Sound the alarm. The 2013 baseball season has passed the quarter point and Eric Hosmer is still struggling. Yes, it’s true. Hosmer has, in fact, turned into Casey Kotchman. He continues to hit the ball on the ground and has one (!!!) home run so far this year. A quick look at Hosmer’s stat sheet would indicate that Hosmer has regressed severely since his rookie season. While the rate stats seem to bear this out, this isn’t necessarily true. Eric Hosmer’s troubles this year, in particular his lack of power, have caused many to panic, but there are many positive signs that fans are overlooking. During this season, Hosmer has had progress with his patience and, surprisingly, his contact and power. The last two will take a bit of explaining, so let’s first explore Hosmer’s improvements in patience.
Despite Hosmer’s dismal season last year, optimists pointed out his gains in patience. In particular, Hosmer’s walk rate rose from 6% in 2011 to 9.4% in 2012. This was a substantial gain and was promising given that Hosmer had an above average walk rate as a 22 year old. After the Royal’s 3-1 loss to the Astros, Hosmer has a 9.1% walk rate this year. It appears that he has maintained the gains that he made last year. So how has Hosmer’s patience improved? He has gotten much more selective at the plate. In 2011, Hosmer swung at 37.3% of pitches outside of the strike zone. That number dropped to 33.5% in 2012. This year, Hosmer is swinging at 28.3% of pitches outside of the strike zone. But wait, if Hosmer is being more selective, shouldn’t he be getting better pitches to hit? The thing is, Hosmer has been hitting pitches better.
The best way to get a hit is by hitting a line drive. A well hit line drive will result in a hit around 75% of the time. In terms of batted balls, a line drive is the best possible result. Fly balls don’t generally turn into hit, but allow for home runs. Ground balls occasionally turn into hits, but don’t offer much in the way of power. This is why a line drive is the result most hitters aim for. It provides high average along with good power. The only problem is that line drives are hard to hit. The average major league hits a line drive only around 20% of the time. In 2011 and 2012, Hosmer hit line drives 18.7% and 18.5% of the time, respectively. This year, his line drive percentage has skyrocketed to 23.1%. That’s a higher percentage than Alex Gordon‘s 22.7%. The line drives aren’t the only evidence that Hosmer has made better contact this year. Pop ups have been largely absent from Hosmer’s game in 2013. In 2011, Hosmer hit pop ups on 11.3% of his fly balls. That number decreased to 9.7% last year and is down to 4.2% this year. In fact, Hosmer has only hit one pop up all year.
So what about that power? Hosmer’s slugging percentage currently rests an uncomfortable 5 points above his batting average. His ISO is at a lilliputian .074. How in the world could he be showing any gains in power? The answer lies in looking at Hosmer’s average fly ball distance. Thanks to baseballheatmaps.com, we can see how far every player hits their fly balls. Average fly ball distance is one of the most important stats in determining how many home runs a player should have. It’s pretty simple logic. A player who hits the ball farther tends to have more home runs. So, let’s see where Hosmer is currently compared to where he has been. In 2011, Hosmer’s average fly ball distance (this includes home runs) was 284.88 feet. Directly ahead of Hosmer with an average distance of 284.98 feet was none other than Josh Hamilton. Granted, Josh Hamilton only had 25 home runs that year. Nevertheless, it’s impressive to see how far Hosmer hit the ball as a 21 year old rookie. What about Hosmer’s 2012 average distance? Hosmer’s 288.1 feet in 2012 was over a three foot increase from the year before. It was also ahead of Justin Upton‘s average distance from last year. Well, Hosmer only has one homer this year, so he can’t possibly be hitting the ball farther, right? Actually, Hosmer’s average fly ball distance this year is 290.77 feet. That’s .05 feet ahead of Gordon, by the way.
This can’t possibly be right, though. After all, Hosmer has only one home run this year. This is very true, but the problem doesn’t lie in a mysterious disappearance of power. In fact, Hosmer is as strong as ever. The reason that Hosmer doesn’t have many home runs is because he doesn’t hit the ball in the air very often. Hosmer’s fly ball% has gradually shrunk from a below average 31.7% in 2011 to a meager 20.5% this year. That’s the fifth lowest percentage in the majors this season. Certainly, you wouldn’t want a lot of fly balls from a player like Jarrod Dyson who uses his speed, but Hosmer’s power is one of his greatest assets. If Eric Hosmer is going to return to having the success that he had as a rookie and eventually surpass that production, he’s going to need to start hitting the ball in the air more. Once he does that, everything else should fall into place. After all, he is working more walks, seeing better pitches, and still has the raw power and capability to be the awesome batter everyone thought he would be.