A Look at Eric Hosmer’s Free Agency Case

I am probably one of the most vocal anti-Eric Hosmer baseball fans out there. Aside from the fact that he was a part of the Royals team that beat my beloved Mets in the 2015 World Series, I just think Hosmer is overrated in general. One look at his Baseball Reference and Fangraphs page can explain why: Hosmer has won four Gold Gloves. That fact alone doesn’t make Hosmer overrated but when coupled with the fact that Hosmer registered a negative UZR (ultimate zone rating, a defensive sabermetric) in three of his four Gold Glove seasons and a negative DRS (defensive runs saved) in two of his four Gold Glove seasons, it’s pretty clear he’s overrated. But that’s not all.

Hosmer entered the offseason a spring chicken. At 28 years old, he is the second-youngest free agent on the MLB Trade Rumors Top 50 Free Agents of the 2017-2018 Offseason. MLBTR predicted that Hosmer would receive a six-year, $132MM contract, which may seem a little conservative after looking at some of the Hosmer headlines this offseason that have reported the possibility of a seven- or eight-year deal. I tweeted the following after another ridiculous Eric Hosmer notification on my phone yesterday (January 31st):

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 11.18.09 PM

That basically sums up my thoughts about the whole Eric Hosmer sweepstakes this offseason, but perhaps I am being too harsh on the veteran first baseman. Let’s dive into the numbers.

Hosmer was selected as a prep bat third overall in the 2008 draft by the Kansas City Royals. By 2011, at age-21, he was a full-time major leaguer. He triple-slashed .293/.334/.465 and swatted 19 long balls over 128 games in his rookie campaign. His performance netted him third place in AL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and Angels 1B/RF Mark Trumbo. Hosmer exhibited extremely impressive plate discipline for someone barely allowed to legally drink; his 2011 BB and K rates were 6.0% and 14.6% respectively. The walk rate left a little to be desired, but the strikeout rate was very good considering his age. Does it sound like I’m endorsing Hosmer? Just wait.

In the offseason following Hosmer’s 2011 breakout campaign, several analysts and websites pegged him to be the next big thing. Bleacher Report published an article titled “Eric Hosmer: Why the Kansas City Royals’ 1B Is Bound to Be a Superstar.” MLB Trade Rumors pegged Hosmer as an early “extension candidate,” a la Evan Longoria or Ryan Braun. The New York Times nearly anointed Eric Hosmer the savior of the Royals franchise.

How did Hosmer reward his advocates? By triple-slashing a horrendous .232/.304/.359 over 152 games in 2012, good for 20% below league average. To this day, that triple-slash remains the worst of his career. Hosmer was worth -1.7 WAR in 2012, second-to-last in all of baseball. His peripherals indicate that he got a bit unlucky: his BABIP of .255 was well below the league average of .297 and he sported a much improved and very respectable 9.4% walk rate. How unlucky Hosmer was actually getting, however, remains to be seen. Any hitter who hits 53.6% of his balls in play on the ground, as Hosmer did in 2012, is going to have a relatively low BABIP. Hitting balls on the ground has been one of the trends of Hosmer’s career, and it’s a trend we will revisit later.

Hosmer bounced back in 2013 and has alternated between good seasons and bad seasons since then. His power has not fluctuated as much, though. He has improved his ISO (isolated power) in every season since 2014. He didn’t manage to cross the 20-HR threshold until his 2016 season, when he hit 25. He hit 25 more in 2017. For reference, here’s a chart of Hosmer’s WAR by season:

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 11.46.01 PM

Not too inspiring, right? I don’t like putting stock in trends as arbitrary as “good year, bad year,” but from the above chart, one would expect Hosmer to fall back to Earth a little bit in 2018. This is a player who posted a negative fWAR as recently as 2016, and that is not even remotely close to the most concerning trend of Hosmer’s profile.

Remember those ground balls I mentioned earlier? Well, they have gotten even worse since Hosmer entered the league. Ground balls tend to result in the lowest wOBA (weighted on-base average, essentially a sabermetrically improved version of OBP). In 2011, Hosmer’s first year in the league, he hit 49.7% of his balls on the ground, 4.6% more than league average. That rate rose to a career-high 58.9% (second-highest in the league among qualified hitters and 14.2% above league average) in 2016 before falling back to a still-concerning 55.6% (fourth-highest among qualified hitters and 11.2% above league average) in 2017. Still, Hosmer had his best season yet in 2017, triple-slashing .318/.385/.498, all career-highs. Why was Hosmer able to have so much success despite such a high GB%? The best answer is probably luck.

Hosmer had a below-average hard-hit rate in 2017 and his average exit velocity was decidedly unspectacular (72nd out of 436 hitters with at least 70 batted balls in play). With all of that in mind, I cannot figure out any reason that Hosmer posted a career-high .351 batting average on balls in play other than luck. Hosmer’s career-high mark in batting average is best explained by his spike in BABIP, which is likely to regress back toward his career mark of .316 in the future.

Hosmer’s 15.5% strikeout rate in 2017 was his lowest since 2013 and his 9.8% walk rate was a career-high. In that regard, Hosmer’s plate discipline is improving, and we could see Hosmer produce more value with his eye in the future. His bat, on the other hand, does not seem to be trending in the right direction. More ground balls is not a good thing, and like I said earlier, it does not look as though Hosmer is making any concerted effort to change his batted ball profile despite the league-wide trend of increasing launch angle.

So does this seem like the type of player any franchise is going to want to sign to a deal that will be on the books for over half a decade? Probably not. If a team were to pay Hosmer for his previous seven years of production based on the current valuation of $9MM per WAR on the open market, he would have been worth about $100MM over those seven seasons. That’s a lot closer to 15 million bucks a year than 20. Granted, he is coming off a career year, but paying for a career year is a big no-no. The only consistency Hosmer has displayed is his consistent inconsistency. Any franchise willing to sign Hosmer for eight years or more than $200MM (both figures have been floated around this offseason by various reports) would be making a grave mistake.

One thing that the numbers do not tell people is that Hosmer is a great clubhouse presence. Be that as it may, I would be shocked if he could jump into a new clubhouse and immediately become a player that everyone else looks up to. Even the Padres (who have been linked to Hosmer several times), an organization that is comprised of virtually all young talent, have familiar faces in the clubhouse. Hosmer would just be another guy there to play baseball until he proves otherwise. And even if he could hypothetically become the leader of any team he joins, intangibles in the clubhouse are not worth an extra $5MM or more per season for the next eight years.

To anyone hoping their favorite team signs Hosmer (or any GM reading this, though it’s doubtful any of them are), I urge you to take a look at another lefty free agent 1B: Lucas Duda. Here’s a quick comparison of the respective careers of Hosmer and Duda:

Screen Shot 2018-02-01 at 12.44.45 AM

A lot closer than you thought it would be, right? Duda is obviously older and strikes out a lot more, but he also has been a better overall hitter during his career. Duda’s career batting average is over 40 points below Hosmer’s and their OBPs are nearly identical. Duda has a higher slugging percentage and has hit more HR over his career in more than 1000 fewer PA. He can’t run like Hosmer can, but stolen bases are becoming less important with the home run revolution.

I will concede that Duda is not nearly as good at hitting lefties as Hosmer is, but he has been worth more in total on offense and defense. Let me just repeat that Eric Hosmer has four gold gloves. Lucas Duda has zero. Hosmer has delivered negative value over his career in the field and Duda has been just about average. I don’t think Duda is a long-term option for teams due to his age and his poor hitting against lefties, but this should give you an idea of just how overrated Hosmer is.

My guess is that Hosmer will end up signing a deal in the 6-year, $100MM range. I personally would not give him that, but some MLB team will. There is currently a litany of reasons Hosmer hasn’t signed anywhere, namely that not a lot of teams are looking for a first baseman on the free agent market so he hasn’t gotten the deal he wants. Additionally, teams want to stay under the luxury tax in preparation for next year’s ridiculous free agent class, and signing Hosmer would significantly hamstring any team that wants to stay under the luxury tax mark. On top of all of this, though, is the simple fact that Hosmer is not as good as the public perceives him to be. I hope the reason no team has caved into Scott Boras’ ridiculous demands for his client is that MLB GMs are realizing Hosmer is not worth the aforementioned ridiculous demands. I’m not positive this is the case but regardless, Hosmer remains unsigned and it looks like it could remain that way until well into spring training.

(Image Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports via Beyond the Box Score)

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3 thoughts on “A Look at Eric Hosmer’s Free Agency Case

  1. Excellent article! I am hoping that the Royals do not cave in and give Hosmer the 7year $147million deal that is being bantered about. I am a Royals fan and honestly we don’t need another Alex Gordon type deal.

    Like

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