Is this the real Eric Hosmer?
Eric Hosmer looks the part. If you wonder why guys like Hosmer are extended impossibly long lengths of rope at the big-league level, you don’t have do much more than look at him. Watch him play first base and listen to a batting practice session, and it becomes very easy to understand the hype behind the Royals’ starting first baseman.
The back of Hosmer’s baseball card betrays his "top of the class" eye-test scores. When that tantalizing talent finally starts to deliver, it’s a big moment for fans of the club. When that blue-chip talent starts fulfilling his destiny during the first playoff run in 29 years, it’s a dream come true.
Such is the euphoric state of the Kansas City Royals and Eric Hosmer. While it isn’t the first time in his career that he started both looking and producing like a cornerstone infielder, it comes at the most opportune time imaginable. The Royals are dangerously close to winning the World Series, and the former third overall draft pick is instrumental in their progress.
He’s drawn more walks in October than any single month during the regular season. He’s hitting the ball with power, counting two homers, two doubles, and a triple in 13 postseason games. The high-leverage nature of these extra-base knocks helps muddle the "he turned a corner!" picture. This follows a September in which he knocked another 12 extra-base hits after missing most of August with a hand injury.
The problem with putting too much stock in this tiny stretch of great play is the not-insignificant memory of 2,200 league average plate appearances. Swing changes and adjustments to approach are well and good, but there is a very large pile of evidence that suggests we already know what kind of production we can expect from the big left-handed hitter.
Many hitters better than Hosmer needed such an adjustment to unlock the true potential of their bat. Especially in today’s velocity-rich world, the ability to be "on time" cannot be overstated. Hosmer references great hitters like Jose Abreu and Miguel Cabrera for their great timing and knack for loading their swing early so that they’re ready to "attack the baseball."
His career numbers to date make for strange bedfellows indeed. It turns out Hosmer does have a lot in common with Cabrera: Melky, that is. During the wild-card era, the list of players of a similar age (age 24 and under) with similar walk and strikeout rates (below average for both) who don’t produce much power AND hit the ball on the ground as frequently as Hosmer (more than 50% of balls in play for his career) is a mix of middle infielders (Jose Altuve and Elvis Andrus, to name a few) and one very conspicuous name: Billy Butler.
Butler posted one breakout year with 29 home runs, but he’s a similar — if not slightly better — hitter than Hosmer. Where Hosmer is league average, Butler sits decidedly above-average in every season of his career (save 2014, of course) even without gaudy home run totals.
Hosmer offers much more defensive value than his teammate, though that skill has limited utility as a first baseman. He’s good with the glove but the appreciable impact of a great defensive player at first base is minimal. It’s an offensive position and Hosmer simply hasn’t done enough with the bat to warrant many accolades. Until now.
Mechanical adjustments can often be as much mental as physical alterations to the swing, but Hosmer cites an earlier load which brings him to the ball more quickly without sapping all his power as the reason for this hot run. Suddenly, he’s doing things that he isn’t known for doing, like turning in great at-bats against an acknowledged lefty killer!
Not only is this unlike Hosmer, this tete-a-tete with Javier Lopez is the longest at-bat by a lefty against the LOOGY since … 2004? And it ended in a 106-mph rocket up the middle? That’s the foundation for all manner of Hosmer wish-casting. The marriage of process and outcomes that many spent the past four years waiting for. Hosmer confounds scouts and prospect watchers just as much as Royals fans and rival executives as he struggles to hit for power or display the plate discipline that sent him flying through the minor leagues.
As Eno Sarris notes in his analysis of the 11-pitch Hosmer/Lopez Game 3 battle, the swing he put on that liner was strikingly different to the bigger cuts he unleashed when hitting his fateful triple in the Wild Card Game, or when he pounded a Hector Santiago offering to deep left-center field during the ALDS.
In both cases, his front foot is down and his hands are ready to fire through the baseball. In a two-strike count against a tough lefty on Friday night, he cut his swing down and went with the pitch. Adjustments and adaptation, a beautiful sight indeed.
This magical playoff run will only reignite the hype machine and inflate the expectations for 2015 and beyond. Armed with a new swing, a more mature outlook and invaluable experience, are the pieces finally in place for Hosmer to step forward and embrace the star role many saw for him years ago? Despite the heavy weight of recent history, there is at least reason for optimism that the Royals first baseman is ready to make the most of his prodigious tools.
At the very least, he earned more time to prove this October breakout is an accurate reflection of who Eric Hosmer can really be. Right now, Royals fans are happy to live the dream instead of confronting reality: He’s probably still is who he’s always been. And that’s a good-but-not-great hitter at a position where hitting is the primary requirement. That cold reality can wait until spring, however. For now, the Royals would just like two more games of Eric Hosmer, Elite Slugger.