“Golden boy of a golden moment, Hosmer could feasibly be Justin Timberlake or Nick Carter. He’s always had the hits and the boyish good looks, always been the face that pops out of a crowd at the bar.”
“For these reasons, not entirely tangible, he’s always been the headliner.”
Let’s start here: it’s not just “the good face” that has brought Hosmer this far. He was a really exciting prospect when he began his pro career as the no. 3 pick in the 2008 draft. As a prep prospect with both power and hit tool on whom you could really dream, expectations were high, and he did his damnedest to meet them during a relatively short minor-league career. He made his MLB debut in 2011 at age 21, and hit 19 homers to finish third in the Rookie of the Year voting. Since then, he’s cemented a stellar defensive reputation that comes with four Gold Gloves, one All-Star berth (and an All-Star MVP), two MVP ballot appearances, two trips to the World Series, and one gaudy, beautiful ring. Hoz has a reputation as one of the driving forces behind Kansas City’s remarkable success, and it’s not like it’s entirely built on pillars of salt.
“Living this sort of charmed life requires some luck, but also a serious knack for timing. Hosmer has it.”
You could argue that beginning his career just in time for the rise of the Royals and their 2015 World Series win is charmed enough, and you’d probably be right. But coming into free agency in this market, where the buzzword for free agency this time is “collusion” and players are getting smaller deals than expected … well, perhaps Hosmer’s luck has run out, at least a little bit.
“He ripped off his first great offensive season at age 27 and promptly stepped into the spotlight of free agency, which threatened to correct the popular but misinformed notion that he’d had four great offensive seasons.”
Welcome to the crux of the narrative that has engulfed sabermetric discussion this offseason: Hosmer is perceived by many–wrongly–as a superstar; he is not. While he has the reputation and that good face and some gaudy front-facing numbers, his offensive performance has never quite been good enough in a world of Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman and first basemen who hit for remarkable power and reach base as easily as they reach for the bag of sunflower seeds.
As Crizer wrote in his comment, 2017 was a career-best offensive season. Hosmer posted a True Average of .302, which we can certainly define as “great”—Hosmer ranked 30th among hitters with more than 500 plate appearances. His batting average was great (.318), which led to an exceptional on-base percentage (.385) and he hit 25 homers. But also like Crizer mentioned, it was his first season of that quality, and it raised his career True Average up to .275, which isn’t that far ahead of “average” and certainly not “great.” If you want to pick nits, Hosmer’s 2013 and 2015 seasons were almost as good as his 2017, but that throws into sharp relief the seasons like 2014 and 2016, where he was a below-average hitter for the position.
Hosmer is not one of the MVP-caliber first base mashers like I mentioned two paragraphs ago. He’s a solid contact hitter with moderate in-game power, and he absolutely confounds stat dudes as a defender at the game’s least important defensive position. He’s shown the occasional ability to leverage his substantial raw power into games, but he has trouble elevating the ball regularly. He’s got a fabulous clubhouse reputation and is an iron horse; he’s played 152 or more games in five of the last six seasons, and every game in 2017.
“Let’s quit playing games here: There are 29 active first base-playing dudes who have hit more than 25 homers in a season, and even more who have slugged .500. Hosmer? Not one of them.”
But … he’s not really a power hitter. At least not for a first baseman. One of the guys mentioned above even plays for the Padres! And gets paid a lot of money to do so! Wil Myers is absolutely the weirdest part of this equation, as Hosmer is going to a team with an incumbent, All-Star first baseman with more power and his own expensive long-term contract in hand. Sure, the Pads could easily shift Myers to his old position in the outfield and dramatically improve last year’s offense. Or, the Padres could trade Myers to supplement the roster in another way. But the surprise here is that this team would spend so much money and opportunity cost to perhaps only slightly improve at first base (sure, they may also be improving quite a bit in left field) instead of investing in a desperately needed starting pitcher or, I dunno, a cheaper, productive left fielder.
For now, let’s get back to the most integral issue at hand: the argument for or against this contract isn’t whether or not Hosmer makes a team–any team–better, because he does. The argument is whether or not the perception that he’s a shining star is accurate, and how much a player like him should be valued on the open market. First basemen who do not hit for big power do not often receive massive contracts. While San Diego’s brass may see the second coming of Steve Garvey in Hosmer, he’s yet to show the offensive upside one might want in a first baseman.
There’s one school of thought that Hosmer is absolutely not the type of player who should be pulling in nine-figure contracts that cover eight seasons, because he’s a limited defensive player with very little room for error offensively. If his production slips at all, he quickly becomes Mitch Moreland-lite, with a lovely clubhouse reputation and 60,000 angry San Diegans calling for his head. But in a baseball world where power is popping up in the most unlikely of places, perhaps there’s more to be mined here.
“The park didn’t help. Fine.”
You could make the argument that the dinger-suppressing environment in Kansas City both muted the power when he crushed the ball in games and might have caused Hosmer to adjust his approach specifically so he didn’t try to hit as many home runs. I truly hope that Hosmer did try to put the ball on the ground more, because that might mean he could make an adjustment and improve his offense in the future.
“He still runs a ground-ball rate that would make slap-hitting second basemen blush.”
And here we go: the real problem, and the real hope. Hosmer hits too many ground balls. If you believe that Hosmer can or should adjust his offensive approach to hit more home runs (or even more doubles), then Hosmer has a ceiling at or near some of the superstar talents that I keep harping on about. There is a non-zero chance that there’s a Freeman-like bat lurking just below the surface inside Hosmer. All he has to do is stop hitting so damn many grounders and giving opposing pitchers outs.
The Padres either must believe that he can or will adjust, or they must believe that what he already does is valuable enough to offer him an extremely large salad. At age 28, it’s not unbelievable to think that things still could change, and there are plenty of “fly-ball revolution” examples in the wild who begin to elevate the ball and go on to increased success. According to BP’s own Jarrett Seidler, one of the factors that seems to play into those hitters unlocking their power potential is a skill Hosmer already has: excellent bat-to-ball skill.
For that reason, I’d like to float an unpopular comp for Hosmer: new Brewers acquisition Christian Yelich. Yelich is already likely a better player that Hosmer because of a couple other skills–most importantly solid outfield defense–but armchair analysts love to dream on the Pete Davidson-lookalike finally putting balls into the air and out of ballparks. When the Brewers traded for Yelich, the sabermetric community was nearly unanimous in their support of the deal, in no small part because he still has the potential to “break out.” I’d argue that Hosmer has the same potential, at least on some level, except all he cost the Padres was lots and lots of money. He didn’t cost them any prospects.
“The fact is some stars have staying power, and others are never the same after the band breaks up. His second act may yet be shockingly successful and lucrative, but it’s far from a given.”
Lucrative, yes. That’s already locked down. Hosmer’s contract will reportedly pay him a $5 million signing bonus, $20 million in each of the first five seasons, then $13 million in each of the final three years. Before those “inexpensive” years at the end of the contract, Hosmer will have an opt-out after the 2022 season. This is fascinating, as he’ll be entering his age-33 season at that point. To me, this feels like a hedge: the Padres are obviously betting that he’ll be a good-to-great hitter, otherwise they wouldn’t have offered him a contract in the first place. If he isn’t, well, they’re only on the hook for $39 million after over $100 million down the drain, but if he does, he’s likely to bail for a second expensive deal after a solid age-32 season.
Let me ask you the question that I ask myself when I judge any opt-out: how would I feel about the deal today if I assume that the player opts out? Looking at the Hosmer contract as a five-year, $105 million pact is fine in my eyes. I’m not sure Hosmer is a $21 million-per-year player, even in what’s supposed to be his prime, but I am sure that the Padres think that he is, and I’ve laid out an argument above where he could be. He’s not pulling in something like the six years and $150 million that I thought he might earn before the offseason got underway.
Successful, of course, still remains to be seen. There’s a long time left on his deal, but now might be the time for a team like the Padres to strike. Recently, they topped BP’s organizational rankings thanks to outstanding depth and a brace of very talented top-tier prospects in Fernando Tatis Jr., Luis Urias, and MacKenzie Gore, among others. Manuel Margot looks like a legit regular in the middle of the outfield. This is a team that could rise soon, provided they find anyone who can stand atop their rotation. Hosmer will be a part of the next good Padres team, and as a World Series winner and positive clubhouse force, he’ll add value in the intangible ways. We just aren’t sure yet how much he’ll add in the ultra-important tangible ones.
Unlike many big-ticket free agents whose contracts we can measure in fractions of a billion dollars, there’s a fair measure of uncertainty within the Padres’ new first baseman. He doesn’t necessarily have to change in order to be worth his massive contract. In fact, he has to stay almost exactly the same as he did last season … for eight years, give or take. If he does change, if he can prove his defensive worth in the numbers, or elevate the ball more, or find a new way to punish opposing pitchers, he’ll prove that he’s more than just the hype, more than a one-hit wonder. He’ll be a superstar in performance, not just in name.