The $100 million question this offseason: Who is Eric Hosmer? Here are 14 things about the free agent to consider:
1. Hosmer is 28 years old. This is fact and not for dispute, although maybe somebody from the Flat Earth Society will disagree. He will play all of the 2018 regular season at 28 years old. This makes him young for a free agent and a six-year contract takes him through his age-33 season, so a favorable aspect of signing Hosmer is you at least don’t have to worry as much about paying for the decline phase of his career.
2. Hosmer won the Silver Slugger Award in 2017. Again, this is fact. You can argue whether he deserved the honor — it could have just as easily gone to Jose Abreu or Justin Smoak or Logan Morrison — but Hosmer won, even though he didn’t slug .500 and good luck finding another first baseman who won the Silver Slugger while slugging less than .500. Hosmer did have his best season at the plate, however, and that’s a boost as he heads into free agency.
3. On the other hand, Hosmer has been wildly inconsistent in his career. Over the past five seasons, his OPS ranged from .801 to .716 to .822 to .761 to .882. His season WAR totals since 2013 are 3.5, 0.8, 3.6, 1.0 and 4.0. His value has ranged from barely above replacement level to above average. He hit nine home runs in 2014, but has hit 25 each of the past two seasons. He hit .318 in 2017, but just .266 in 2016. His numbers suggest a player susceptible to the baseball. When offense cratered in 2014, Hosmer’s power also cratered. As the ball became more juiced the past two seasons, Hosmer’s home run rate increased. Are you buying a consistent 25-homer guy who can hit .300, like he did in 2017? Or are you potentially paying $100 million for a player who may never again match his 2017 output?
4. Hosmer hits a lot of balls on the ground. This is the big conundrum about Hosmer. Few players hit as many grounders as he does. Among regulars in 2017, only Dee Gordon, David Freese, Hunter Pence and DJ LeMahieu had a higher rate of balls on the ground than Hosmer’s 55.9 percent. Joey Gallo, the most extreme fly ball hitter in 2017, had a fly ball rate of 48.6 percent; Hosmer was just 20 percent.
5. When he does hit the ball in the air, Hosmer has power. His home run rate on fly balls was 15.8 percent, 14th-best among regulars, right below Cody Bellinger and a higher rate than some sluggers like Gary Sanchez, Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout. He just doesn’t hit enough balls in the air.
6. He also doesn’t pull the ball when he does it hit in the air. Here’s his hit chart from 2017. Look at the ball fly ball outs to left field and left-center. The vast majority of his doubles are to the opposite field:
7. All this is to suggest that Hosmer would be a huge beneficiary if he joins the swing change revolution and learns to hit the ball in the air more often. This would be similar to what J.D. Martinez, Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner did to turn into elite hitters. That’s easier said than done, of course.
Martinez before (2011-2013): 45.9 percent ground ball, 34.3 percent fly ball
Martinez in 2017: 38.3 percent ground ball, 38.3 percent fly ball
Murphy before (2011-2014): 45.5 percent ground ball, 31.0 percent fly ball
Murphy in 2017: 34.3 percent ground ball, 36.7 percent fly ball
Turner before (2011-2013): 47.5 percent ground ball, 30.1 percent fly ball
Turner in 2017: 31.8 percent ground ball, 43.8 percent fly ball
Hosmer 2015-2017: 56.2 percent ground ball, 21.9 percent fly ball
The point here: The changes Hosmer would have to make to his swing would be much more drastic than what Martinez, Murphy and Turner did. In order to maximize his power, Hosmer would also have to start pulling the ball more often. That may not be in his nature, or it may be very difficult to change.
8. Maybe he’d benefit from leaving Kansas City. Kauffman Stadium did rate as the toughest home run park in the American League in 2017, with a park factor of 83, and it has a factor of 80 over the past three seasons, according to “The Bill James Handbook 2018.” On the other hand, Hosmer hit 16 of his 25 home runs at home in 2017 and over his career has hit 60 at home, 67 on the road (with a nearly identical OPS). In general, hitters have a home-field advantage, so it’s certainly possible that Hosmer would benefit from playing in a different park — and there is a team looking for a first baseman that plays in a park that seems tailor-made for Hosmer’s swing.
9. Hosmer is or isn’t a good defensive first baseman. Maybe you like defensive metrics or maybe you don’t, but the metrics almost always match the reputation of a player. Those with good defensive reputations usually rate well in the metrics. Hosmer is an outlier in this area. He won his fourth Gold Glove in 2017, his fourth in five seasons, so the obvious consensus is he’s been the best defensive first baseman in the American League.
The metrics disagree with that assessment. He rated at minus-7 defensive runs saved in 2017 — that’s seven runs below average. He rated minus-6 in 2016 and plus-1 in 2015. That’s one system. UZR graded him at minus-0.3 runs in 2017, minus-8.4 in 2016 and plus-1.0 in 2015. His supporters point out that he has good hands and scoops everything in the dirt; well, all major league first basemen scoop pretty much everything in the dirt. The systems agree that Hosmer simply lacks the range of the better glove guys, and they’ve been consistent with this evaluation throughout his career.
10. Hosmer is “Playoffville Federal Express.” So says Scott Boras! That how Boras described his client at last week’s general manager meetings. Nobody gives a hyperventilated sales pitch quite like Boras, and this was one of his better ones. “Eric Hosmer has a very dynamic market,” Boras said. “When a guy has just finished his 27-year-old season, and you’ve won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, you have a (World Series) ring on your finger, you’ve been to the World Series twice, you led the WBC (team) to the championship, you’re the All-Star MVP — who in their right mind does that at 27 years of age?”
11. If you’re buying Hosmer, you’re buying the intangibles. That seems to be part of Boras’ sales pitch. Hosmer was viewed as a clubhouse leader in Kansas City, although apparently he was a better leader in 2014 and 2015, when the team had better pitching. Still, he has charisma, and that’s worth a little something, and maybe a team like the Red Sox — speaking of the team with the home park perfect for Hosmer — that lacked a strong clubhouse guy last season could use somebody like Hosmer.
12. He’s durable. That’s important. Other than missing a few weeks in 2014 with a fracture in his hand, he’s played 150-plus games every season, including all 162 in 2017.
13. Some teams need a first baseman. But not that many.
Don’t need one: Reds (Joey Votto), Braves (Freddie Freeman), Diamondbacks (Paul Goldschmidt), Cubs (Anthony Rizzo), Dodgers (Cody Bellinger), Nationals (Ryan Zimmerman), White Sox (Jose Abreu), Brewers (Eric Thames/Jesus Aguilar), Blue Jays (Justin Smoak), A’s (Matt Olson), Astros (Yuli Gurriel), Orioles (Chris Davis), Pirates (Josh Bell), Yankees (Greg Bird), Padres (Wil Myers), Tigers (Miguel Cabrera), Marlins (Justin Bour).
They aren’t spending the money anyway: Rays, Indians. Both teams have openings with Logan Morrison and Carlos Santana hitting free agency, but they’ll fill the slot with a prospect — Jake Bauers in Tampa Bay — or a less costly free agent.
Probably don’t need one: Cardinals (Matt Carpenter), Mets (Dominic Smith), Giants (Brandon Belt), Phillies (Rhys Hoskins), Mariners (Ryon Healy), Twins (Joe Mauer). The Cardinals could conceivably move Carpenter to third base, but for a team that doesn’t like to give big contracts, Hosmer probably isn’t a guy they gamble on. The Mets should give Smith a chance and the Phillies probably keep Hoskins at first rather than left field. The Giants need outfield help and have talked about moving Belt there before, but he probably stays at first. The Mariners just traded for Healy, and while he’s not got great, he’s cheap and they will spend the money they do have available on pitching. Mauer has just one more year left on his contract, but Miguel Sano is probably the first baseman of the future, and they need pitching help more than hitting.
That leaves five teams: Royals, Red Sox, Angels, Rockies, Rangers.
Would you call five teams a dynamic market? In the Rangers’ case, they have Adrian Beltre signed for one more year, so that slides Joey Gallo over to first base for at least one season. If Shin-Soo Choo is the DH, does that mean they pass on Hosmer? Maybe. Or you sign him and keep Choo and/or Gallo in the outfield? The Angels have C.J. Cron and Albert Pujols at first base and DH, but they ranked 29th in wOBA at first base in 2017 (ahead of only the Mariners). They should upgrade, but if they do it’s more likely they go to one of the secondary free agents like Morrison or Yonder Alonso. The Rockies could use a better player here, but after spending big on Ian Desmond last offseason and getting burned, they may be reluctant to dip into big contract again, especially when they have to try and re-sign Nolan Arenado before he hits free agency.
14. So that seems to leave the Red Sox bidding against the Royals. The Royals would like Hosmer back, but they face an obvious rebuilding period that Hosmer may not want to play through. Is Hosmer to Boston inevitable? Nothing is inevitable, but that’s the prediction here for Hosmer’s landing spot. With a market that is clearly less dynamic than Boras would suggest, I’m not completely convinced Hosmer gets that nine-figure contract. If you buy his 2017 performance, six years at $120 million ($20 million per year) is reasonable. If you get his 2016 performance, that’s a lot of money to replace Mitch Moreland with Mitch Moreland. What would you do?