In 2010 Frankie Pillierre, now of Perfect Game, formerly a scout with the Texas Rangers, said about then prospect Eric Hosmer:
“He’s…just isn’t having any bad at-bats. He’s not leaving the strike zone, and pitchers are trying to pound him and he’s making them pay…..he’s using the whole field.” (emphasis mine)
In 2011, Kevin Goldstein, now with the Astros, wrote:
“There’s little argument that Hosmer is ready to perform at the major-league level”. Goldstein also wrote that Hosmer profiled “a middle-of-the-order force who hits for both average and power.”
After the successful 2011 debut for Hosmer, Keith Law, former member of the Toronto Blue Jays front office, claimed that he had the potential to be an Adrian Gonzalez type hitter.
However, Hosmer hasn’t lived up to this hype at the plate. In 1204 plate appearances, Hosmer has a career OPS + of 98 and a -2.9 WAA (Wins Above Average) with -5 runs below average, without positional adjustments, with the bat. A 98 OPS + is equal to Alberto Callaspo’s 2012. As Royals fans know, Callaspo is a very useful player, especially because of his positional value and defense, but he isn’t known for his bat, at least not for power.
So what happened to Hosmer that has caused him to not perform as advertized? Looking at Brooks Baseball/Baseball Prospectus’ heat maps seemed to be a good starting point. The first map is his “Frequency non-normalized” map, meaning this is purely where pitchers have been pitching to him with hard (fastballs, sinkers, cutters) stuff:
As you can see, the most common places are away, especially the low and away corner of the strike zone.
This next map is “normalized”, meaning compared to other left-handed hitters, still looking at just how he is being pitched in the big leagues:
The graph changes quite a bit here. While he is still pitched low and away above average, notice that pitchers are throwing a ton of stuff inside to Hosmer, especially up. Basically, they are trying to jam him.
Over a sample size of nearly two seasons, just looking at frequency usually tells a good story because they aren’t going to pitch him places where he is having a lot of success. However, here is his normalized map by TAV, True Average, to give us an idea of where he has success and where he doesn’t:
As you can see, he has quite a bit of success on high pitches on the middle to outside parts of the zone, where he can get extended, but inside, especially up and in inside the zone is where he is struggling. Using Texas Leaguers’ spray charts from Hosmers’ 2012 season, we see what this problem with up and in balls has caused (square is inserted by me for emphasis):
Hosmer is doing a lot of (or technically, was in 2012) what you might call “rolling over” on the ball, and grounding out to the 1st base/2nd base side. This would be because he is being jammed by these pitches that are being thrown up and in on him.
So we see the problem, or at least what is happening, but we haven’t diagnosed it or seen what causes it. What would be causing a hitter that was so touted, and praised as a middle of the order bat coming up, to struggle on up and in pitches and roll so many of them over to 2nd base? The most common explanation I have heard is that he is holding his hands too high. So I took some screenshots:
2011 Hosmer, his first career hit
May 2012 Hosmer
For one, you can see that he has sort of closed his stance. His stance was once very open, and now it really isn’t at all. I am not going to speculate as to whether or not this is helping him or hurting him. Honestly, to me, Hosmer’s hands look higher in the 2011 screenshot than the latter ones. Some outside comparison might be nice, so let’s look at Prince Fielder, the left-handed hitting first baseman for the Detroit Tigers:
His hands do look lower, and his body more bent in, and while up and in is not Fielder’s best zone, he is really good at hitting pitches up and in. Since up and in is clearly Hosmer’s weak point and teams have gotten where they like to bust him in, I wanted to see if teams knew this was the problem when he first came up to the big leagues in 2011, so I looked at his first 200 pitches seen in the big leagues. Why 200? Well it is sort of random, but it is a large enough data set that we can see tendencies, but small enough that we aren’t seeing real adjustments made by pitchers as Hosmer continues through the league. This should give us an idea of what pitchers/teams thought about Hosmer coming into the big leagues.
Here is how Hosmer was pitched overall:
As you can see, pitchers were much more likely to throw the ball in the middle of the plate or outside then come inside. It is almost as if they were a little scared to come inside, or at least wanted to test him away first.
Over half the pitches he saw in that sample were over 90 MPH, and here is what that strike zone looks like:
Again, there were some balls way inside, but he was rarely challenged up and in. This tells us that it wasn’t pitchers just throwing a bunch of breaking balls away from him, they were throwing a lot of fastballs, but most of them away.
25 of the 200 pitches were over 95 MPH, so here is where the elite velocity pitches were thrown:
Again, mostly thrown away. There is no evidence that teams knew about Hosmer’s problem when he came up. So just like the well qualified prospect experts that used to work for teams or work for teams now believed, the opposing pitchers/teams also seemed to believe that Hosmer was a good hitter that deserved to be pitched away.
So I think we have a few choices here. Perhaps the “hands too high” conclusion is right. Even though his hands were actually higher in 2011, other teams didn’t see the flaw until after some time. They then began busting him inside and Hosmer started trying to lower his hands, it just hasn’t worked yet. Perhaps the thesis is totally wrong, and the Royals/Analysts/Hosmer have totally misidentified what the real problem is and why he can’t have success when teams go inside on him. After all, if the “hands too high” thesis was correct, why did it take teams so long to figure out that you could throw inside on him? The point of this article wasn’t to figure out how to “fix” Eric Hosmer, it was to see if teams knew he was broken when he got to the big leagues. It is clear that they didn’t.