There is no more of an explanation when things go right as there is when things go wrong. That’s some of the magic of baseball, and also the frustration. For the most part, guys going great say the same things as guys going bad, and you could find five different scouts who’d give you five different reasons for all of it.
And so it is that Eric Hosmer is the hottest hitter in the American League without a satisfying explanation for it. He is the owner of the league’s longest hitting streak, a .426 hitter since the calendar turned to July, with seven extra-base hits in 12 games.
This is so similar to what happened a year ago, when Hosmer lived up to the Baseball America hype over the last three months.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I have no idea what the deal with it is.”
The explanation can wait, fine, but the scene of him saying these words as the smoke clears from the Royals clubhouse from another party over a win is not a coincidence.
This is a happy time, finally. This is an effective Hosmer, finally. The Royals wrestled away a sliver of smiles from an otherwise nightmarish weekend against the division-leading Tigers, winning the last game before the All-Star break 5-2.
Hosmer did not have the single most important hit Sunday. That was Omar Infante, giving the Royals the lead with a bases-loaded, two-run single in the seventh. But Hosmer did have the hardest-hit ball as the Royals won it in that inning, an RBI double that bounced over the wall in right-center field.
It was something like the team’s only chop of an ax in a rally otherwise defined by paper cuts, and there is something bigger to be taken here.
Hosmer has more natural hitting talent and unfulfilled potential than anyone else on a team in desperate need of hitting and a franchise in desperate need of fulfilled potential.
Building yourself around pitching, speed and defense is a fine idea — especially on a budget, and in Kauffman Stadium — but doing it without any real power in the American League is like playing basketball in jeans and boots.
As much as the image of a 6-foot-4 first baseman with NSFW minor-league scouting reports rolling over another groundball to second base drives Royals fans to throw the remote, the newer sight of him extending those long arms and hitting line drives all over the stadium is now the best reason to dream.
He did this last year, too, you remember. Hit .329 with 34 extra-base hits after June 28. Back then, a lot of the credit went to the change in hitting coaches, the combination of George Brett’s swagger and Pedro Grifol’s techniques. But, obviously, it’s more complicated than that.
Coincidence or not, since June 28 of this year he is hitting .375 and slugging .534. If this is the pattern again, the Royals would love for it to have started earlier but will take what’s coming.
Hosmer spent most of the first half like a singles hitter again, and by now, in his fourth big-league season, he should be beyond these types of hiccups. Hosmer isn’t alone in a tendency to hit better late than early. Sal Perez, Alex Gordon and Billy Butler all have higher on-base-plus-slugging percentages in the second halves of seasons.
You can see some of that in the team results. The Royals were among the best teams in baseball over the last two or three months last year, and during the offseason and spring training, you often heard some variation of if-not-for-May-we’d-have-made-the-playoffs. There is some truth there, even if it comes up lame if meant as an excuse.
Manager Ned Yost is as confused by it as anyone. If he knew why this happens, he’d fix it.
“They shouldn’t be second-half guys,” he says. “They should be full-season guys.”
The Royals know that this is almost certainly their last season with James Shields, and no matter how dominant Wade Davis is in the eighth inning, there will be an emptiness from that trade if the team doesn’t finally end the longest playoff drought in North American sports this year.
So much of that will depend on whether this is Hosmer’s new normal, whether he can spend the second half of the season living up to those breathless scouting reports from when he overmatched minor-league pitching.
There are a thousand things that would be nice for the Royals, but ultimately not completely necessary. It would be nice if Lorenzo Cain kept up this .300 act, but he’ll have a case as team MVP based on his defense. It would be nice if Nori Aoki looked even vaguely like a leadoff hitter worth trading for, but the Royals would do well to transition Jarrod Dyson into more playing time either way. It would be nice if Jason Vargas pitched as well after returning from his appendectomy as he did before, but the pitching is strong enough to cover a regression.
In other words, there are various detours the Royals can take around those roadblocks, significant as they may be.
There are basically two things the Royals absolutely have to have, no matter what:
Sal Perez must stay healthy, and Eric Hosmer must hit.
On these two points, there is no Plan B.
Yost will include Perez, Gordon, Butler and Mike Moustakas to the must-hit list but, really, this is about Hosmer. Gordon and Perez have earned the trust. Moustakas has been much better lately — he’s slugging .489 since June 10, if you haven’t noticed — but still has too many holes in his swing to carry a team. Butler’s bat speed appears down, and scouts are increasingly pessimistic on it coming back.
Hosmer, then, carries a disproportionate amount of the weight. The talk often goes back to him being a young player, but he has more plate appearances than Mike Trout, Buster Posey and Paul Goldschmidt, among others.
The Royals have a critical opportunity here. They are further behind than they’d like, though in much better position than they’ve been. Hosmer doesn’t have to explain why he’s hitting line drives all over American League ballparks again.
But if he doesn’t keep doing it, people around him are going to be asked to explain something else entirely.