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The puzzle of Eric Hosmer

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Some thoughts on Eric Hosmer's up-and-down career.

Eric Hosmer
Eric Hosmer
Jamie Squire

Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer is something of a puzzle to me. Living in the KC area, I've been keeping close track of him for years of course and was able to see him several times in the minors. Right from the beginning, however, he's always been very up-and-down.

Hosmer was drafted by the Royals in the first round in 2008, third-overall, from high school in Plantation, Florida. Many scouts considered him the top high school hitter available in the draft that year. The first time I saw him play in person was in July of 2009, a three-game set for the Burlington Bees. Looking through my old notes, scribbled in the margin of the scorecard of the first game is "WTF This guy was a first rounder?" In that first game, Hosmer looked terrible, with a mechanical stiff swing, slow trigger, and nothing close to the bat speed that had been reported. He was also slow afoot, didn't look particularly athletic, and was awkward defensively even on routine plays.

Based on just that one game, he didn't look like much. However, in the second and third games for Burlington he looked totally different: his swing was much cleaner and quicker, he caught up to good velocity, and he looked much smoother with the glove. Here's the final report I wrote on the series:

"His swing looked pretty bad in the first game I saw, slow and mechanical, but in the second and third games it looked quicker, and he pulled a 92 MPH Wily Peralta fastball for a home run. His strike zone judgment is excellent; he just lets bad pitches go by and is difficult to fool. Although he is a slow runner, he is alert and intelligently aggressive and will take an extra base if offered. He looks like a very strong defensive first baseman to me. Overall, I'd say that Hosmer needs work making his swing more consistent to tap into his strength more effectively, but that there is a good chance he'll be able to do this. He just needs more experience."

Maybe he was just sick or distracted in the first game, or maybe it was a microcosm of the career to come. His overall performance for Burlington that year (.254/.352/.382) was considered disappointing.

Hosmer had off-season lasik surgery and was much better in 2010, hitting .338/.406/.571 with 43 doubles, 20 homers, 59 walks, and just 66 strikeouts in 586 plate appearances between High-A Wilmington and Double-A Northwest Arkansas. He moved into the Royals lineup in 2011 and was very good, hitting .293/.334/.465 at age 21. Fangraphs WAR didn't like him much at 0.8, mainly due to a low defensive rating, but it was a credible year for a player his age and he looked like a future star.

But then the up-and-down stuff came back. He was often ineffective in 2012, hitting just .232/.304/.359 in 598 PA with a horrible -1.7 WAR. However, he bounced back up to very productive in 2013 (.303/.352/.448, 3.1 WAR), before slumping back to .270/.318/.398 this year (0.2 WAR).

Up and down.

Key points to consider while thinking about the Hosmer Puzzle:

***Career-wise, he's a .275/.328/.418 hitter, wRC+104, through 570 major league games at age 24. Slightly above average as a hitter overall, but that's the balance between two very good offensive seasons and two weak ones. His career WAR is just 2.4, which is pretty terrible for a guy who has been playing regularly for four seasons.

***He's two or three years from his theoretical prime; he could still stabilize at the upper bounds of his performance bands and be a consistently strong player.

***Modified Sim Score through age 24 brings up the following names (retired players only): Keith Hernandez, Tony Horton, Elbie Fletcher, Vic Saier, Phil Cavaretta,Carlos May, Fred Merkle, Jason Thompson. John Olerud used to be a good comp but he exploded at age 24, which Hosmer did not do. Every one on Hosmer's comp list was a good player, but only Hernandez (who won a batting title at age 25 and was much better defensively) approached greatness.

***He doesn't show up on this list but Hosmer has always reminded me to some extent of Wally Joyner.

What do you guys think about Hosmer? Will he be able to produce '11 and '13 style numbers more consistently as he gets older?