Opinion

Royals’ Eric Hosmer is on pace to set a record for first basemen

Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer.
Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. The Associated Press

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.

Eric Hosmer has the seventh-best average exit velocity in the majors, yet he’s ranked 13th out of 26 first baseman when it comes to overall offensive production according to the all-encompassing stat Weighted Runs Created Plus.

So what gives? How could both of those statements be true?

Unfortunately for Hosmer, hitting the ball hard isn’t everything. And he’s become one of the most extreme examples of a player haunted by a less-than-ideal swing path.

On Fangraphs, batted-ball data goes back to 2002. Since that time, there have been 359 first basemen who have qualified for the batting title. In that time span, Hosmer’s 60.6-percent groundball rate is the highest of any player at his position.

 

Leaders in GB% among first basemen

PlayerYearGB%
Eric Hosmer, Royals201660.6%
David Freese, Pirates201659.7%
Ken Harvey, Royals200357.5%
Darin Erstad, Angels200456.8%
Casey Kotchman, Rays201155.8%
* - Since 2002, out of 359 qualified

For some context, the league average groundball percentage for first basemen this year is 43.7 percent. The lowest number Hosmer has posted in his career was a 49.7 percent mark in 2011, which was his rookie season.

Before we go further, it’s important to note that groundballs aren’t always all bad. Groundballs the opposite way are an effective way to get hits (Hosmer does this often), and one 2013 study showed that left-handed hitters batted .336 on groundballs hit to that third of the field.

The downside, of course, is what you’d expect: It’s hard to hit for any power when you’re battering the ball into the ground. A Hardball Times article from 2013 found that, on all groundballs, players had an on-base percentage of .232 and a slugging percentage of .250. That was much worse than the overall outcomes of line drives and flyballs.

 

2013 Batted Ball Outcomes

Batted ball resultOBPSlg.%OPS
Groundballs.232.250.483
Line drives.685.8831.568
Flyballs.213.621.834
* - Source, Hardball Times

For Hosmer, this doesn’t appear to be the result of certain pitches, either. Here’s a look at Hosmer’s heat map from Fangraphs; red means he hits more groundballs in a certain area compared to league average, while blue is lower.

  

Basically everywhere in the strike zone, Hosmer is chopping down on the ball.

It’s been part of the reason for his lack of production lately. Quietly, Hosmer has the second-worst Fangraphs WAR of any player over the last 30 days, as he’s batted .198/.247/.308 over that time span.

The bigger concern, of course, is for next season. The Royals need a Hosmer breakout if they hope to make another run at the AL Central, and it’s unlikely for him to get that power spike if his batted-ball mix is bringing up comps of Ken Harvey and Casey Kotchman.

There have been examples of players changing their swing plane in the offseason to improve. Arizona breakout third baseman Jake Lamb is one. His teammate, A.J. Pollock, is another.

Hosmer perhaps wasn’t receptive to this type of change in the past. In a 2014 Hardball Times piece, when writer Eno Sarris was talking to Billy Butler about groundball rate, Hosmer was quoted as saying, “He gets paid to put the barrel on the ball, you guys get paid to think about flyballs and groundballs.”

Hosmer might want to alter that type of thinking, especially with his contract year coming up. With his body type and strength, 35-plus home runs should be possible for a guy whose average exit velocity has been higher than Toronto’s Josh Donaldson this year.

All Hosmer needs — literally — is a tiny change of direction.

Let’s take a look at this week’s team numbers.

Hitting

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

2016 — .265/.314/.398

Last 7 days — .230/.270/.347

The Royals’ offense continues to struggle, as the team posted the fourth-worst on-base plus slugging percentage in the majors over the past week. The Royals’ .711 OPS for the season has dropped to 12th out of 15 AL teams, ahead of only Chicago, Oakland and New York.

Hitting with runners in scoring position

2015 — .282/.347/.426

2016 — .267/.326/.389

The Royals have hit 12 percent worse than league average with runners in scoring position according to wRC+, ranking 21st out of 30 MLB teams. To compare, KC was seventh in the majors in the same stat in 2015, hitting 6 percent better than league average with RISP.

Starting pitching

2015 — 4.34 ERA, 16.8 K%, 7.6 BB%

2016 — 4.87, 20.9, 8.6

Last 7 days — 3.52, 24.3, 6.1

The Royals and Reds remain close for the title of most-homer-happy starting staff ever. Both teams’ starters have surrendered 1.63 home runs per nine innings, which is still on pace to top the worst mark ever set by the California Angels in 1987 (1.60).

Relief pitching

2015 — 2.72, 22.9, 8.7

2016 — 3.39, 22.6, 8.2

Last 7 days — 3.95, 26.2, 9.8

A combined 8  1/3 scoreless innings from Chris Young, Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria helped buoy the bullpen this week after the team lost both Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis to injury. Young, by the way, hasn’t allowed a home run in his last six outings — a span that is up to 9  2/3 innings. Even with that improvement, Young still has some work to do to avoid having the worst home-run rate ever in a season for a pitcher with at least 50 innings.

Defense

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

2016 — 17 defensive runs saved (.160 per game, 8th in MLB)

Cheslor Cuthbert remains as an interesting case study when it comes to advanced defensive metrics. Defensive runs saved doesn’t like him (negative-5, second worst on team), while Ultimate Zone Rating has him as roughly an average defender. This evaluation could be key next year as the Royals figure out what to do in 2017 when Mike Moustakas returns. Can Cuthbert make the switch to second base? If he’s a below-average defender at third trying to move left to right on the defensive spectrum, it’s unlikely to be an idea that ends up working.

Top 5 in Fangraphs WAR

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

2016 — Duffy 2.5, Perez 2.4, Cain 2.0, Herrera 1.8, Dyson 1.5

Among qualified pitchers over the last month, Danny Duffy is third in WAR (behind David Price and Justin Verlander), fourth in FIP and fifth in strikeout percentage. Perhaps most frustrating for the Royals through their awful July was that they fell back in the standings despite the best pitching of Duffy’s career.

Bottom 5 in Fangraphs WAR

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

2016 — Young -1.4, Escobar -0.7, Pounders -0.3, Mondesi -0.2, Morales -0.2

Kendrys Morales’ hot stretch disappeared as quickly as it came. He’s hit .184/.260/.310 over the last month with overall offensive production that is 47-percent worse than a league-average hitter. The slump resulted in a negative-0.6 WAR over that stretch, a mark that ranked ahead of only three MLB players: Jed Lowrie, Hosmer and J.B. Shuck.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell

  Comments