Jul 19

Eric Hosmer and Those Summer Nights

Scan the AL leaderboards for July, and you’d be hard pressed to find a batter more dialed in at the plate than Eric Hosmer. Others have hit for more power or driven in more runs, but Hosmer has been extremely consistent: he’s recorded at least one hit in each game (he currently has a 14 game hitting streak); in six of his 13 July games, he’s recorded multiple hits, including two three hit games and a 4-for-4 to start the month; and he’s hit with a little pop, doubling six times and homering twice. All in all, his July line so far sits at an impressive .442/.508/.673, which has raised his slash line up from a season low of .246/.288/.343 at the end of June to where it sits currently at .272/.318/.387.

So, maybe that stretch through May and June where he hit .221/.258/.323 and recorded 68 and 43 for wRC+ is a thing of the past. We can disregard his increasing K% (17.6 and 19.8 for May/June respectively) and his decreasing BB/K (0.26 and 0.25) as statistical blips in a long, arduous season. Sometimes players do get lost at the plate, and finding their way back to career norms isn’t always an easy task, but if we get taken with the euphoria of Hosmer’s bat suddenly blazing with comet like intensity we might also fail to see that his BB/K numbers were career lows, and even though he’s had months that were worse in terms of K%, he still walked 10% of the time to balance out the negative.

This, however, is July, and in July Hosmer rakes. Things are turning around. Out with your bad mojo, random sports blogger!

I don’t know. Maybe he has. Maybe Hosmer finally found the perfect Kansas City barbecue joint that agrees with his Miami, Florida roots. Maybe he learned the secret to the perfect Mojito, and now he feels more relaxed. I still think there’s cause for concern, but that’s probably because my own brisket recipe is lacking.

Go the Distance

When looking at Hosmer’s season to date, one of the most jarring numbers is the decline in fly ball distance from his last two campaigns. In 2012, as a 22-year old Hosmer averaged 289.72 feet with each fly ball (including home runs), and as one would expect with a young player physically maturing that number jumped to 297.18 in 2013. In ’14, however, the average distance traveled per fly ball dropped to 275.35 feet. A visual representation, as per baseballheatmaps.com, will help illustrate the point.

2012

Hosmer Fly Ball Distance 2012

2013:

2013

Hosmer Fly Ball Distance 2013

And 2014:

2014

Hosmer Fly Ball Distance 2014

Kauffman Stadium suppresses left power fairly significantly, at least in regards to home runs, and in general the park has been tough sledding for hitting home runs, but Hosmer’s troubles are baffling regardless. First, I’ll show the park effects for Kauffman dating back to 2011 (Hosmer’s first season), including home runs per game.

Year HR as L HR as R HR/G MLB Rank
2013 90 97 0.880 22
2012 90 97 1.028 16
2011 90 97 0.708 29

Kauffman Stadium Park Effects

My point isn’t to point out Hosmer’s lack of power overall, though I don’t consider an increase in power a negative from a corner infielder, but to make a more general observation that Kauffman Stadium isn’t exactly making outfielders shag would be shallow pop ups on the warning track.

Hosmer’s sudden drop in fly ball distance led me to a few thoughts: 1) he’s hurt, which I couldn’t find any evidence to suggest that Hosmer was nursing a bad back or oblique strain or a sore hand (similar to early 2013); 2) he’s altered his hitting approach so drastically that he’s been robbed of all his pop; 3) it’s a seasonal thing, and he doesn’t really get it going until the middle of summer hits; 4) he’s awful.

As stated, I couldn’t find any direct reports of injuries, so I went to brooksbaseball.net to look at Hosmer’s hitting approach. This was interesting since this year Hosmer seemed to be extremely aggressive compared to season’s past, especially in regards to attacking breaking and offspeed pitches. When exactly does he seem to be at his most aggressive? Oddly enough, we can look to the months of May and June.

2014_approach

Hosmer Plate Approach 2014

In 2013, Hosmer started heating up at the plate once June rolled around, and part of that would be the healing of his hand, but also he seemed to find a better balance with his approach.

2013_approach

Hosmer Plate Approach 2013

The plate discipline numbers from Fangraphs confirm the handy visual from 2014. Hosmer’s O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside of the strike zone) is markedly up from the last few seasons. Unfortunately for Hosmer, his O-Contact% is the highest it’s been since his rookie season in 2011, meaning he’s been swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone, making contact, and not doing much with them.

Year O-Swing Z-Swing Swing O-Contact Z-Contact Contact Zone
2012 32.2 64.2 47.1 71.9 86.3 81.0 46.5
2013 34.1 63.7 47.3 70.6 88.8 81.5 44.5
2014 26.3 65.5 48.8 75.1 91.1 84.3 42.8

PITCHf/x Plate Discipline

Also, Ryan Heffernon wrote an excellent piece on this very thing over at numberfire.com. There are similarities in many of our arguments, and while I hadn’t read his article before starting this piece, I’d be remiss to pretend the similarities didn’t exist.

I tend to believe that instead of pitchers throwing Hosmer fewer strikes to hit this year, as indicated by Zone % above, as a result of Hosmer swinging at more pitches out of the zone it’s Hosmer’s increased aggressiveness overall that’s raised the numbers above. Looking at Hosmer’s zone profile, pitchers are attacking him similarly to 2013, throwing the majority of the pitches low and outside, but so far in 2014 Hosmer is swinging at those pitches instead of laying off of them.

zone_2013

2013 Zone Profile Swing Rate

Here is that same zone profile for the opening month of the season:

zone_apr_2014

2014 Mar/Apr Zone Profile Swing Rate

And here’s the same chart for May through June.

zone_may_2014

2014 May/June Zone Profile Swing Rate

Low and outside has been Hosmer’s particular weakness this year. That lower left quadrant has resulted in a batting line of .120 with a slugging of .160. Overall results for Hosmer’s aggressive approach bear this out as well. His line drive percentage is at a personal low (15.9%) while his fly ball percentage is at a personal high (31.4%). Essentially, Hosmer is chasing more pitches, consequently making less solid contact, and he’s not hitting the ball with as much authority. The good news for Hosmer, the Royals, and sportswriters everywhere is that Hosmer has been hitting the ball extremely well in July with his line drive percentage for the month at 23.4% and his fly ball percentage down to 27.7%.

Next, I looked at the seasonal breakdown of fly ball distances, to see if there was an increase in distance traveled separating out the seasons between the end of June and July. Here are the distances as such:

Year 03/31 – 06/30 07/01 – Seasons’ End % Change
2011 281.45 289.91 2.92
2012 293.03 285.66 -2.58
2013 292.31 300.99 2.88
2014 274.96 277.52 0.92

Fly Ball Distance by Halves

As Hosmer healed last season he began to drive the ball farther (hitting 10 of his 17 home runs from July onward). I don’t want to disregard 2012, which was a pretty abysmal season for him overall, but from the table above it certainly appears that Hosmer has better luck driving the ball as the weather warms up. We can’t make any definitive conclusions about July to season’s end for ‘14, but it’s something that bears watching.

Also, he’s not awful. If July is any indication, Hosmer might just be the greatest Royals’ hitter since George Brett.

Summary

Great things have been expected of Hosmer ever since he was drafted third overall in a fairly ho-hum first round1. That two picks after him Buster Posey was selected by the Giants doesn’t necessarily help either. After the way he finished 2013, it sure seemed like Hosmer was starting to realize many of those expectations. Oliver and PECOTA had him accumulating between 2-2.3 WAR this season, which is a far cry from an All Star but still is a solid contributor at the Major League level2. If the current season has so far been a disappointment, especially in comparison to 2013, Hosmer still sits at 94 wRC+ so it’s not as though he’s been unplayable all season. Personally I’d love to see Hosmer finish 2014 in the same way as ’13 if for no other reason than Dayton Moore can call it quits on this Raul Ibanez experiment since the Royals won’t be struggling so mightily to score runs. I take that back. They’re still playing Mike Moustakas for some reason.

  1. Not to belabor the point, but this is one of the least exciting first rounds I can remember. Other than Posey, probably the most exciting part of this draft was the Nationals failure to sign Aaron Crow, which coincidentally benefited the Royals since they selected him 13th overall in 2009. Hosmer currently sits just behind Ike Davis in bWAR, which I’m sure will change as have their current fortunes. Who else is in this draft class other than Lance Lynn and Brett Lawrie? Pedro Alvarez?
  2. Hosmer currently sits at 0.0 fWAR, and it’s taken the accumulation of 1.0 fWAR in July to bring it up to that mark. Consider me a skeptic to believe he’ll continue at that torrid pace for the rest of the season, but somewhere in the 1.0-1.5 range seems attainable.

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