On an afternoon in April, Royals manager Ned Yost summoned a collection of team leaders and pending free agents into his office for a heart-to-heart chat. His team was mired in a prolonged slump. The future was hazy and uncertain. Yost had plenty on his mind.
But at the top, he had one important question: Were the players worried about their contract status?
In the middle of the discussion was Eric Hosmer, the first baseman and franchise pillar who had carried a .195 batting average and one homer into the 21st game of the season. Hosmer had spent three weeks rolling ground balls to second base and hitting into double plays. As he sat in the manager’s office, he looked at Yost and offered a simple answer: No.
“He wasn’t (ticked) about his numbers,” Yost says. “He was (ticked) because he felt like he should be helping the team more and he wasn’t.”
Four months later, Hosmer has turned the worst start of his career into the finest season of his life, shaking off a brutal April and lugging a wounded team toward the fringes of postseason contention. He is batting .328 with 24 homers and a career-high .394 on-base percentage after a 4-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday afternoon. He is also on pace for career highs in homers, walks, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). And he remains a mature and stabilizing presence in the clubhouse while having, by most measures, the best season by a Royals hitter in more than a decade.
“He’s a guy that you check all the boxes,” Yost says. “And it’s very rare that you come across a guy like that.”
Hosmer, of course, will be a free agent in the offseason. This has not changed. His performance could leave him commanding a long-term contract that comes with nine figures. But if this is the end — if these are the final images of Hosmer in a Royals uniform — he is showing up in the most crucial moments.
“I never lost confidence in what I do,” Hosmer says.
Hosmer says this in the way he says most things — self-assured and poised, careful and genial. He believes this is the best offensive season of his career, yet that is less a pronouncement and more a statement of undisputed fact. The numbers back it up.
.909 Hosmer’s OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging), the highest by a Royal since Carlos Beltran’s .911 in 2003.
24 Hosmer’s home runs in 2017. One more would match his career high, set last season.
.516 Hosmer’s slugging percentage, 51 points better than his previous career high, set his rookie year in 2011.
On Tuesday, he began the day ranked second in the American League in batting average, behind Houston’s Jose Altuve, and sixth in OPS. Since May 1, Hosmer has batted .348 with a .414 on-base percentage and .560 slugging percentage in 120 games.
For years, Hosmer has mixed flashes of brilliance with moments of inconsistency. In 2013 and 2015, he was a reliable run producer in the middle of the lineup. In 2014 and 2016, he was closer to league average. This year, he has hit like a superstar for more than four months.
“Red hot,” Yost says.
From a historical perspective, Hosmer is treading in territory rarely approached by a Royal in the last 15 years. For him, it is coming at the best possible time. According to the advanced metric Weighted Runs Created Plus, a measure of total offense, Hosmer is having the best season by a Royals hitter since Mike Sweeney in 2002. The only other seasons that come close are Alex Gordon in 2011 and Billy Butler in 2012. Hosmer could also become the first Royal to post an OPS above .900 since Carlos Beltran in 2003.
“It’s just really, really rare,” Yost says, “that you’ve got a guy that’s an elite performer, an elite person in terms of character and leadership and attitude and competitiveness and fight every day.”
In some ways, the performance could be wasted. The Royals (72-72) remain at .500, needing a furious run in the last three weeks to reach the postseason. Hosmer could have his best season for an offense that still ranks among the AL’s worst.
And yet, to examine how Hosmer transformed his season is to find an answer that hardly seems satisfying. He did not change his approach, he says. He did not change his swing. His manager sees little difference between the player who struggled in April and the one who won American League player of the week honors for the first time this month.
“Has his work ethic changed?” Yost asked. “Has his desire changed? Has his stance changed? No.”
There are little hints. In the early weeks of May, when his numbers began to turn, Hosmer dedicated himself to laying off inside fastballs. The pitch had confounded him in April. And in time, the adjustment helped him cut down on his ground balls.
In April, Hosmer led the American League with a 60.9 ground-ball percentage and grounded into seven double plays. From May 1 to now, his ground-ball rate leveled off toward his career average (52.2 percent) and his production began to soar.
The change was not the result of a major swing adjustment. Hosmer remains a gap-to-gap, line-drive hitter who prefers to go the other way. But his daily work with hitting coach Dale Sveum, his consistent use of video and his approach allowed him to tap into his strengths.
“My swing path …” Hosmer says. “It’s working the best when I’m going that way. Even when I’m trying to pull the ball, I’m still trying to have that same path.”
By late Tuesday afternoon, Hosmer dined at a table inside the clubhouse as the Royals savored a 4-3 victory over the White Sox. They had evened a series at a game apiece and moved back to .500. For a moment, they had pulled within 2 1/2 games of the Minnesota Twins in the American League wild-card race.
If this is the end — if these are the final images of Hosmer and his teammates in a Royals uniform — it is not over yet. They still have 18 games to make something happen. It’s a group, Hosmer says, that has done it before.
“We just got to find one more run in us to get us to October,” he said. “And anything can happen once you get there.”