baseman during that span. In 2016, he has been worth negative 7.5 defensive runs, which ranks last among all first basemen in baseball.
The statistics, of course, should be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism, researchers say. Even the most ardent baseball sabermetricians and analysts concede that defensive metrics can be unreliable in small sample sizes, such as three months of one season. But when you look at the breadth of Hosmer’s career, a simple question comes to mind.
Here is Hosmer, an athletic first baseman with soft hands, agile feet and surprisingly good speed. So why do the defensive metrics seem to hate him?
“The metrics are what they are,” Yost says. “But the reality is this kid is a three-time Gold Glove winner. That doesn’t happen by accident.”
To understand Hosmer’s defensive numbers, it’s best to start with the stats themselves. The metric Defensive Runs Saves is tabulated by Baseball Info Solutions and includes four components for first-base defense: range, double plays, bunt defense and sure-handedness, which includes scoops or picks. In general terms, each defensive play is assigned a specific run value. A video scout evaluates every play involving a specific player.
According to Scott Spratt, a research analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, Hosmer has consistently graded out as one of the best first baseman in baseball at scooping balls at first base. Since 2014, Hosmer leads all first baseman with 112 scoops, picking balls with an 86.8 percent success rate. But according to the DRS formula, Hosmer’s scoops have been worth 5.1 runs saved since 2014, which is the second highest total in all of baseball.
“He’s ahead of guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, guys that have good reputations for that,” Spratt says. “Hosmer is exceptional at that. Where Hosmer has really struggled is the range component. He just doesn’t get to as many balls as other first baseman.
“And so, I think the reputation that he has, it’s built on some of those real skills that he has, like being able to scoop throws and his general sure-handedness. He’s just not getting to a lot of balls that other first baseman get to.”
In addition to the Defensive Runs Saved numbers, Hosmer also rates poorly in the Ultimate Zone Rating metric, which doesn’t include any picks or scoops and is focused more solely on range and fielding.
The defensive metrics and scouts agree that Hosmer is one of the best in baseball at picking balls and being athletic and crafty around the bag. But opinions differ on how valuable picks are compared to pure range at first base. Some analysts believe that picking balls is only worth roughly 25 percent of a first baseman’s defensive value. Others say it’s difficult to know for certain because different players have different skill sets. According to Spratt, a first baseman with great range will generally get credited for more defensive runs saved than one with a good picking ability.
“There are aspects of defense, especially range, that have bigger lows and bigger highs for first baseman than scooping does,” Spratt said. “(Scooping is) not necessarily the most important trait of a good defensive player.”
And yet, Yost believes Hosmer’s ability to scoop throws — and save errors — at first base makes him one of the most valuable first basemen in the league.
“He doesn’t have exceptional range,” Yost said. “I think he probably has average range for a first baseman; where his strength is, it’s his work around the bag. It saves us countless errors, countless runs, because infielders can grab a ball, and they can turn around and throw it in the vicinity and know that Hos is gonna pick it.”
Similarly, Hosmer views the numbers with equal parts skepticism and incredulity. He has always taken pride in his defense. At first base, he says, you are often limited to a step and a dive in either direction. He wonders if positioning could factor into the numbers.
For example: At Kauffman Stadium, Hosmer says, he often elects to play closer to the right-field line, especially in close games.
“If you got a guy like Kelvin Herrera or Wade Davis that’s on the mound, it’s not likely for another team to get three hits in one inning,” Hosmer said. “So instead of playing to guard the single, we’re playing to guard the lines for the double. I don’t know if it’s that that’s taking away from it, but as far as whoever is making those judgments, I couldn’t care less.”
Hosmer, of course, is not going to give back his Gold Gloves Awards, which are voted on by managers in each league and have included a statistical component worth 25 percent of the vote since 2013. And despite the latest batch of defensive numbers, he will likely be a favorite to win a fourth straight Gold Glove this season. This may say something about the Gold Glove voting process, which tends to reward incumbent winners and good offensive players. But in Hosmer’s view, it may also say something about defensive metrics.
“The advanced metrics had us winning 70 games and we won a World Series,” Hosmer says. “So that tells you how good they are.”
An exclusive scoop
A look at the top five players this season in scooping throws to first base:
Scoop Runs Saved
*Numbers courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions