After April slump, Royals’ Eric Hosmer has found his stroke

Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) congratulated Lorenzo Cain after his solo home run Thursday against the Angels.
Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) congratulated Lorenzo Cain after his solo home run Thursday against the Angels. AP

Every week, Royals manager Ned Yost asks catching coach Pedro Grifol to provide a list of the updated fan voting totals for the All-Star Game. This week, Yost sought to make sure that Salvador Perez was still leading all American League catchers, and as he digested the numbers, he noticed that Eric Hosmer had surged in the competition at first base, pulling to within 25,000 votes of Oakland’s Yonder Alonso, who was first, and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera.

The trends intrigued him. So as he began his pregame radio show with broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre on Wednesday in San Francisco, Yost hijacked the segment and, unprompted, campaigned for Royals fans to vote for Hosmer.

“He’s close,” Yost said Thursday, sitting in his office before a series opener here against the Los Angeles Angels. “I’m looking at the numbers.”

The move was hardly out of character for Yost, a loyalist who cherishes his relationships with players. Yet it did offer an opportunity to pause and ponder the strange nature of Hosmer’s season. Once mired in a frustrating slump, his batting average hovering below .200 as late as April 25, Hosmer is now on pace for one of the finest offensive seasons of his career.

He entered Thursday evening batting .315 with a .364 on-base percentage and .832 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). If you prefer advanced metrics, he had posted a Weighted Runs Created Plus of 121, the second highest of his career. The metric, which attempts to measure a player’s total offensive value, adjusted for league and ballpark, has determined that Hosmer has been 21 percent better than league average. In the last six weeks, he has been even hotter.

As Thursday began, Hosmer was batting .365 since the start of May, the highest average in the majors leagues during that span. He had also recorded six homers and 14 doubles in 41 games, raising his slugging percentage from .247 on April 25 to .468. After a lost April, he has played himself back into the All-Star discussion in six weeks.

“It’s just weird, man,” Hosmer said. “It’s a bunch of different things. I never lost the confidence. I knew it would always come. But you want to get out of it so bad, things kind of speed up and I think I finally just told myself to relax and not worry about mechanical stuff.”

As he prepared to hit in the cage on Thursday afternoon, Hosmer could not isolate one fix or adjustment. In one stretch, he tried to lay off inside fastballs, which were giving him trouble. But in the end, his season turned on a lot of little things. As he began to relax, the hits started to come. His confidence swelled. He began to understand and feel his swing.

“I went out there and tried to compete the best in the at-bats,” Hosmer said. “And slowly but surely I started to feel better and had a better idea of what I was doing at the plate, mechanically. It just put me in a good place and I’ve been riding that wave ever since.”

In April, Hosmer’s production was handcuffed by a soaring ground-ball rate, which sat at 61.5 percent on April 25. In his last 41 games, the mark has stabilized to 51.9 percent, slightly below his career average. For six weeks, he has replaced the grounders with line drives. The Royals (30-34) carried a four-game winning streak into a four-game series in Anaheim.

“He was definitely pressing,” Yost said. “It’s hard to be more impressed with these guys, but a true determination of a person’s character is how do they act when they’re struggling? It’s easy to be a guy that goes out and competes and has life and energy when you’re doing great.

“It’s harder when you’re really, really struggling. And when they were struggling, this kid was grinding every single day. He never changed his attitude.”

Hosmer will be a free agent this winter, a fact that hardly needs to be mentioned at this point. He will reach the open market for the first time, his services available to 29 other teams. His market value could be one of the more intriguing plot lines of the winter. For six weeks, Hosmer has offered a glimpse of his gifts, lacing baseballs all over the diamond. Yet as he opened another series against the Angels, his slugging percentage still ranked 17th among major-league first baseman. Among the same cohort, his seven homers ranked 21st.

For now, those two facts will not stop Yost from stumping for his player in All-Star discussions. And Hosmer, of course, would welcome a return trip to the Midsummer Classic. He garnered MVP honors last summer in San Diego. This year, the game is in Miami, his hometown. He grew up going to Marlins games, dreaming about the big leagues. The trip, he says, would be meaningful.

“The beginning of the season was obviously a tough stretch for me,” Hosmer said. “So just to be in the position to have a chance to go, it means a lot.

“At the end of the day, if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. The ultimate goal is to win games and be in the playoffs. But if it does happen, it would be another cool accomplishment. It’s something I want to earn, not just people feeling bad for me because I’m going back home to Miami.”

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