Today we’re going to take a look at a pair of emerging 24-year-old sluggers, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman and Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer. Freeman put together a breakout campaign in 2013, posting the third-best season of all first baseman, and, after a slow start, Hosmer rebounded with a scorching final four months of the season to finish eighth at the position in standard 5×5 leagues. When you look at the future of the first-base position these are two of the premier young players in the game, and Mike Gianella has listed them back-to-back as four-star options for 2014. Mike’s list gives a slight nod to Hosmer as the preferred option, but it’s clearly a pretty tight battle. Let’s take a look under the hood and see what these two look like mano-a-mano.
If you look only at the surface stats you’d be tempted to give Freeman the nod. He posted a better average last season (.319 to Hosmer’s .305) and owns a better career mark (.285 to .277) over a comparable number of plate appearances. But a “not so fast!” caveat is all kinds of warranted here. Freeman’s 2013 campaign was fueled by a very high (and very likely unsustainable) .371 BABIP, and his 11.6 career SwStr% is almost three points higher than Hosmer’s. Freeman chases about 2.5 percent more balls out of the zone than Hosmer, and he makes contact with pitches in the zone almost seven percent less often. Hosmer’s disastrous sophomore campaign in 2012, meanwhile, was fueled in part by a dismal .255 BABIP—a number that carried over into the first two months of 2013 as well. Assuming the flowers and heartfelt apology Hosmer gave to Lady Luck last June keep him out of the doghouse, he’s the better bet to produce a higher average going forward.
This is another tough call requiring a delicate balancing of past performance and future projection. Freeman again has the one-year (.396 to .353) and career (.358 to .332) advantages, and it’s even more pronounced here. Hell, that’s an altogether dominant advantage to date. Freeman’s walk rate is almost two percentage points better than Hosmer’s in their MLB careers so far, and the advantage actually stretched to a full three percentage points last year. And yet…Freeman’s a significantly more aggressive hitter than Hosmer, and Hosmer’s lack of luck has been a central factor in the diminished OBP to this point in his career. If you go back to their minor league days Hosmer showed the far greater OBP potential of the two, posting a minor-league walk rate of 12.6 percent to Freeman’s 7.8 percent. And after his luck turned around last June Hosmer put up an elite 13.7 percent walk rate to drive a .394 OBP over the season’s final four months. I’m very tempted to slip this one narrowly into Hosmer’s column as well, but in the interest of crediting what appear to be legitimate walk rate gains at the big-league level by Freeman and not overrating less than 500 plate appearances of performance by Hosmer I’ll begrudgingly call this one a draw… for now.
While Hosmer’s scouting record always hinted at plus-plus power he’s yet to really develop it into playable homerun power. His .148 ISO thus far reflects a troubling tendency to put way too many balls on the ground; his career 52 percent ground-ball rate is a percentage you’d gladly take out of a Billy Hamilton or a Starling Marte, but not something you want to see out of a top tier slugger. Couple that with a HR/FB rate that’s still a couple points south of Freeman on the balls he does put in the air, and I’ll take Freeman’s demonstrated low-to-mid-20s home-run output as a starting point by a pretty comfortable margin for the time being. It’s also worth noting that Freeman plays a in a significantly better ballpark for left-handed power; Turner Field plays neutral for lefty homeruns, while Kauffman Stadium logs a 90 HR park factor for left-handers, making it one of the tougher places in the majors for left-handed power to play. I see room for plenty of growth for both players as they’re both just beginning to enter their physical primes as hitters, but the edge goes to Freeman here.
Runs Batted In
In the aggregate, the Atlanta and KC offenses were similarly mediocre in their production over the second half of last season, with Atlanta checking in 17th in the majors in wOBA and Kansas City 19th. Since then Atlanta has lost Brian McCann, while KC has added a couple of smaller parts in Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante. The former should be a nice OBP upgrade at the top of KC’s lineup, and even if Hosmer opens the year hitting down in the no. 5 spot he should be in a decent position to drive in runs hitting behind Alex Gordon (.344 career OBP) and Billy Butler (.364). Atlanta again appears poised to slot Andrelton Simmons and his sub-.300 OBP in its leadoff spot, which is not so great, but Jason Heyward (.352) and Justin Upton (.356) are slightly more solid bets to provide Freeman with an edge in RBI opportunities. As noted above, however, I think Hosmer hits more than Freeman this year to balance out that edge, and both should be able to push 100 RBI this season.
This category is where Kansas City’s lineup construction may just provide a tangible advantage for Hosmer. The second half of Atlanta’s lineup in the post-McCann era is poised to be a wasteland of swing-and-miss, littered with the likes of Evan Gattis, B.J. Upton, Chris Johnson, and Dan Uggla (maybe). That’s as much of a motley crew for consistent run production as you’re likely to find. And while Mike Moustakas’ whiff rate is not a model for young hitters, it’s not terrible, and he’ll be joined by a couple of high contact guys in Salvador Perez and Infante who should be able to convert Hosmer’s extra base hits into runs scored at a decent clip. Hosmer’s also got the upside to bump his way into the 3 hole with a strong start, ad that would further increase his ceiling in this category. I see both players comfortably in the 80-plus range for runs scored, with Hosmer owning the slightly higher upside.
This category is a sneaky little secret weapon for Hosmer owners. He’s posted three consecutive double-digit stolen base seasons to start his career, and he’s maintained a stellar 79 percent success rate. That number did dip to 73% last year, but it’s not enough of a drop to where you’d expect Kansas City management to start throwing up the stop sign. And pretty much every steal you get from Hosmer is one you won’t get from Freeman. Sure he’ll throw you a charity bone or two in a given season, and he can probably beat Gerald Laird in a foot race, but stealin’ bags just ain’t his game.
Neither has had a significant injury history that warrants any kind of major red flags. Hosmer dinged his shoulder diving for a ball at the end of the 2012 season, but that’s been just about it. Freeman’s medicals have a little more red ink on them, but not much. He missed time last April with a mildly strained oblique, then later dealt with a sore thumb that knocked him out of the All-Star Game. The year before he popped his kneecap out of place in spring training and then missed a week in June after injuring a finger trying to break up a double play. No surgeries for either, but a slight edge to Hosmer for so far avoiding the DL.
Advantage: Slight Hosmer
Both hitters exhibit decent-sized platoon splits against left-handed pitching, but neither is going to ride pine on account of it. Both of these guys should be full-time starters and lineup anchors for years to come.
Freeman’s monster 150 wRC+ of 2013 is probably more of an outlier than the norm for what we should expect going forward, as his extreme BABIP luck filtered down to boost everything from his on-base to his run production numbers. The hit tool questions suggest his 2011-2012 performance in the 120 range is probably a more appropriate baseline for Freeman, with a bump into the 130 range if he can continue to incrementally nudge his HR/FB% north as he moves through his prime. For fantasy purposes he should be able to produce a consistent .270-.280 average with mid-20s homeruns and 170-200 R+RBI annually, and that’s an excellent projection to lay claim to. Meanwhile, the 130-plus marks Hosmer posted in each of the final four months of 2013 look more like they can be a true talent preview to me. And if he can continue to grow and dive more balls in the air to increase his power output there’s additional room to move that baseline further north. Right now he looks like a strong bet for .300+ averages annually to go along with 20 HR power, a similar 175-200 R+RBI, and sneaky double-digit SB numbers. If he can put the ball in the air more often there’s legitimate 30-homer upside here. Both project as excellent hitters for a long time, but I see a bit more room to grow and therefore a slightly higher ceiling for Hosmer if it all comes together.
With each of these players just now approaching his prime, projection has to play a significant role in our evaluation of their respective fantasy values. Neither is a finished Major League product just yet, so what you’ve seen so far is not necessarily all you’re going to get. Freeman’s on-the-books performance has been better than Hosmer’s across the board and by a significant margin, both in terms of the surface stats fantasy owners care about and the underlying numbers that support the performance. In terms of future performance though, I see a pretty clear if narrow edge for Hosmer, and given they’re both at the same point on the age curve and boast comparable MLB experience that’s enough to tip the scales in Hosmer’s direction.
And the winner is… Hosmer
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