The first day Eric Hosmer came to the big leagues a teammate said: “(Bleep) his bat, I want his glove.” The teammate had spent time throwing baseballs to Billy Butler and wanted someone else playing first base. That’s because first basemen make everyone else on the infield better or worse and after watching Eric Hosmer play for the past six seasons I can tell you without a doubt that Hosmer makes everyone else on the Royals infield better.
Footwork: We don’t talk much about it, but good defense starts with good footwork and Hosmer excels at this. Billy Butler would get in trouble because he would often stretch for the throw too soon and then couldn’t adjust to a throw that was off-line. Hosmer waits to see the throw and then has the quick footwork required to reposition himself. He’ll go to the infield side of first base for throws to his left and the outfield side of first base for throws to his right. Hosmer will also go on top of the bag or into foul territory for high throws.
Hosmer’s ability to shift his position and use his 6’ 4” frame to reach for the ball gives the other infielders a much bigger target than the one presented by Billy Butler and his limited footwork.
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Hands: As good as they get. Hosmer’s footwork and scooping ability gives the other infielders the confidence to attempt plays they might not try with a lesser first baseman. Royals infielders know that if they keep the ball low and get it in Hosmer’s general vicinity, he’ll take care of them.
Hosmer tries to make his scoops backhand whenever possible. Catch a short hop palm down and you have a better chance of the ball sticking in your mitt than if you catch a short hop to the forehand side, palm up. At times Hosmer’s scoops get a little big – especially early in his career – and if the ball doesn’t hit the pocket of his mitt, those big scoops can knock the ball back toward the pitcher’s mound. In recent years Hosmer has cut down on his scooping motion and more balls are sticking in his mitt.
Pickoffs: Traditionally, when first basemen are holding runners they have their right foot touching the bag. They receive the pitcher’s pickoff throw and then try to tag the runner’s hand before the runner touches the bag.
Hosmer positions himself off the bag, a couple feet closer to the pitcher. After receiving the pickoff throw Hosmer then tries to tag the runner’s body before the runner’s hand touches the bag. And Hosmer isn’t afraid to let the ball travel; he doesn’t reach out for the throw and then try to sweep his mitt back to make the tag, he lets the ball travel as far as possible, makes the catch near the runner’s body and then drops the tag on him.
Arm: We don’t think much about a first baseman’s arm, but first basemen have a whole bunch of funky throws that require different throwing techniques; underhand flips, short overhand dart throws and throws that require a full arm motion. Hitting pitchers on the run as they cover first base or throwing around a picked-off runner headed for second base requires accuracy and Hosmer has that; he’s also comfortable throwing the ball from any arm angle. Hosmer also has the arm strength necessary when required to cut a throw loose.
Pop flies: Hosmer’s range might limit what he gets to (more on that in a moment), but he’s good at catching pop ups once he gets there. He also doesn’t mind taking charge of pop ups in the middle of the infield, which is more important than you might think. Because the ball is spinning so fast, pop ups curve as they come down and they’re much harder to catch than big leaguers make it look. So on a pop up in the middle of the infield, lots of guys might hang back and hope someone else takes charge. Having a tall guy willing to yell “I got it” simplifies things.
Range: Buckle up; this is going to take a while.
According to advanced metrics, in 2016 Hosmer was one of the worst defensive first basemen in baseball; according to the people who play the game, Hosmer was one of the best. So what explains this wildly divergent set of opinions?
Let’s take a look at one of those advanced metrics to see if we can figure it out. I spent a decent chunk of a weekend reading about defensive metrics and one of the main ones – in one form or another—is Ultimate Zone Rating. For a basic explanation of UZR, let’s turn to the website SB Nation and the explanation I found there:
“UZR splits the field into 78 different slices called zones. Don't worry, only 64 of those are used in the UZR formula. You figure out the average number of balls in play in each zone and then the rate at which plays made are recorded in each zone. This will give you a baseline average for the position. Now, you do this on an individual basis and graded against what the average fielder would do. If a player comes out with less plays made recorded in their zone compared to league average, they have a negative zone rating. As well, they'll have a positive zone rating if the player records more outs in the zone than the average defender at the position.
UZR and Dewan's (Plus/Minus) system both use the same data source, which is people watching the game and recording numerical values about the play. That leaves a lot of subjectivity in the data sources and human error and biases will eventually creep in.”
Just to keep you up to speed: John Dewan is a former actuary – a person who compiles and analyzes statistics and uses them to calculate insurance risks and premiums – who decided baseball numbers were more fun than insurance numbers and now owns Baseball Info Solutions which provides clients with information about the National Pastime. According to MLB.com, Defensive Runs Saved – another advanced metric – differs only slightly from UZR and uses BIS data in its formula.
The first time I heard about UZR I asked how the 64 zones were determined and I was told they were estimated by human scorers. I wondered whether the new tracking technology was now being utilized, so I called BIS and spoke to Jim Swavely, BIS Operations Analyst. Apparently, as of now, BIS is still using human scorers and most of the scoring is done off game video and because the scorers are at the mercy of what TV chooses to show them, some guesswork is involved. The scorers also estimate the type of ball hit and the ball’s velocity.
Here’s what FanGraphs has to say about it:
“The types of batted balls that UZR processes are ground balls, bunt ground balls, outfield line drives, and outfield fly balls (including so-called pop flies). All batted balls are put in one of those categories. The speed of the each batted ball is also considered and is indicated in the data as “slow/soft, medium, or fast/hard” (3 categories).”
So a guy watching video is estimating what kind of ball was hit and how hard that ball was hit and those estimates are combined with an estimate of where the ball was hit.
Now back to FanGraphs:
“Further adjustments are made, such as the outs and base runners, and various park adjustments, like the size and configuration of the OF, the speed of the infield, and the speed of batted balls in general, as influenced by temperature, altitude, and the ground ball percentage of the pitcher.”
Let’s stop here and examine just one of the factors mentioned: speed of the infield.
Surface speed changes from park to park; if a team think its infielders have great range they might mow the grass short to make the surface fast, if a team think it’s infielders have all the lateral movement of an Amana freezer they might leave the grass long to make the surface slow. I’ve heard of groundskeepers being asked to keep the grass in front of a first baseman short and the grass in front of a defensively-challenged third baseman long. (BTW: the players think Kansas City has a fast infield.)
FanGraphs says park factors are updated: “every time a material change occurs to a park or a team moves into a new park”, but surface speed can change every time they mow the grass.
Infields can also be completely replaced several times a year and even if they don’t tear up the old infield and put down a new one, surface speed changes as the summer heat takes a toll; a surface that was slow in April can be fast in August. And if it’s a day game the infield will play faster in the late innings as the field dries out; if it’s a night game the infield might play slower in the later innings after the temperature drops. Trying to account for all these factors is extremely difficult and FanGraphs admits that:
“All of these problems arise, of course, because we don’t know precisely where a ball is hit, we don’t know exactly how long the ball was airborne or on the ground before it lands, is touched, or passes a fielder, and we don’t know exactly where the fielders were positioned when the ball was hit.”
Which is a quite a bit of stuff to not know when you’re trying to measure a player’s range. And that last bit is especially important: UZR calculations do not include a fielder’s starting position.
If the BIS scorers are working off game video, that’s a problem. One of my complaints about watching games on TV is that they rarely show defensive alignment. UZR “stringers” can’t include where a player started if those stringers aren’t actually at the games; like everybody else, they’re at the mercy of what TV chooses to show them.
Ask the people in uniform about Hosmer’s range and you’ll hear his range to his glove-side is about average, while his range to his arm-side is below average. So the Royals often push his positioning toward his arm-side and that can cause a problem when using UZR to compare players. Josh Stein, San Diego Padres Assistant General Manager has said UZR: “Can be skewed if the player is not starting from the exact middle of [UZR's zone] chart."
And here’s something else to think about: first basemen scoops are not included in UZR. When I asked Swavely why not, he said scoops had nothing to do with range. But as we’ve already seen, the ability to use good footwork around the bag does increase the size of the target the other infielders are throwing to.
OK, back to FanGraphs.
“We don’t know exactly where each fielder was stationed, we certainly don’t know the exact location of the batted ball to the nearest square inch on the field, and we definitely don’t know how long the ball was in the air or on the ground. In reality, it might have been an easy ball to catch or it might have been a difficult one to catch, or somewhere in between. We can only hope that in the long run, those balls were indeed hard to catch, on the average, for each individual player.
A player can have a plus UZR and have played terrible defense, because the data we are using is far from perfect.”
FanGraphs’ UZR Primer also includes these disclaimers:
“Just because UZR, or any other defensive metric ‘says’ that someone is X, even if that X is based on many years of data, does not make it so. When you are dealing with sample data, as we almost always are with every metric in baseball that we encounter, there is a certain chance that the metric is going to be ‘wrong.’
A player’s UZR does not necessarily tell you how he actually played just as it does not necessarily tell you what his true talent is.
Now, that being said, there is still a potentially large gap between what you might see on the field if you were to watch every play of every game and what UZR ‘says’ happened on the field.
The reason for that is that the data is imperfect.”
As usual, I can tell you next-to-nothing about Hosmer’s competition – Baltimore’s Chris Davis and Texas’ Mitch Moreland – my data is imperfect. I don’t get to watch them play on a regular basis and as FanGraphs admits, the numbers might be misleading.
I can tell you that I haven’t talked to any big league player or coach who believes Eric Hosmer is one of the worst defensive first basemen in baseball. The fact that some metrics suggest that he is, makes the people in uniform question the metrics, not Hosmer. Short version? He’s considered below average in range to his arm side, average in range to his glove side and above average in everything else.
If you waded through all the stuff about Ultimate Zone Rating, thanks. I know it was long, but if a metric’s formula is complicated it’s going to take some time to explain it.
Next up: Salvador Perez and framing reports.