Opinion

Could the Royals help Eric Hosmer’s defense become even better?

Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer fielded a ground ball during a game last month.
Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer fielded a ground ball during a game last month. jsleezer@kcstar.com

This is the continuation of a weekly stats column to examine how this year’s Royals compare to the 2015 World Series champions. All numbers through Tuesday’s game.

I continue to be fascinated by Eric Hosmer’s defense.

The first baseman, who has won three consecutive Gold Gloves, has long been considered below league average by advanced metrics. The Star’s Rustin Dodd did a great piece on the topic earlier this year, which led to one of my favorite quotes of the season from Hosmer: “It’s not to be cocky or anything. But I know defensively at first base, I’m not the worst in the league.”

Hosmer’s numbers have not improved in the last few months. He still ranks as the worst defensive first baseman according to Ultimate Zone Rating, but I wanted to dive deeper into why that is.

For help, I contacted Mitchel Lichtman, who provides the UZR calculations for Fangraphs, to see what he could find. As it turns out, Hosmer’s issues might be more about where he starts plays instead of where he finishes them.

Lichtman started by looking at all of Hosmer’s 2016 data up until Sept. 1. Some findings: Hosmer was slightly below average on turning grounders within 40 feet of the first baseline into outs. The same could be said for grounders within 20 feet of the line.

Diving further, Lichtman found that Hosmer was above average on grounders 13 feet from the line and closer, meaning he was missing the most between the 13- and 20-foot mark compared to league average.

The more interesting data came next.

Hosmer is actually above average when it comes to fielding grounders from left-handed hitters. This is the scenario when first basemen get the most grounders when the ball is pulled.

However, against right-handed hitters, Hosmer had fielded just 28 percent of his chances, compared to a 37-percent MLB average. That might not seem like much, but it’s actually significant; Hosmer is 6.5 outs worse than league average in this tiny sliver, and according to Lichtman, each non-recorded out that turns into a single is worth about 0.75 runs.

So based on how he fields right-handed hitters, we can roughly estimate Hosmer has cost the Royals 4.9 runs — potentially a big impact for a small number of batted balls.

One thing that could limit Hosmer’s range is holding runners on first, which is something out of his control. Lichtman looked this up, and Hosmer actually has held on runners three more times than expected against right-handed hitters compared to league average, so that needs to be taken into account.

The numbers would suggest there’s probably more to it than that. So what does the video tell us?

I asked Lichtman for all the instances when a right-handed hitter pushed a grounder within 40 feet of first base against the Royals. I also asked for similar results from the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo and the Giants’ Brandon Belt, who ranked best on grounders against right-handed batters.

Two things stood out as potential reasons for range issues:

1. No-doubles defense

Hosmer made reference to this perhaps being an issues in Rustin’s article above:

“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. 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.”

We see an example of this on July 27 with Davis on the mound.

Hosmer is hugging the line, and Raul A. Mondesi ranges to his left but can’t make the difficult play. Nothing with Hosmer’s alignment appears glaring until you compare it with another example, this from Belt also in the ninth inning of a save situation.

For reference, let’s look at the first shot we have of both fielders’ positioning and also where they are when the ball crosses the infield dirt.

  
  

From the cutout of the dirt, we can see Belt ranges much farther to get a ball that Hosmer doesn’t even attempt for because of his positioning.

Though no-doubles defense has long been a popular baseball philosophy, it could be something that potentially is costing the Royals a chance at late-inning outs.

2. Line-hugging

For most right-handed hitters, it’s going to be difficult to hit it directly down the first-base line. Because of this, Rizzo and Belt both seem to use this to their advantage by extending their range horizontally toward second base.

With Hosmer, the positioning has appeared to vary. Here are the last four instances of groundballs in the first-base vicinity with the Royals not in a “no-doubles” positioning.

We don’t know the Royals’ scouting report for each player, but it at least appears Hosmer has more of a comfort level playing deep and close to the line than he does shallow and further off. In three of the four instances, he’s much closer than Rizzo/Belt, and in the fourth, he’s still not quite as far over as Belt.

  

Some other notes from Lichtman: Hosmer appears to be slightly above average with errors and on line drives and below average on turning double plays.

The biggest hit to his advanced fielding numbers, though, appears to be this right-handed hitter blip. And at least part of that appears to be because of his positioning.

The good news? Hosmer has shown signs of being able to cover ground if he’s in the right spot.

Take these two examples this year from about a month apart. Same batter (Kevin Pillar), same non-doubles situation but much different result. In the first, Hosmer appears to be playing deeper and more toward the line. On the second, Hosmer is farther off like Belt and Rizzo, and he ranges far to his right for a nice backhand and throw back to first.

Even if he wins another Gold Glove in 2016, it seems as if there is still improvement possible for Hosmer at first.

While his advanced defensive stats have often been dismissed, they might instead be seen as an opportunity to address a blind spot. The Royals certainly appear to be giving up some range at first base with right-handers at the plate — an area not often thought about but one that potentially could have a simple fix.

Let’s get to this week’s team numbers.

Hitting

2015 — .269/.322/.412 (Batting average/On-base percentage/Slugging percentage)

2016 — .261/.313/.400

Last 7 days — .252/.293/.409

The Royals’ .712 on-base-plus-slugging is second worst in the American League, ahead of only Oakland. In the end, the offense going from average in 2015 to poor in 2016 will be one of the biggest reasons for the Royals’ decline this season.

Hitting with runners in scoring position

2015 — .282/.347/.426

2016 — .270/.330/.404

Kendrys Morales continues to excel in this scenario, hitting 52-percent better than league average with RISP according to the all-encompassing stat Weighted Runs Created Plus.

Starting pitching

2015 — 4.34 ERA, 16.8 K%, 7.6 BB%

2016 — 4.60, 20.0, 8.3

Last 7 days — 5.26, 18.5, 10.1

The Royals’ 8.3 percent walk rate is the third-highest in the American League behind only Texas and Baltimore. Combine that with a league-worst home-run rate, and it’s not surprising the staff’s ERA has regressed from 2015.

Relief pitching

2015 — 2.72, 22.9, 8.7

2016 — 3.42, 22.5, 8.0

Last 7 days — 5.40, 18.7, 5.6

Though manager Ned Yost is technically correct when he said the Royals were “not the same bullpen we were last year,” the unit still ranks sixth in ERA and fifth in Fangraphs’ WAR. That doesn’t match up to 2014 or 2015, but it’s still been one of the Royals’ greatest strengths this season.

Defense

2015 — 51 defensive runs saved (.315 per game, 2nd in MLB)

2016 — 29 defensive runs saved (.192 per game, 7th in MLB)

DRS continues to love Christian Colon, who ranks fourth on the team with eight defensive runs saved despite limited playing time.

Top 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Cain 6.6, Moustakas 3.8, Hosmer 3.5, Gordon 2.8, Ventura 2.7

2016 — Duffy 3.2, Cain 2.5, Perez 2.2, Dyson 2.1, Herrera 2.0

The Royals, who had three players compile at least 3.5 WAR in 2015, might not get one player to that mark this year. Injuries played a part in that, as did some regression from both Hosmer and Alex Gordon.

Bottom 5 in Fangraphs WAR

2015 — Infante -0.9, Guthrie -0.9, Almonte -0.4, Gomes -0.3, Coleman -0.2

2016 — Young -1.3, Pounders -0.6, Mondesi -0.5, Hosmer -0.2, Fuentes -0.2

Brooks Pounders being this high is surprising since he’s only thrown 9  2/3 innings. He hasn’t been effective, though, with a 12.10 ERA and six homers allowed in his limited duty.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

  Comments