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May 29, 2013

Pebble Hunting

A Week of Watching Eric Hosmer

by Sam Miller

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On Sunday, a baseball broadcaster informed me (and you and everyone we know) that a player on the Kansas City Royals entered the game 10 for his previous 28. “That’s a .357 average, so he’s coming,” I was told.

Eric Hosmer hasn’t done much this year, and his inability to take the great leap forward is a big reason why Kansas City’s go-for-it plan has disappointed thus far. But a .357 average, that’s pretty high, and if he’s coming, maybe the Royals would have something. It’s easy to buy into Eric Hosmer’s .357 average. It’s just easy to buy into Eric Hosmer, all the time, despite how long it’s been since he was good. He used to be so good, after all. And .357! Maybe that .357 means something.

So I went back and watched a week of Hosmer, from last Tuesday through Memorial Day. That stretch included most of that .357 average, and a couple other games. I wanted to block out what I know about Hosmer—12th overall prospect just 27 months ago, Rookie of the Year contender just 19 months ago, MVP sleeper just 14 months ago, etc.—and imagine that I’m watching a player who just appeared in my world without notice. What would I think about this player? How seriously would I take his potential? Would he stand out? And would that .357 do anything for me?

It’s hard to block out the backstory completely. Hosmer memories kept coming back to me. Furthermore, it’s hard to ding a guy’s swing without wanting to compare it to his swing from two years earlier, when he could hit, so I kept going back to him, too. (I’m also, of course, not a scout, so I’d caveat my impressions by noting that they’re impressions, not evidence.) But I tried.

So here’s what I thought of Eric Hosmer, random guy.

Power: Not evident. This is a hitter who was supposed to be Will Clark with power; we once wrote that “some scouts grade Hosmer's power a perfect 80,” which is true of maybe two players in the minors today. His isolated power this season is 10th lowest among 168 qualifiers, right between Pete Kozma (Hosmer is better) and Denard Span (Hosmer is worse :(). In the week that I watched him, he didn’t reach the warning track, and his lone extra-base hit was a line drive down the line the opposite way.

He’s got a clear other-way approach, and Royals announcers constantly say that’s where his power is. Seven of his 19 home runs as a rookie, and eight of 15 since, went to the left of center field. His best swings, it’s true, are on balls that he hits to left field or center field, but those swings—sturdier, more balanced—produce line drives more than any backspin or distance, and when he did hit fly balls to left field they were pop-ups, suggesting more that he was behind on the pitches than that he was aiming for the left-field seats.

If I'd never heard of Eric Hosmer, I would: compare this player's power to Casey Kotchman's, perhaps unfavorably.  

Plate discipline: He’s not a hacker, by any means, and in particular he seems to identify breaking pitches out of the zone quickly and lay off. Perhaps because of this, virtually nobody I saw in a week attacked him with sliders. But he’ll chase fastballs, particularly up, which dovetails nicely with pitchers’ plan against him: fastballs, particularly up.

He seems uncomfortable with all good fastballs, and it shows in his takes. When we spent a week with Manny Machado, I jokingly included Machado's “great taking indeed.” But hitters and hitting instructors genuinely do talk about how some takes are more encouraging than others—when a batter spots the error in the pitch early and takes it confidently. Hosmer was fidgety even when he was taking fastballs:

Watch his lower body, shifting directions at the last split second. He never looked quite certain of his decision to take, until the ball was past him. I picked up this vibe repeatedly. 

If I'd never heard of Eric Hosmer, I would: not have any opinions about this player's plate discipline. 

Hitting ability: The all-fields approach should provide singles and doubles. Hosmer squares up pitches in any part of the zone when he stays back, but has a tendency to jump at pitches and either jam himself on fastballs or roll over off-speed pitches in the zone. He got base hits on some lousy pitches, though those weren't generally impressive base hits. 

If I'd never heard of Eric Hosmer, I would: hope for David Segui but settle for Mark Sweeney

Swing: Hosmer’s swing looks balky to the untrained eye, and while this is true of plenty of good hitters—one of which Hosmer recent was!‚Äč—Hosmer's swing looks noticeably balkier than it did two seasons ago. Here’s a swing from 2011 matched up with one from this week. There’s an obvious bias here; the swing you’re seeing on the left led to a positive outcome, the more recent one to a negative outcome. But there are features here that are common to most of Hosmer's current swings: 

Hosmer has a bigger leg kick now than he used to. He invests a lot of energy into timing mechanisms, so it might be that this is about that, about trying to stay back on pitches. But it's also possible that he's trying to generate more power. (I have the same curious wonder about the way he briefly lets go of the bat with his bottom hand and then regrips as the pitch is about to be delivered. Timing mechanism? I'm guessing timing mechanism.) Hosmer used to have a very compact but explosive load in his swing, as you'll see below—pivot back, explode forward. He now seems to be straining to wind himself up. You can see the change in the next pair of photos, as the pitch comes in and Hosmer's posture is already hunched. See the difference in both the angle of his torso and the way his front foot is already flat, his lower half flimsy: 

As the hips fly open, the hands now lag behind. And the lack of balance is apparent, as he spins out with far less control and no real tension:

And he falls over the plate after the swing; he falls over on swing after swing throughout the week, ending up in the right-handed batter's box far more than he ended up on first base. Here are the same two swings as GIFs: 

Keith Law last week wrote for ESPN Insider about Hosmer’s struggles. He notes that the problems start at the beginning of the swing:

Hosmer starts his hands just behind his ear and they are in constant motion from when he gets set in the box to when he loads them in a position over his rear foot and lower than his front shoulder, which causes his back (left shoulder) to start to point up and back at the first base dugout. His hands continue moving as he strides, further back and further up, tracing half a circle, counterclockwise, before he brings them forward -- by which point he's already turned his hips most of the way. The torque he generates through hip rotation is wasted, and I think that's where his impressive raw power has gone. 

Hosmer is consistently late on fastballs. In seven days, I saw Hosmer foul off 18 pitches, and my recollection is that one of them—a slider that he dribbled toward the first-base dugout—was pulled. Nearly without fail, the rest were fastballs that he popped foul into the left-field stands or, occasionally, lined sharply toward the third-base dugout. Part of this is approach—as noted, he goes the other way—but the frequency of foul pop-ups on fastballs points to an inability to catch up and get on top of these pitches.

Being late on fastballs makes him susceptible to well-sequenced pitches, and pitchers were able to get him out with fairly simple combinations of changeups backed up by fastballs, or high fastballs followed by paralysis fastballs low and away. I can’t stress enough how overmatched he looked by good fastballs—anything over 92, really, and even slower than that when sequenced with changeups.

If there's one thing in common in all of these, it's his front hip, flying out while his hands try to catch up.

So the .357 turned out to be, basically, a lie. Surprise! We could have guessed as much, given the conveniently drawn endpoints—extend it, say, four games further back and he’s hitting .256 in his past 43 at-bats. We could have wondered what else had happened in those 28 at-bats, and the answer is not much: Hosmer had drawn one walk in that stretch, and he had just two extra-base hits, both doubles. During his hot streak, then, Hosmer had hit all of .357/.379/.429. Coming out of it? Not yet. Maybe someday, but not yet.  

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Kansas City Royals,  Royals,  Eric Hosmer,  Mechanics,  Hitting,  Slump

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