Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: Royals offense is grounded until Hosmer can put the ball in the air

Eric Hosmer walked off the field after grounding out to end the third inning against the San Francisco Giants last week at Kauffman Stadium. More than half of Hosmer’s contact is on the ground.
Eric Hosmer walked off the field after grounding out to end the third inning against the San Francisco Giants last week at Kauffman Stadium. More than half of Hosmer’s contact is on the ground.

On April 5, in the ninth inning of a forgettable blowout loss in the Royals’ second game of the season, Eric Hosmer did something that by any definition was remarkable.

And hardly anyone noticed.

So far this season, entering Sunday’s games, more than 77,000 pitches had been thrown and more than 13,000 put into play by the planet’s best hitters. And precisely one pitch has been hit harder than what Hosmer did to Justin Haley’s changeup that beautiful afternoon in Minnesota.

The pitch hung near the inside corner, but up around the belt. This is Hosmer’s favorite part of the strike zone, and he hit the ball 118.1 mph. Major-leaguers hit the ball this hard in fewer than once every 1,000 at-bats. When they do, they homer nearly 25 percent of the time, and at least get a hit more than 75 percent.

These are, often, the moments that turn games.

Hosmer grounded out. The ball went into the grass, to shortstop Eduardo Escobar’s glove, and then over to first.

Hosmer could have a terrific 2017 season without hitting the ball that hard again. And it was a lousy out — largely because he hit it into the ground, which he does 58.2 percent of the time. That’s more often than any other man who regularly hits in the middle of an American League lineup (Alex Gordon recently took the team lead at 58.5 percent).

This is Hosmer’s cross, and as the cleanup hitter in a lineup short on production, also the Royals’ cross.

“I just try to hit it hard,” Hosmer said. “Just try to hit it hard.”

When Eric Hosmer hits the ball on the ground, he is batting .125 with no extra base hits — a poor hitting pitcher, essentially, though the pitcher would probably bunt enough to avoid Hosmer’s six double-play grounders.

When Eric Hosmer hits the ball in the air, he is batting .348 with a .522 slugging percentage — an MVP candidate, essentially.

If Hosmer is an anomaly, it’s only as a strong, 6-foot-4, cleanup-hitting first baseman. League wide, ground balls are producing a .237 average and .260 slugging percentage. Balls in the air are producing a .385 average and .849 slugging percentage.

Many of the game’s best hitters — Bryce Harper, Miguel Cabrera, and Kris Bryant, to name just three — are also the most effective at avoiding ground balls. In a trend that is changing how baseball is played at the sport’s highest level, many hitters are reworking their swings to hit more fly balls. This is happening so much that there is talk of teams using four outfielders.

J.D. Martinez is often used as the face of the movement. The Astros DFA’d him in 2013, after he hit .251 with a .387 slugging percentage across three seasons. He rebuilt his swing to generate fewer ground balls, and is hitting .299 with a .540 slugging percentage since 2014.

“I always thought the perfect swing was a line drive (back to) the pitcher,” he told FanGraphs. “I’d go out there and hit the ball perfectly, and it’s (a) single. Why is my perfect swing a single?

“You still talk to coaches, ‘Oh, you want a line drive right up the middle. Right off the back of the (L-screen in batting practice).’ OK, well that’s a (freaking) single. To me, the numbers don’t lie. The balls in the air play more.”

Hosmer has rare talent, even by big league standards, and if his strength and hand-eye coordination could meet with an approach that produced more fly balls and fewer grounders, the possibilities are enthralling: 35 homers in a season? 40? More?

Is Hosmer sticking to an outdated and counterproductive mantra of line drives up the middle, while others like Martinez are cracking the code to make more of their contact?

Is he leaving himself behind?

Eric Hosmer knows the numbers and he knows about Martinez’s evolution and he knows that a growing number of people around baseball are seeing the line-drive-up-the-middle philosophy as antiquated.

“You look at the averages and all that, it’s definitely better with the ball in the air,” he said. “Most guys, especially power hitters, are trying to hit the ball in the air. Our stadium is playing a little different, it’s bigger out there, but still, somebody in my spot in the lineup, and type of hitter I am, I should definitely be trying to hit the ball in the air.”

This is a different thing than Hosmer saying he should mimic Martinez. He is 27 years old. Seven seasons and nearly 4,000 plate appearances into a career that’s already included a World Series parade and will soon hit free agency.

Martinez rebuilt his swing in large part because he had nothing to lose. Hosmer is a successful major-league baseball player, still with room to grow, and this is the hitter he has always been — more Mark Grace and Keith Hernandez than David Ortiz and Mark Teixeira.

“Players are always making adjustments, and they should,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “But it’s very hard to change swing paths. It’s hard to make major mechanical changes at the major-league level. I believe that. You work within a player’s naturalness.”

The man Hosmer replaced once tried to change his swing path. Billy Butler had always been a line-drive hitter, gap-to-gap, and in his first full big-league season hit .301 with 51 doubles and 21 home runs at age 23.

His swing was always steady, pure, the kind that made for more line drives and grounders than fly balls. From 2009-12, only nine big-leaguers had more extra-base hits and only six had more hits.

At some point, Butler tried to change. He wanted more loft, which meant not just a different swing, but cheating on certain pitches and certain spots in certain situations. The adjustment meant less plate coverage, and more vulnerability to breaking balls away, which pitchers quickly realized. His batting average steadily dropped, from .313 in 2012 to .251 in 2015.

There were other factors, but the A’s released him last season a little more than halfway through a three-year, $30 million contract. He’s a free agent.

Butler is just one example, but there are many more stories like his than Martinez’s. The line between necessary tweak and counterproductive overhaul can be fuzzy, and never works without the player being the one driving the change.

Here, in this instance, neither player nor team seem inclined to do anything more than tweak. If we’re being honest, that’s probably the right move.

Because if this is the hitter Hosmer has worked his whole baseball life to be, then revamping it all now makes little sense.

“It’s something that I can’t worry about,” he said. “When I’m going good with myself, there’s certain keys I focus on, and it takes care of all the other stuff. Specifically, I don’t go and look at launch angles, or this angle or that angle. Whatever little key it takes for me to get going, it takes care of all the other stats.

“I’m a guy where most of my deeper balls are going to be to center field, or even to left center. I don’t think I’m a guy who puts a lot of loft on balls.”

This doesn’t help the Royals right now.

The offense is broken, enough that a commitment to living with Raul Mondesi’s struggles at the plate was cut short after two weeks in favor of more production.

Mondesi was never the problem with the Royals’ offense. He was a problem, but always batted at the bottom of the order, with low expectations. If the top and middle of the lineup were producing, Mondesi may still be in the big leagues.

That’s the bigger frustration with Hosmer’s slow start. He is the most talented hitter on the team, the one most capable of the sort of production that draws MVP votes, and at the moment his OPS ranks 172nd among 187 regular big-league hitters.

Too many grounders isn’t the disease. It’s more like a symptom. He has what baseball people call a “busy” swing, which means lots of moving parts, which can make escaping slumps more difficult. His long arms mean he’s vulnerable to being jammed, which means he sometimes has to choose one side of the plate to attack, which creates other vulnerabilities.

Hosmer should get out of this, eventually, and be back to his normal self, and then the debate around his performance can be more reasoned.

Once that happens, perhaps another truth will emerge. Hosmer looks the part of superstar. He was drafted third overall, given a record signing bonus, and mashed through the minor leagues before debuting in the majors at 21. Because he makes harder contact more often than most, when he does lift the ball over the fence, the homers tend to go a long way.

But none of that changes a fundamental truth about him, one we’ve mentioned here already: he’s more Keith Hernandez than David Ortiz.

He is a more complete player than most first basemen, and less of a slugger than most of them, too. That’s been good enough to be a face of the Royals’ rise from punchline to parade. But it’s not enough to carry a broken offense.

He needs help. Even when he’s going right.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger